Collection of Vignettes and Anecdotes

In the 2008/2009 school year, the New Middle School Trial (NMS) was launched throughout Austria with the aim of ensuring greater equality of opportunity for all students. In conjunction with this educational policy steering, two FWF-funded projects in the 2009/2010 school year and a follow-up study in the 2012/2013 school year investigated the learning of students in 24 NMS in all nine Austrian provinces. In order to investigate learning in heterogeneous learning groups, a separate research tool had to be developed: Thus, the data collected in a multi-perspective design were condensed into concise narratives of school experience moments, the phenomenologically oriented vignettes and anecdotes.

The phenomenologically oriented classroom research developed from this attempts to experience learning experiences in their execution in the form of vignettes or to make moments of learning from a remembered perspective accessible for reflection by means of anecdotes. In contrast to those studies on learning that focus on the result and not on the process and its origins, a phenomenological-pedagogical approach focuses on how learning takes place, i.e., what kind of meaningful irritations the learners are exposed to on the path of experience. Thus learning, understood as experience, always occurs when the agreement between one's own expectations and the accomplishments is no longer given and the old experiences no longer 'carry'.

Vignettes as a means to experience moments of (extra-)curricular learning 

In working with vignettes, the researchers in the field let themselves be addressed by what happens in school or everyday life as something that can be perceived sensually and experienced intersubjectively. Attention is paid in particular to bodily expressions, i.e. it is not focused solely on verbal expression and cognitive performance, but tries to be open to non-propositional forms of experience such as movements, gestures, glances, interactions, moods and atmospheres, which become apparent in facial expressions, gestures, tonality, rhythm and posture. In this way, protocols of experience emerge, which are narratively condensed into vignettes as exemplary snapshots of school or extracurricular activity and are intersubjectively validated with the participants in the field and in the research group.

The perceptions and experiences in vignettes are characterized by a concise indeterminacy and cannot be pinpointed by clear terms or expressions. Since terms originate from life experiences, they too remain meaningful in the end. Thus we always experience and know more than we can think and say. The art of writing vignettes is therefore to express the sensual aspect of things and to condense the intersubjective moments of experience in the field in such a way that these experiences can be experienced anew by readers.

Vignettes as condensed perceptions of learning experiences are used, for example, in the context of school visits. Researchers experience everyday school life with the students, teachers, and school administrators, record experience data, and record vignettes that are made available to schools, for example as a database for school development. In this way, school principals and colleagues can gain insights into the experiences of individuals, identify the facets of learning that are favored at their school location, and critically reflect on actual and target images that are relevant to the site-specific development of schools and practices. Vignettes can also be written and critically discussed in collegial hospitations.

Through the pedagogical-phenomenological oriented reading, vignettes enable a multi-layered interpretation of the situation, analogous to the ambiguity of perception. By deliberately keeping different readings open, the experiences made in educational contexts and life worlds are revealed in their surpluses or irritating withdrawals. The aim is to use the vignettes to reflexively grasp various intersubjective moments of perception and experience and to interpret them in terms of (further) pedagogical practice and theory. The perceptual and experiential insights that can be gained from the vignettes are thus not exhaustively recorded, but rather the experiences are brought to mind in their own sense, their specific meaning and their potential for further analysis from new perspectives.

Some examples written by the partners in the different locations can be found in the menu on the right. The vignettes are organised by the context they took place in.


Anecdotes as an opportunity to render remembered moments of (extracurricular) learning

Anecdotes are understood in everyday language mostly as short, often oral, entertaining stories about true events. In literature, an anecdote is one of the simple epic forms in which a person, a social class or even an epoch is aptly characterized by the trenchant depiction of an event (cf. Gutzen et al., 1981; Krüger, 2005). Van Manen uses the anecdote in connection with observations - in this form they are similar to the vignette - but he points out that personal experience and interviews can also be the basis for anecdotes (cf. 1990, p. 69). As a research instrument of phenomenological vignette and anecdote research, the anecdote is described as "a memorable story in which events with a special impact are pointedly condensed, which are told to the researcher (by a student) from the remembered experience (of her high school years)" (Rathgeb, Krenn & Schratz, 2017, p. 130). The aim of the anecdotal researchers in the FWF-funded project "Personal Educational Processes in Heterogeneous Groups" at the Leopold-Franzens-University of Innsbruck was to investigate learning processes over longer periods of time. Discussions with students about their four years of schooling at Austrian secondary schools formed the basis of the anecdotes and represent a rich source for researchers who are following remembered traces of learning as an experience.

Writing anecdotes is not about exact depiction of details, but rather about condensing the affective, disturbing, astonishing or surprising aspects of moments of conversation in such a way that the experiences revealed in the conversation are made to sound new and become comprehensible for readers. This is achieved by not only taking in what is being told, but also how it is said. Does a pupil stammer and falter while telling a story? Do the words keep failing her or do they just gush out? Does the conversation partner lower his head or turn his gaze away? Researchers adopt an experiential attitude in research talks; the conversation is understood as a question-answer process. This is based on the assumption that this attitude gives us access to the experiences of others that would not be possible in any other way. The experiences contained in the anecdotes are to be understood as examples in which the general beyond the individual is illuminated and becomes newly perceptible. The texts are interpreted in a questioning attitude and in an opening sense: as with the vignette, an attempt is made to do justice to the ambiguity of experiences in the reading of the anecdote and not to define them in an ultimately valid way.



Gutzen, D., Oellers, N. & Petersen, J. H. (1981 [1976]). Einführung in die neuere deutsche Literaturwissenschaft (4. Aufl.). Berlin: Schmidt Verlag.

Krüger, H. (red. Leitung). (2005). Schülerduden Literatur. Ein Lexikon für den Deutschunterricht (4., neu bearb. Aufl.). Mannheim: Duden Verlag.

Rathgeb, G., Krenn, S. & Schratz, M. (2017). Erfahrungen zum Ausdruck verhelfen. In M. Ammann, T. Westfall-Greiter & M. Schratz (Hg.), Erfahrungen deuten – Deutungen erfahren. Experiential Vignettes and Anecdotes as Research, Evaluation and Mentoring Tool. Erfahrungsorientierte Bildungsforschung Bd. 3 (S. 95-106). Innsbruck, Wien, Bozen: Studienverlag.

Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience. Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany (NY): New York Press.


Images: © Tobias Loemke »Luminous Window«, »Red Door«, »Reflecting Field« (2015)