Teaching as Story Telling, Kieran Egan

Visit any primary classroom and you will find a corner of the room dedicated to books and reading These are often lovely comfy spaces, scattered with soft cushions to sit on and displays to capture the children’s imagination. They reflect, despite the growing importance of technology in schools, how books still play a central role in the education of young people. This is widely accepted and understood. Teachers tell their students stories from the very first day they start school and children’s storybooks are better made and more engaging than they have ever been. Yet stories are an underused medium for learning. Pushed into the margins of the curriculum to stimulate art and drama activities, but forgotten or neglected when the study of more ‘serious’ subjects begins.

This is the claim made by Kieran Egan in his challenging and provocative book, Teaching as Story Telling.

First published in 1986, Teaching as Story Telling is widely read in North America, but largely unknown in the UK. It questions the use of the objectives-led planning and teaching model predominant in the current system – which views education as a production line delivering discreet units of information in tiny packages – and argues that we underestimate children’s capacity for learning, in particular the central role of imagination in making meaning of the curriculum. Technologized teaching, he says, is a clockwork orange, something that looks like the thing it wants to be, but misses the essential essence.

His main idea is that stories are a powerful medium for learning and we should start combining the elements which make them so effective into strategies for teaching and learning that are engaging and meaningful.

When planning, he argues, teachers should ask themselves the same question a newspaper editor asks a reporter: “what’s the story on this?” That is, how can we make this particular knowledge something people will understand and connect with? The problem with most educational experiences, Egan argues, is that the focus is too much on the dispassionate ‘cognitive’ aspects of learning and not enough on the emotional ‘affective’ dimensions. Good stories, with characters, tensions, and narrative events, have the effect of drawing us in and making meaning of complex ideas. They are more memorable, than disconnected facts taught in isolation.

An idea taken up by Daniel Willingham, who describes stories as “psychologically privileged… meaning they are treated differently in the memory than other types of material.” Which is quite a claim when you think about it. Stories, Willingham argues, not only expand the mind’s ability to make sense of information, they also make that information more memorable. Therefore, if we put knowledge, ideas, and values into stories then children are more likely to understand them and more likely to remember them later.

Not only this, but we don’t even need to teach them how to do it, since children come to school with this cognitive ability already built in. As Willingham says, “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories”. Which isn’t even a new idea, since, as E.D. Hirsch reminds us: “stories are the best vehicles for teaching young children – an idea that was ancient when Plato reasserted it in Republic.”

Egan’s argument then, is that we should acknowledge the psychological advantage of stories – to make meaning for children – and rethink the way we create learning opportunities in the classroom. We need to start treating imagination as a tool for thinking and cultivate a richer image of the child as an imaginative thinker, using stories, as Hirsch says, as ‘vehicles’ for teaching. Egan describes stories as “narrative units”, involving problems or conflicts that need resolving. Stories have an internal structure that holds them together and determines what should be included and excluded. Children can make meaning from these various elements and form a model of the story in their minds. Information, concepts, and different perspectives can be woven into the material of stories to create imaginative learning environments where children can explore the curriculum.

Egan makes a compelling case for why  we should use stories to make the curriculum more accessible and meaningful to our students. But they are rarely used as vehicles for learning beyond KS1. This is, in my opinion, a missed opportunity.

This review was first published in Teach Primary Magazine and is re-published here with their kind permission.


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