Wednesday 25 February 2015

A story-based pedagogy (2): Story-based pedagogy and the National Curriculum in 2015

This is a sequel to my previous post ‘An attempt to sketch my story-based pedagogy’.

Having made a start at articulating the pedagogy in my mind when I lead sessions based around storytelling with young people, I now want to turn to the question ‘So what?’  What’s challenging about it?  How does it differ from young people’s daily experience of education, in particular? And, viewing my practice-as-research in a secondary school as an ongoing invitation to its teachers to explore the possible role of storytelling within their own teaching practice, what might be preventing them from doing so? 
To understand the force field of education policy that sets the context for much of my practice-as-research, I’ve set out to research (for starters) the English curriculum in secondary schools, as it’s written down and as it’s lived.  I’ve spent a day observing lessons in a school English department; surveyed English teachers after working with their classes; interviewed the University of York’s Nicola Towle, a teacher trainer specialising in English; read influential OFSTED policy recommended by her; engaged in extensive and intensive discussion with my teacher-collaborator.

Leaving aside questions of teachers’ confidence, training, time and energy to engage with new practices, I want to concentrate for now on the conflicts between a story-based pedagogy and the strongest currents in the state education system in 2015. 

Firstly, current OFSTED curriculum guidance emphasises ‘active listening’ (Towle 2015 pers. comm.; OFSTED 2012), involving various strategies to check pupils’ comprehension and maintain their engagement with a narrative.  Thus, I observed teachers reading texts to pupils stopping at the end of each paragraph to ask quick-fire questions.  According to Nicola Towle, a teacher will very rarely read a class a whole chapter uninterrupted (especially when OFSTED is in town), let alone tell them a story orally. 

To a storyteller, this indicates a mistrust of young people’s abilities to enter into the world of a ‘whole story’, which may be due to most educators’ and policy-makers’ lack of experience of storytelling.  It mistakes the liminal state of the listener, deeply engaged in forming images and understandings in her own mind, for passivity.  It is this, as much as the preference for written over oral material, that puts teachers off storytelling.  This mistrust may be confirmed by teaching approaches which fragment the story, actively cutting short listeners’ engagement with its causalities, ambiguities, nuances, and above all its sensory world.   

Secondly, the secondary curriculum is at present strongly focused on developing transferable analysis skills.  So, in an English unit of work designated a ‘reading unit’, the pupils’ understanding of the novel or poem itself is secondary to the skills pupils practise on it, such as constructing ‘PEE’ (Point, Evidence, Explanation) paragraphs.  This would be inimical to the storytelling sessions I lead with my teacher-collaborator, because the focus needs to remain on the stories and the young people’s reimaginings of them.  Thus we do not name analysis skills explicitly, not abstract them from the specific case of the story.  However, the teacher finds that her low-ability students demonstrate ‘higher-level thinking skills’ such as analysis and synthesis during our storytelling sessions, more so than when she uses non-narrative approaches to teaching. It seems reasonable to hope that they will be able to use these skills in other areas of their learning.

The last point illustrates a broader difficulty – the general risk-aversion of most teachers, responding very reasonably to a system ‘more oriented towards compliance than towards innovation; more preoccupied with short-term gains than deep-level improvement.’ (Headteachers’ Roundtable 2014, p.3).  To ‘have a reasonable hope’ that pupils will apply X to Y is not sufficient – specific actions must be taken to show pupils the specific ways in which they must apply X to Y. 

A story-based pedagogy is risky in other ways.  It is inherently unpredictable in terms of content (one story invites another), so it follows pupils’ interests and responses more than a lesson plan, and thus risks not achieving the pre-set learning objectives for a lesson.  My teacher-collaborator is very conscious of going off on ‘tangents’; she finds them to be rich areas of contextual learning, ways of exploring the territory that lies on either side of the narrow path towards assessment – but therefore, things that are pursued at a possible short-term cost in terms of exam success. 
It is risky in terms of behaviour, because a storyteller cannot reserve the right to control classroom communication without compromising the nature of the storytelling exchange.  We often sit in a circle rather than me addressing the whole class; pupils do not have to raise their hands to speak.  The loosening of hierarchies and rules, different seating arrangements, and emphasis on conversation and group work, create a reliance on pupils’ sense of responsibility to enforce good behaviour.  Invariably the pupils listen very intently to a story for a long time, but much of what occurs on either side of it could be judged by OFSTED as involving ‘low-level disruption’.

Much of the teacher-student communication I have observed took the form of ‘Information Response Elicitation’ (IRE); Nicola Towle confirmed that, while there are moves towards a greater pupil role in classroom communication, this is a powerful ‘default’ form of interaction in classrooms.  The teacher asks ‘What does So-and-So mean when he uses this word?’, and asks for volunteers to answer, knowing the answer she is hoping to hear.  There is not usually a sense that meaning is being constructed collectively by teacher and pupils, as there is in a story-based pedagogy. 

Walter Benjamin (1936) draws the distinction between ‘experience’, told sparsely in narrative form so that the listeners can draw their own conclusions and make the new knowledge their own, and ‘information’, facts which come ready-interpreted from beyond the world of the listeners’ experience.  The implications of this understanding depend on what kind of knowledge you value more highly.  My experience has been that any time I have brought into the storytelling classroom some ‘information’, without being able to stitch it into my own and pupils’ experiential world, it has felt like a violation.

In sum, this approach to teaching and learning runs against the stream in many ways at present; while it might be embraced by teachers as an occasional welcome break from 4-part lesson plans and analysis skills, it seems unlikely to gain any more traction than that in the short term (the notable exception here is my teacher-collaborator who embeds our storytelling sessions into her delivery of each unit she teaches her low-ability pupils). The final post in this trilogy on my evolving ‘story-based pedagogy’ will, more optimistically, examine currents in the education system which might be sympathetic to it. 


          Benjamin, Walter (1936) ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Hale, Dorothy J (ed.) (2006) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

          Headteachers’ Roundtable (2014) A Great Education For All: The Headteachers’ Roundtable Education Election Manifesto for 2015, accessed at , Feb 2015

          OFSTED (2012) Moving English Forward: Action to raise standards in English

          Towle, Nicola (2015) Personal communication.

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