Storytelling and teaching and learning

Storytelling and teaching and learning


Story has many uses in education (Moon, 2006), but defining the use of story within education is complex, with 'story' meaning so many things to different people in education (Ohler, 2008: 15).  This complexity is added to further if the different forms of story presentation – written, oral, digital – are taken into account.  It is also important to recognise within particular interpretations whether the focus is on the story or on storytelling i.e. the process of creating the story. 


Storytelling is seen as a uniquely human experience (McDrury & Alterio, 2003: 31).  Stories are used to convey information, or perhaps to motivate colleagues or friends (McDrury & Alterio, 2003), but many stories are used to help us make sense and meaning of our experiences (Abrahamson, 1998; Matthews-DeNatale, 2008; McDrury & Alterio, 2000).  Storytelling has long been recognised as a means for storytellers - or learners in an educational context - to give meaning to their own particular experiences, to demonstrate their own understanding of the world (Miley, 2009; Nygren & Blom, 2001: 372).  In this respect the sharing of stories is an important element: “For a story to be a story, it must be shared” (Orech, 2008).  It is by sharing our stories that we can obtain a deeper insight into their meaning.


Stories can be created as personal narratives, stories to inform or as critical analyses.  In whatever context they are used educationally the process of developing a story engages the students in cognitive strategies:


[In the story] construction process judgments and inferences are required at two levels: about discrete items of information and the adequacy of the unfolding story.  Selecting, comparing, inferring, arranging and revising are activities which we regard as cognitive strategies.  (Robinson & Hawpe, 1986)


Bruner (1990) also recognised the centraility sense making in the construction of narrative.  Within this process the teller has to go beyond passive reviewing to the construction of an interpretation which is presented to an audience (McDonnell et al, 2004: 513).  Bruner (1990) identified particular grammatical constituents in this process of narrative development: action directed toward goals; establishing order between events; sensitivity toward interaction; and revealing the narrator's perspective.


Moon (2006: 123), in an attempt to make sense of story in education, specifically in their use in learning journals, proposed a framework in which story consists of:


From this framework it is possible to recognise that within the use of story personal reflection, drawing upon personal experiences and the social dimension of telling stories are of critical importance to their educational value. 

Reflection has been identified as an important part of the learning process through educational models such as Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning Cycle.  This model also emphasises the importance of experience (concrete experience), which through reflection (reflective observation) needs to be related to theory (abstract conceptualisation) and then applied in other situations (active experimentation).  This links with research into professional learning which argues that the traditional academic separation between ‘knowing what’ and ‘knowing how’ is false; knowledge being context-dependent (Eraut; 1994; Schön, 1983).  Eraut (1994) reinforces this by arguing that for an idea to have value it must be used, which reflects the view that for a story to be a story it must be shared. 


Schön (1983) and Eraut (1994) recognised that some knowledge is implicit (i.e. tacit knowledge).  Such knowledge, which is located in practice, can be difficult to share.  Schön (1983) has highlighted the importance of experience over knowledge and of the value of reflective practice in accessing this tacit knowledge.  Telling stories is one mechanism that can help achieve this.  Storytelling has been identified as an important process in helping to develop communities of practice, not to achieve shared knowledge but to help develop a common framework which can lead to a shared interpretation (Brown & Duguid, 2002: 107). 


The Kolb cycle highlights that for learning to be apparent, reflection on experience is a fundamental part of the process, although this is recognised as the most challenging stage of the Kolb cycle (McDrury & Alterio, 2003: 25).  Students are required to share their understanding to ensure this has occurred.  Oppermann (2008) sees the ‘regurgitation’ of practice, making learning explicit in different forms and contexts to others, as a means of evidencing learning.  The process of constructing a story which needs to be conveyed to others forces the teller to move from actor to observer, a process that in the context of Kolb's experiential learning cycle is helping the learner move from 'concrete experience' to 'abstract conceptualisation' (McDonnell et al, 2004: 525).


Storytelling is then an approach that can be used to encourage students to reflect on their own experience and to make this explicit to others; it is a socio-constructivist pedagogy.  How learning can be achieved through storytelling is represented in McDrury & Alterio’s (2003) Model of Reflective Learning Through Storytelling.  In highlighting reflection it draws upon Moon’s (1999) Map of Learning.  Both models have five-stages which are shown in the table below.    


Model of Reflective Learning Through Storytelling

Map of Learning

1.    Story finding

1.    Noticing

2.    Story telling

2.    Making sense

3.    Story expanding

3.    Making meaning

4.    Story processing

4.    Working with meaning

5.    Story reconstructing

5.    Transformative learning


The Model of Reflective Learning Through Storytelling emphasises the social dimensions of storytelling.  Beyond the story finding stage McDrury & Alterio (2003) highlight the teller and listener relationship that exists.  At the story teller stage both are seeking understanding and order.  At subsequent stages the process is more interactive with questioning being used at the 'story expanding' stage to refine, clarify and expand.  It is at the processing stage that reflective activity takes place with a critical interface between teller and listener shaping individuals understanding of the story.  It is at this stage that the learners can be testing their own understanding through this social interaction; reflecting Vygotsky's (1978) socio-cultural theory of learning  through social encounter.  The final reconstructing stage concerns criticall evaluating the potential of resolutions and solutions (McDrury & Alterio, 2003: 49).


Both the McDrury & Alterio (2003) and Moon (1999) model's provide useful frameworks for analysis of the use of stories.  They have both been used as frameworks for assessing the use of digital stories, in particular where used for reflection (Jenkins & Lonsdale, 2008; Sanders, 2009).