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Telling Tales

Story-telling is one of the oldest forms of instruction, and one of the best.

  • Stories are basic: we start telling our children about the world by telling them stories. We gossip by telling stories about other people. We pick up how to do our jobs by listening to our colleagues' stories of their experience, telling our own stories and getting reactions to them. We discuss our problems by telling the story, "You'll never guess what he said then...", "So I turned round and told her..."

  • Stories are built-in to our thinking: the popular Tulving model of memory suggests that there is a part of our long-term memory which is particularly tuned to narrative. It is mainly about recording our own experience, but it is not much of a step to see how it informs how we record ideas. Nothing is pure and uncontaminated in such a model.

    • Hence the potency of myths.
  • So stories are memorable: their narrative structure and sequence makes them easy to remember. "What happens next?" is a very basic form of interest and engagement.

  • Stories are everywhere: very rarely in real life do we set out to convey ideas in terms of hierarchies or taxonomies or bullet-points. Instead we tell stories. The media do little but tell stories. TV is full of dramas; news stories, "real-life" stories (the reportage has to be made into a story to unfold over the appropriate time-slot), and of course fictional stories in the form of dramas and soaps. Apart from one-liners and puns, most jokes are funny stories. Print journalists see stories as their stock in trade; columnists just comment on stories.

    • In fact teaching is one of the few select and predominantly professional activities which do not habitually communicate by means of stories; there may be good reason for it—there needs to be—but this is one reason why teachers use elaborated language codes. Restricted codes are often good for telling stories, but not as good for other things.
  • Stories are therefore uniquely compelling; contradict a story and you are simply calling the narrator a "liar", which is socially a little drastic and the process aspect of such a call says more than the point about content. Disagree with an intellectual argument and you can have a discussion (desultory, pedantic, heated, fun) purely about the content, but it doesn't work with stories. For that reason, stories are wonderful for conveying one-sided and prejudicial accounts of the world: tell your friends that your enemies eat babies, or a tale about foreigners who get better treatment than natives... and it will be much more compelling and harder to disagree with than reciting the statistics.

    • It may be, for example, that what angered many Muslims in the Salman Rushdie "Satanic Verses" affair, was not so much that he had criticised the faith, but that he had done so via a story, which could not be argued with on a rational level.
  • Stories are multi-layered: true stories (or those which purport to be true) in particular, are incredibly rich, and can be dissected and discussed at many levels. This has been known for years, but has been hijacked by post-modernists as their unique selling proposition.

    • Does it matter whether the story of Adam and Eve is "literally" true? For some people at the ends of the fundamentalist/militant-sceptic spectrum, it does. The story stands or falls by historical accuracy, even if the test is impossible to undertake or even devise. For many others, however, Genesis ch.3 poses issues about morality, about free will, about authority, about whether we were created with a purpose (begging the question about whether we were "created", of course), about the nature of "evil"... All this is encapsulated and embedded in a story of about 700 words.
  • Stories are contextual: they do not treat topics in isolation, but show how they interact. This may of course be misleading rather than enlightening, but it is at least live.

  • Stories embed values: in the case of myths and fables, this is the very point of them. But every gossipy story in a tabloid newspaper, over a garden fence, around the water-cooler, in the coffee-shop, says something about the narrator's own values, by the very discourse it adopts.

    • Tell a story about what happened when someone failed to undertake the proper risk assessment for an activity. The implicit values come across.

    • Tell a story about how students are prevented from doing basic chemistry experiments because of the improbable risks. The implicit values come across.

      • This is both the strength and the weakness of the story as a teaching device: but get students to deconstruct it, critically (by small group work on case-studies, for example) and you win both ways.

Is chatting over the garden fence a myth in itself embodying assumptions about the nature of neighbourliness in the suburbs? Even the existence of the fence says something...

The bottom line

I could go on about the status of stories, but that is not the point, fascinating though it is. Stories are not merely illustrative anecdotes (although that is a very good way of using them); they have unique qualities which can profoundly influence the nature of students' learning.

Use them. Use caution, but use them. And be aware of the potency of your students' counter-stories: you need to be able to de-construct them, too.

For more ideas around this follow these links (linking to the site does not imply any personal endorsement of the implicit values-that's the problem with stories!) Some sites are about stories, some about how they might be used, some just pose questions. Think about them critically.

This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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