Storytelling as Learning Tool

On Monday I’ll be giving a brief talk to the Langley cohort of Simon Fraser University’s Learning & Teaching with Technology Field Program about Personal Narratives as a framework for learning. Not particularly adept at the nomenclature surrounding and separating ‘frameworks,’ lenses, methods, and mostly considering myself self-taught when it comes to this stuff, I have long-found stories to be a vital part of my teaching bag-of-tricks, and will be sharing some of what I’ve found along the way with the group. As an introduction, I’ve shared the following post on the class’ Posterous account, but it’s private; so I’ve shared it here in the hope that those of you out there – who have really done all the teaching in this supposed ‘self-teaching’ I’ve been doing – might leave us a comment, a story, a link to some reading, or pass this post along to someone who might. 

Why Sharing Our Stories Matters: Story by Bryan Jackson from unplugd on Vimeo.

As a means of collecting some of the supplemental material I would attach to a discussion of Personal Narratives and Storytelling in the classroom, I thought I would put together a post here that you may find useful in extending the conversation post-“Institute.”

As a general introduction, the above video is a story I told in a canoe in Algonquin Park last summer at the Unplug’d Education Summit. The purpose of the “un-conference” was to bring together educational stake-holders to synthesize our individual essays (each filling the blank in the title, Why _________ Matters) into a book organized by thematically grouped chapters. You can download the e-book here, and learn more about this year’s event at

While the whole process revolved around a socially constructive framework, my essay centered around the idea that “Sharing our Stories” matters: that each of our individual truths construct a shared “truth” or objectivity; and that if we follow this through to its logical conclusion, the skills required to realize, share and synthesize our stories become essentials in creating a healthy culture (democratic, social, educational or otherwise).

From both a personal and pedagogical perspective, this aspect of joining the personal and the collective through stories holds great interest for me, especially as we consider that our digital tools provide ever-more opprortunities to share unique pieces from our individual corners of the world with tribes and swarms and communities beyond our own local geography. Indeed:

…our understanding of authorship is, at the present time, caught between two regimes: one a system of knowledge production informed by Enlightenment-era notions of the self, the other is a world of “technologies that lend themselves to the distributed, the collective, the process-oriented, the anonymous, the remix.” As we step into the future increasingly governed by the latter, we move, in some ways, back to an earlier era: a move away from a culture of isolated reading — the individual reader, alone with a book or a screen — towards a more communal engagement, the coffee-house or fireside model of public reading and debate in which literary culture historically originated. Long before print culture, storytelling was not a solitary experience but a group event. Houman Barekat on Planned Obsolescence 

In its more classical sense, education concerned itself almost exclusively with Aesthetics, or the “broader sense” that Wikipedia describes as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature. Educators today would do well to be aware of an emerging New Aesthetic (which is described here in a specific fashion that need not be completely digested or accepted to be relevent to our discussion).

Simply put, the New Aesthetic concerns itself with how the digital world and the real world are starting to overlap and intermingle in interesting, routine and unexpected ways.  As search engines, online ‘bots’, spam generation engines, online mapping tools, google street view, machine vision and sensing technologies proliferate, our everyday life in the western technologically advanced world is starting to bristle with new types of augmentation and hybridity. Interview with Bruce Sterling about the New Aesthetic

As we move into next week, I hope we can play around with some of these emerging tools to begin to tell our own stories and begin to create possibilities for storytelling (digital or otherwise) as a means of individual and collective learning in your classrooms.

The main point I like to stress in talking about storytelling in our emerging media/digital landscape is that despite our new modes of communication, the act of telling our individual and communal stories is fundamental to the creation and maintenance of our culture and in this way is at the center of what education strives to achieve.

As one of my teaching idols told me on the day he retired, “Any class you teach is just another opportunity for kids to practice forming communities,” a sentiment I find myself agreeing with more the longer I teach, and a process in which I find stories increasingly fundamental.


4 thoughts on “Storytelling as Learning Tool

  1. Your description of teaching in a way that digital technology is used in the service of constructing personal and communal stories and the value these hold for creating community is really powerful. I do believe that the “new aesthetic” is revitalizing the art and appreciation of storytelling.

    I have the pleasure of being the “appropriate adult” (their term for me 😉 for a teen writing group and your piece reminded me of our last meeting and what hilarious fun we had reading aloud a Greek farce that one of the young writers had penned. I don’t ever want to forget that pure joy of performing as part of a community creating a communal experience. It’s the “old aesthetic” possible wherever individuals can come together — and it’s exciting to think that we can hold that close and expand the opportunities through digital means.

    As for a resource, I’ll share a video on writing groups that Ezra of our group discovered and declared as “GENIUS.” We all see a lot of value in the advice the presenter, Bryan Sanderson, provides on how to be a contributing member of a writing/storytelling group and sharing “good feedback.”

    1. Thanks for the comment and the link, Cris! I think the ‘appropriate adult’ role is fitting in the forward-looking classroom as well, where the teacher becomes more of a mentor/facilitator than director of operations. I think the type of community we are able to create when the elder isn’t seen to be “in charge” as much as the group is much more powerful; to do this we often have to immerse ourselves as participants, creators, and storytellers in this mix, finding our own truths as we go.

      Look forward to checking out the video!

  2. Story telling… I think at it’s base, this is how cultures develop and “be”. It’s the passing along or down of stories that define who we are. It’s how we share our experiences with others who couldn’t be there. Blogging is one means I have found to be quite powerful as a means to share stories but also to encounter other’s stories. I get to know people through their writing and through the videos they share. Through the pictures they take, caption, and post to Facebook or Twitter. Then, I get the opportunity to spend time face 2 face with those same people, there’s a more of a familiarity. Even when meeting for the first time.

    In my work I like to capture the stories of student learning, teacher practices, and parent experiences with our “system” through video. I have found this to be a powerful method of bringing people and their authentic stories and journeys into presentations I share, blog posts I write, and conversations I have. This method of story telling has enriched my work.

    The tools today, such as are available on the iPad, for digital story telling, are amazing. The ability to start creating your story in one app, move the output to another app, add more content, and then another app, etc. until it’s done enables you to create media and content rich and engaging stories. Educators are using 3D virtual world environments for creating stories. I toured a “land” where two middle school aboriginal students had reproduced their ancestral village. Rather than research and write a report, they researched and built the village and added the text as sign-posts through-out. They took their teacher on a virtual tour and orally explained things in great detail. That’s a much more powerful story telling method than simply words on a page.

    Great post – loved the video embed too. What a cool way in an awesome setting (in a canoe) to tell your story!

    1. Excellent comment, thanks for the RT as well, Brian!

      I am a huge fan of the work you’ve done to share innovative teaching and learning in Coquitlam (and not only because you came to see us last year) – I think capturing the fleeting moments of inspiration and struggle that happen in our schools is tremendously important. Being able to preserve and share the exploits of our music department for the last year or so has been incredible in a Why-doesn’t-everyone-do-this?? sort of way, as it preserves the experience for the participants at the same time as expanding the audience for performances and moments on tour. Like Jim Groom may have only said the once, but I’ve been repeating ever since, “Don’t teach your class, produce it.”

      While at first this type of stepping ‘back’ can be tough for teachers who feel that they need to have more of the reigns in their classes, I think this resistance underestimates the power of the types of artifacts that many different developers have made available for relatively low/little cost (after hardware). Like @intrepidteacher says (and may say here later, so I’ll leave it for him), all of these pieces add up to the thread of the story we’re telling – with our lives, our classrooms, and our cultures. It’s important that we actively participate in these narratives on each of these levels.

      Thanks for the conversation!

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