Biographical Writing

Biographical writing is a specific form of writing and research that takes as its subject the lives of individuals. As such it concentrates on constructing personal histories, and places them within their social, political and historical context, in order to discover and explain the influences on an individual’s life. From the point of view of historical and social analysis, this form of writing places individuals, their strengths, failings, triumphs and defeats at the centre of inquiry, and while it situates them within a historical or social context, it is seeking to explain individual agency, as opposed to, or sometimes in the face of, historical and social forces.

As with other forms of writing, biographies can be sympathetic or unsympathetic to their subject, partial or objective. They can be a simple chronological account of an individual’s life, or take a deeply analytical approach to explain an individual’s actions and choices, motivations and failings. The latter investigation would usually rely on social, and even psychoanalytical, approaches to explain an individual’s progress through life.

Biographical writing in the classroom

Biographical writing takes many forms, and can range from published works on famous individuals, to simple epitaphs on gravestones. Students might first become familiar with Biographical Precis, which are often found in encyclopaedia entries about famous people, or biographical collections such as Who’s Who, an annual account of significant, contemporary individuals. A more sophisticated investigation might adopt an inquiry learning approach and assist students to compose their own accounts of significant historical or contemporary figures, using both secondary and primary sources, and placing their subject within their historical context.

Biographical writing is immediately relevant to teachers of English and Studies of Society and Environment. Not only does it fit well with the learning outcomes of those key learning areas, but it can also serve to introduce students to more complex understandings and discipline skills in an engaging way.

Beyond those key learning areas, teachers of other disciplines, such Science, Mathematics, Health and Physical Education, and Technology can find in biographical writing an innovative way in which to integrate their curriculum with other learning areas, as well as a means by which to fulfil cross-curricular imperatives such as Civics and citizenship and Values education. Examining the individuals responsible for scientific discoveries provides students with insights into their motivations and ethical responsibilities, while investigating the achievements of mathematicians, or the reasons for their breakthroughs, might demystify mathematical content and provide overt purpose for students’ learning.

Biographical writing and civics and citizenship education

Becoming acquainted with the lives of significant historical and contemporary individuals is an important component of civics and citizenship education. Students are able to learn of the contributions individuals and their actions make to the lives of others, their local communities, their nation and the global community, and so begin to imagine themselves as actors within their worlds. Often the very ordinariness of individuals’ inspiration and circumstances are eclipsed by their deeds. Understanding the motivations of others to achieve, and to make contributions to their communities, enables students to understand the values of people who make such contributions, and encourages them towards active civic participation. 

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