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.

Friday, 13 February 2015

A story-based pedagogy (1): An attempt to sketch my story-based pedagogy

This is part 1 of a trilogy of posts - part 2 is here

In my work with young people, I am finding my way towards a ‘story-based pedagogy’.  In school, of course, where ‘education’ as commonly understood is the goal; but also in other settings, where the goals might be other things (therapeutic or artistic or social) but the young people’s framework for forming relationships with guiding adults remains dominated by their educational experiences.

So what does this pedagogy look like?  Starting with the base, the story, it asserts the need for space for the unbroken narrative: the whole story.  This entails the respect for uncoerced attention and response by young people; it trusts that they will enter the liminal state of the listener, with all the deep learning than can occur in this state.  That is, there will not be checking to ensure either comprehension or the ‘correct’ interpretation.  These would fragment both the story itself, and young people’s processes of making sense of it – requiring them to remain in the analytic and socially reactive spaces of their brain.  Matthew Reason (2015) has suggested the term ‘storyknowing’ for the sophisticated form of contextualised understanding enabled by entering into a story; Patrick Ryan (2008) draws attention to the way a storyteller creates subtle webs of causality by conveying embodied sensory experiences to listeners, so they actually ‘live’ them by proxy and thus can form new ideas based on them.  

Over and over again I feel the importance of my own and my listeners’ sensory and experiential vocabulary.  They create bridges of empathy and understanding.  Vygotsky (2004 (1967), p.14) was referring to the same thing when he said that 'imagination always builds using materials supplied by reality.' If I describe the way an old man planted a small tree in the desert by digging a hole in the hard ground with his bare fingers, this specific image will re-emerge in young people’s own versions of this story even weeks later.  It will stand in for any amount of pitying his poverty and cancel any doubts as to his determination.  The whole story will be told using a vocabulary of experiences and senses, not of interpretation.  When a young person pictures this, they may not see red desert soil but the rubble of a piece of waste ground they know; they will transpose it so as to make sense of it – what Italo Calvino (1956, p.xxi) describes as a story drawing ‘pith’ from the culture in which it is told.  And some may focus on the pain the digging will cause the old man, while others will envy his quiet time out in the natural world, away from his noisy family.  Too much description, either of the scene or the man’s feelings, would block these possibilities; as the storyteller Shonaleigh Cumbers says, stories, unlike novels, are passed on in a ‘dehydrated’ form, and the skill of the storyteller is to ‘rehydrate’ them, but only to the minimum degree necessary.  It should still be, to my mind, sparse.

Thus, in a story-based pedagogy, the main ‘work’ by the young people consists of their filling of the empty spaces in the whole story; the main role of any follow-up activities I propose is to facilitate this process.  Follow-up may involve writing, art, poetry, drama, storytelling or animation, ultimately aimed at the young people appropriating the story in some form.  In filling in the space, they draw out the themes of importance to them, make sense of it in relation to their own experience – indeed, ‘stitch’ it onto their own experience.  Walter Benjamin (1936, p.89) was one of the first to describe and value this process of appropriation, made possible by stories because 'the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader.  It is up to him to interpret things the way he understands them...'.  This appropriation can be pictured on a spectrum stretching from retelling, to reemphasising, to transposition, to transformation, to subversion or reclamation (if the story needs it)… It is not the whole story which ‘teaches’ or ‘heals’, but the process of appropriating and transforming it.  This is not a new idea; ‘creative extension’ has been part of the humanities teacher’s armoury for decades or centuries (although it is currently out of favour in England and Wales, replaced by an approach dominated by transferable analysis skills). 

Equally important is that the whole, sparse story is told by me, to you, not by any third party, technology or book, although all sources will be acknowledged.  The story and all the activities preceding and following it must be a genuine dialogue between myself, the young people and any other adults in the room.  There may be a plan for it, but this is not an instruction sheet , rather a guess as to how the session might run.  Julian Stern (2013) uses Martin Buber’s idea of dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘thou’ to make a strong case for the vital role of surprise, even in ‘normal’ teaching: unless both the teacher and pupils are surprised by what happens in the lesson, there can have been no real dialogue between them, and thus no real learning.  This echoes an often-repeated maxim for storytellers: the story (told, not read) must emerge in the space between the teller and the listeners.  If not, it will be hollow, technical, a mere vessel for facts to be conveyed, a ‘golem’ story (to use the word Buber applied to some schooling).  Rather, I as storyteller try to model a lively and risky relationship with knowledge and with my artform.

An example: recently I was anxious about my rough plan for a session with a low-ability school group around the life story of a Bedouin matriarch, because I did not know whether they would be able to form any connection to such a complex and foreign tale of social change.  It did not quite ‘feel like a story’.  The teacher and I agreed to play it by ear.  I warned the pupils that I was nervous about this story and indeed I felt a faltering as I told it, a sort of ‘What’s the point?’ atmosphere.  Then one (disruptive and argumentative) 14-year-old pupil proposed enacting scenes from it, and the others were excited by this idea.  The scenes they created transposed the exotic tasks of sheep-shearing and desert farming to recognisable domestic worlds, embedding them in family relationships which made sense of them. In the five minutes remaining, at the teacher’s and my suggestion, the group rapidly created a class poem based on the memories of the central character, which carried a sense of what had been lost in the changes she had seen in her life.  The young people had reclaimed the story for their own by subtly transplanting it into their own soil.  Only you can generate knowledge and understanding from the whole story; my guidance is necessary but insufficient.

This example also illustrates two other things: the vital role of collective authorship in a story-based pedagogy, and the embracing of the risk that young people may choose not to engage with work based on the story.  Both of these points bring me back to Benjamin (1936) and his vital point that storytelling is an inherently communal practice, dealing in shared experience rather than the isolated responses of the novel reader.  The usual hierarchies of the class or group are loosened by storytelling; they are replaced by other unwritten rules of community.  Teachers or facilitators, visiting storyteller, young people, meet on the basis of a certain kind of temporary equality of status: all are holders of knowledge.  A storyteller cannot reserve the right to coerce young people into creating knowledge out of the raw material of a story, or even into listening attentively; this would undermine the relationship.  Collective authorship is, however, a valuable tool in giving the process the best chance.  While the telling of the story was a dialogue between me and each listener, the extension activities they carry out together involve the nurturing of dialogic encounter between the listeners themselves.  The understanding they achieve collectively then becomes a resource for their future learning – thus, as they go on to study ‘deserts’ in geography, they will have an experiential starting-point to understand the human significance of a harsh climate.  The whole, transformed story becomes an asset of the learning community.

To draw all these strands together, a story-based pedagogy:
·       *  is focused on a whole story, told without interpretation by me to you,
           * which you then appropriate or transform collectively, if you choose, by filling in its ‘gaps’ using    creative means,
·         * to create a new, rich resource of experiential knowledge which belongs to your community of  learners. 


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.OFSTED (2012) Moving English Forward: Action to raise standards in English
Reason, Matthew (2015)
Ryan, Patrick (2008) ‘Narrative Learning / Learning Narratives: Storytelling, experiential learning and education’, Lecture for George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling, University of Glamorgan, Thursday, 29 May 2008
Stern, Julian (2013) ‘Surprise in Schools: Martin Buber and dialogic schooling’, FORUM  55:1, pp.45-57.
Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich (2004 (1967)) ‘Imagination and Creativity in Childhood’, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology 42:1, pp.7-97