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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

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