Beyond These Walls

Learning everywhere

Can storytelling and content courses play nice?

In a society characterized by uncertainty and rapid change, the ability to think creatively is becoming the key to success and satisfaction, both professionally and personally. For today’s children, nothing is more important than learning to think creatively – learning to come up with innovative solutions to the unexpected situations that will continually arise in their lives.

                                                                                                                        Mitchel Resnick

This week in AP Bio class students told stories about DNA replication using whiteboards. I use this activity to invite students to make sense out of content that might have little or no personal relevance. The stories produced in the AP class, were, well very unstory- like. Students told stories that were precise, exact and essentially verbatim of their texts. Their whiteboards were full of words and included few pictures. They were being what obedient students are, well-trained parrots (sorry students I love you parrot like and all).

When later in the week my Bio 12 classes did the same group task, students wrote stories that were zany and fun. One story described a helicopter ride over shark infested water and how Student J is ripped in half (like DNA in replication has it’s 2 strands broken apart by an enzyme). There were fewer details in the stories, but the overall flow of information was there and accurate.

At the end of the week when I look back I cannot remember even one of the AP classes’ stories but I do remember several of the Bio 12’s and in particular the shark one in vivid detail.

I have always loved metaphors and when I think I tend to think in images first and then find words later. I get flooded easily if all I am given in word based input. I prefer to look at diagrams in text then fill in details as needed. I can recall patterns on a page easily but fail to remember how to spell simple words. When I struggle to understand a topic I get clarity when I find a central metaphor to attach details to.

I find many students make sense out of unfamiliar territory this way. Many like to make stories to help give meaning to a topic devoid of meaning to their brain, but many do this activity in private, as if it were a less-than learning strategy.

Theorist Klaus Krippendorff writes: ” unlike analogies, metaphors are fundamentally asymmetrical. They are the linguistic vehicles through which something new is constructed.” He further explains that metaphors “carry explanatory structures from a familiar domain of experiences into an other domain in need of understanding or restructuring”.

Students like stories in general. If I find fiction pieces that relate to a topic I will read them aloud in class; I can feeling them listening in a way that is completely different from when I read a non-fiction piece. I also find that reading fictional stories aloud brings a calm and peace in class to a stressful day.

Despite these observations about the power of telling stories on both myself and students, I frequently encounter disdain and scepticism from some students who feel they are getting a sub par education when I invite them to be creative. They see the creative part as wasteful as the time could be better spent amassing more knowledge. Can storytelling have a meaningful role in a senior science class or is the time better spent on inquiry and experimental design? I wonder why it seems that as we move into senior secondary courses do we strive to squeeze out every ounce of the creative spirit of storytelling and squeeze into the learning space raw unfiltered content?

Can they not dance together, the content with the story? Or does one always have to take over and be the sole performer on the stage of learning?

For them to dance together, there must be the right tension between them and perhaps it is the complexity and nuance of this tension that scares us off of having them dance together? How do we decide where one begins and one ends, when we are trying to keep the subject matter in its pure form? Or is that the problem itself, that really our brains don’t think in subject areas and the silo approach pulls meaning from a topic like vultures pull flesh from carrion?

What do you think? Can storytelling and content courses play nice?

What an individual can learn, and how he learns it, depends on what models he has available. This raises, recursively, the question of how he learned these models. Thus the “laws of learning” must be about how intellectual structures grow out of one another and about how, in the process, they acquire both logical and emotional form.

Seymour Papert

8 responses to “Can storytelling and content courses play nice?

  1. jathomasson February 11, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Carolyn, you are amazing and I am going to send my 4-year-old daughter to British Columbia to learn Bio from you in 10-ish years. That is all.

  2. steveshann February 11, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Such a thoughtful post, and such good questions. I think students are yearning for what you are offering in your second class, or at least many of them are. I was, when I did science at school many many years ago, and would have loved to have been in that class. Metaphors speak to people like us, searching for a different way of coming to grips with the complexities of this world.

    • Carolyn Durley February 12, 2013 at 12:57 am

      Hi Steve, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wonder if we unknowingly “push” students away from pursuing sciences any further than high school? I know I wish I had connected earlier in life to thinking about the natural world as I do now in my metaphoric way.

  3. teacherdebra February 12, 2013 at 1:54 am

    I love your post, not just for the topic, but for the fact that you want to make this difference with your students. I think it’s unfortunate that they don’t think that the education is on par when you allow them to be creative. I think that has more to do with the fact that the creativity has been taken away from them over the years and the content has been pushed so it could be covered (or perhaps not, I don’t want to assume). I think the bigger question is, why do students feel that being creative and being educated are two different things that cannot be synchronous? Do you think that this has to do with how students are graded for “special” subjects? I think you raise some good questions for more discussion.

    • Carolyn Durley February 12, 2013 at 8:48 pm

      Debra, I think you just gave me some clarity with your comment 🙂 I think that is it exactly; students don’t see creativity as part of the education process, and as students move into to high school we do fewer and fewer creative projects as they are harder (more subjective) to assess. I think many see creativity as a natural talent and so it would (so it seems) be unfair to ask students to do things where one might have an advantage over the other. Teaching content is easier to assess and appears less biased. I also think that traditionally arts (and fine arts) have been perceived as less than science and math.
      Lots to think about! Thanks for sharing and helping me develop my thinking more on this topic,

  4. maryleenewman February 12, 2013 at 5:12 am

    I was so glad to see your post! I have been struggling with the same types of questions. Where does storytelling fit in with content other than language arts, in my case, in elementary? There is a place for screencasting; I often have students explain their process of solving a math problem or explain their process when doing a science experiment. But, I have struggled with other roles for storytelling. I had not thought of having students tell stories about science, taking advantage of explaining it by comparing it to other things.

    I think telling stories about what students are learning in science the way you did was a great idea and it seemed to have worked well in the Bio 12 classes. (I’m curious what the differences were between the two classes, just the AP nature of the first class?). It is in the ability to make these connections between what students are learning in one field and expanding it to others that real “power learning” happens. Arguably then, wouldn’t we would be doing our students a disservice if we didn’t provide them the opportunities to stretch (by storytelling)?

    Maybe it’s our job to make our students uncomfortable. I still remember one of my high school teachers who I thought was nuts at the time. He had us learn some Jungian theory, handwriting analysis, and past-life regression – all while reading every word of Moby Dick, memorizing comma rules by number and diagramming sentences the old-fashioned. We were stretched, and learned on both sides of our brains.

    • Carolyn Durley February 12, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      Hi Mary Lee, thanks for your comment. Main difference in the two courses is that AP tends to be higher performing students (students that don’t like to take big risks), so these students see being creative as wasteful of their limited time and resources and would rather get right to the content.
      I think though to get to your question that storytelling can fit in in many places and that is does not have to be fancy or polished. I think something as simple as a six word story about a picture, your telling the picture behind a postcard. With my Bio students I call anything that has a beginning, middle and end (a sequence) a “story”.
      I think you are right on the money, with the idea about making students uncomfortable, the magic is finding the right balance, being uncomfortable without alienating them. Your high school teacher sounds very memorable 🙂
      Thanks for sharing,

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