Education As Story
If you had to plot a day, a year or even twelve years of learning on a graph, what would your axes be and what would your plot look like? Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s work on stories, I used to do this with my students. Some of them would use quadrants, others a totally different kind of chart, map (of the mind or of the school), maze, or elaborate drawing. This always gives way to stories about things they learned a long time ago.
From mythology to neuroscience, there’s compelling evidence that stories are central to how we understand ourselves and the world around us—that they activate our minds and provide a seamless way to help us make connections and remember things. It’s no coincidence that they are vital to our lifelong learning. Despite much needed championing to keep certain kinds of storytelling in our school curricula, I can’t imagine that stories, in any form, were intentionally put into our education system after some big discovery. Stories are there because we are.
By story, I mean that elegant and intuitive narrative design that accounts for everything from how you explain why you’re late for dinner to how Harry Potter ended up married with children. Common core state standards are emphasizing the importance of non-fiction in the language arts curriculum. As a long time teacher of literature, I’m actually not too worried about that. I do, however, happen to like the opinion that we should account for all the non-fiction already there throughout the curriculum, and that we should be reading non-fiction in every subject. I might have been more passionate about physics if someone put a book about or by Richard Feynman into my hands. As a curriculum designer, I’ve even selected non-fiction texts I thought would help students make connections to other subjects. If I could make the case for one more non-fiction infusion, it would be learning processes that helped students see their own work across the curriculum and over the years as a story of their own—an infusion of ownership and authorship, i.e. how things are connected, a goal-oriented plot, or at least some narrative structure, and what it all means, including patterns, motifs, symbolism, and theme.
Some of us seem to be immersed in an authentic flow of our own learning story. Do you remember a student who always seemed to know what they were going to do, and did it, seemingly always on track? Beneath the surface of all the conscious learning we’re doing, there’s an underlying narrative driving our thinking and our choices. Certainly, we are all putting that narrative together every day. But how intentionally? When we look back at our lives, we can usually see it. But what about forethought? How would our learning change if we brought that underlying narrative to the surface in realtime? If we looked at how all the pieces of our learning were coming together and told the story of it while imagining its outcome along the way? We know what it looks like when we don’t do that, anyway.
That kind of engaging reflection is essential to helping us review what we know, to sharing it and bringing it into a deeper understand of where it’s all going and what we’re supposed to do with it. I think aiming towards this kind of storytelling will make a difference in learning outcomes and, more importantly, individual trajectory.