Stacking stories

Exploring the hinterland of education

by Guy Merchant (Author) Cathy Burnett (Author) Jeannie Bulman (Author) Emma Rogers (Author)
©2022 Prompt X, 90 Pages


What happens when a small group of educators get together? What could they do, what could they make, what could they become? Not necessarily what you might think. This book describes an alternate journey, one that departs from the busy traffic of goal-oriented projects, over-determined aims, and the doorstep delivery of interventions in order to wander reflectively across a more expansive landscape. We came together to record the successes and failures of a small research project, witnessing it gather momentum and then dissipate, but always holding open the space for a nuanced way of working that allowed for – even celebrated – humour, deviation, distraction, and dissatisfaction. This is a record of that journey, told through story fragments and reflective commentary.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 The places where things get made
  • Chapter 2 Something in the air: Liveliness, mood and affect
  • Chapter 3 Stacking stories
  • Chapter 4 Stopping, starting, uncertainty
  • Chapter 5 Learning from the outliers
  • Chapter 6 New sensitivities
  • Chapter 7 An ending
  • Appendices
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on contributors
  • Index
  • Series index


We would like to thank those teachers and schools that freely gave the time to work with us on this venture. Their hope and enthusiasm is inspiring even if the demands of their work sometimes curtailed their level of participation.

We are particularly grateful to the place we call The Oaks, to its staff and guests. We met there on a regular basis, and our comments about them reflect our personal predilections and mood at the time. They are not intended to be judgemental.

Finally we would like to thank Tony Mason and his colleagues at Peter Lang for their patience, support and encouragement in bringing this book to press.

←x | 1→


This book is based on a small-scale collaboration with uncertain outcomes. In that sense it is unusual – nothing about it is straightforward. It spills out of an unfunded project in which the four of us planned to work with groups of teachers. Our intention was to work with teachers as they developed innovative approaches to integrating digital literacies in their primary classrooms. But this was a project that, despite some promising developments in a few schools, never really took off. From that point of view it was a failure. But if it failed, it didn’t simply end. It was, from the start, a collaborative venture – and one that soon became a magnet, repeatedly drawing us back together. In fact it kept us together over a period of four years, during which time it slowly became something else, more than a meeting of professional educators, more of a delight in the meeting of minds. It was as if there was something in this not-project that seemed to speak in profound ways to us as educators and researchers. And this is the territory which we explore in these pages. Our journey into what we call the hinterland of education doesn’t really take the form of a conventional academic account at all. Much of the book is told in stories – stories of meeting up, of travelling to and fro, of the absurd encounters and baffling events that echoed through our times spent together. As a result the book is an experiment, an attempt to approach everyday realities with honesty and generosity, an attempt to show educators unmasked, alert to their surrounding milieu, collaborating on a project with ambiguous purposes and unknowable outcomes.

There is, of course, a risk involved in writing about such a collaboration – about a project that in some ways failed to deliver, a project that kept shifting its focus. It is unashamedly non-conventional, and we suspect that it may be hard to follow. Nevertheless we think there is a risk worth taking here, a risk worth thinking with because, as academic disciplines grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to express what you really think, what you really experience or feel amidst the thickening of certainties and the hardening ←1 | 2→of conventions. Certainly the educational horizon is already overcrowded. And in order to meet the requirements of our research community we often feel obliged to mould ideas into recognisable shapes in order to attract funding and to get published. In fact the very mechanisms for measuring intellectual quality, including the notion of identifying writing that might be assessed as ‘an output’, act to congeal originality so that under the cover of rational intent the net effect is coercive, normalising. This normalising discourse promotes a uniform style rendered in recognisable packages of a particular length and structure so that thought itself can seem as if it is homogenised. These effects are currently felt in many places and in many disciplines, but educators and education researchers – those whose work is focused on compulsory education, may feel them even more keenly as that normalising discourse flows together with the circulation of neoliberal policy, marketisation, commodification and the narrowing of public education in the hands of those who put their faith in measurable outcomes. But education was always more than that, and it still is. No matter how much it is squeezed and bent out of shape, teachers and students go about their business, working productively and creatively in the regulated and unregulated zones of school and out-of-school life.

Writing this in March 2021, just after children in England have returned to their classrooms for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, focuses the mind. Children go clattering down the street on their way to school. There is an exuberant atmosphere, much swinging of bags, slamming of doors and rattling of gates. And there are voices, too. Some subdued, some loud and unruly – all reminding us of how these diverse forces are so often overlooked these days, reined in and brought to serve adult purposes. Having worked for a number of years to dislodge narrow accounts of meaning making and to disrupt reductive ideas about what children, learning and school are (and could be), this feels like the right time to celebrate the exuberant multiplicity of forces at large. Children are back in school, back together, and this is a potent reminder of how they thrive in each other’s company as well as through the sensitive guidance of adults and teachers. Of course there will have been some reluctance in returning to school, children who were less excited – perhaps worried, anxious, uncertain or grieving at their loss – but little of this is captured ←2 | 3→in official discourse, in which what was missed is routinely described in terms of curriculum content and progress.


X, 90
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Education research sociomaterialism Stacking Stories Guy Merchant Cathy Burnett Jeannie Bulman Emma Rogers
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. X, 90 pp., 1 colour ill.

Biographical notes

Guy Merchant (Author) Cathy Burnett (Author) Jeannie Bulman (Author) Emma Rogers (Author)

Guy Merchant, Professor of Literacy and Education at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University. Cathy Burnett, Professor of Literacy and Education at the Sheffield Institute of Education and Past President of the United Kingdom Literacy Association. Jeannie Bulman, an independent consultant and trainer specialising in all aspects of Primary English. Emma Rogers, Senior Lecturer at Bishop Grosseteste University teaching English in Education.


Title: Stacking stories
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102 pages