A Tale of Learning: How Stories Could Revolutionise Pedagogy at Schools

Across the world, the words “Story time!” spark interest, joy and excitement in children. Stories capture one’s imagination, humanise narrations of events, and demand engagement. They range from tales of anthropomorphised animals,kings, queens, and fairies to anecdotes and biographies. However, stories can find application in a time and space beyond bedtime and parties. They can find great utility in the field of education, particularly in schools.

Professor Abbot, a Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, defines stories as sequences of events bound by time that are inherently linear. They flow through a chain of events in one direction only. Stories acquire their defining characteristic of engaging audiences through the manner in which it is narrated. He defines narrative as the way in which the story is represented. It does not have to flow in one direction. For example, flashbacks are a tool of narrative that go back and forth in time. It is the narrative that contextualises the story and can zoom in on smaller details or take the larger picture into account.

This is important because the brain perceives information fractally, that is, our brains view new information simultaneously in its parts and as a whole. This is similar to how narratives work as they look at smaller details but also place it in a larger structure. The parallel patterns of functioning of the brain and narratives ensure better learning. This finds support in Acts of Meaning by Jerome Bruner, an American psychologist and professor at Harvard University. He  argues that people frame events in their contexts or larger structures. They do not perceive the world in terms of its individual components. Thus, they do not perceive the world one sentence at a time, but in terms of the entire picture.That is how people make sense of the world around them and that is how they learn. Further, in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Bruner argues that children learn more often through discussions with others and interaction with their environment than through directly being given information.  Mind, Brain Education (MBE) science- a field that draws insights from psychology, clinical neuroscience and education- supports the constructivist theory of learning i.e. knowledge is created by the learner by engaging with his/her environment. According to experts in this field, learning involves emotion along with cognition and perception. Stories allow for this experience of emotion or affective component of learning by embedding facts in social contexts. Further, MBE emphasises the importance of the students’ active engagement with content in order to accomplish learning. Thus, story pedagogy is backed by multiple disciplines.

Apart from sound scientific and theoretical support, story pedagogy has several practical benefits. Stories increase the accessibility of subject matter. They make abstract ideas understandable for students by making them concrete. Teachers, due to their expertise in their field, might use language that is incomprehensible to some. Additionally, they capture attention. As described earlier, they are sequential and demand thinking to follow the chain of events. Stories strengthen schemas i.e. mental representations of idea, objects or events as they create a coherent link between facts or concepts. Since stories strengthen these links, it is easier for learners to retrieve this information from their memory. Further, stories have the potential to reduce anxiety towards learning new concepts. Since they are not associated with intimidation, they and can be a non-threatening way to introduce new or abstract concepts to students.

Another benefit of story pedagogy is that stories can be utilised to teach content across disciplines. The role that stories can play in language development has been widely supported. However, stories are an interesting and successful way to teach science in primary schools as well. According to a study, children at primary schools were able to remember and understand scientific concepts better when taught through stories as compared to when they are taught through a mere retelling of facts as happens in lectures. The children taught through stories displayed better long-term retention as well, as evidenced by their memory of the lesson and ability to retell it in their own words. Thus, stories can be utilised across subjects.  For example, children could be taught photosynthesis through a story. A possible story could be that all the living beings had a cooking competition and the plants won through a special ingredient called chlorophyll. Children are now likelier to remember the pigment 'chlorophyll' and the process and components of the recipe that won than if they were merely told about the process of photosynthesis.

Too often, stories are a component of classrooms only in breaks between “actual teaching”. They need to be integrated into the teaching-learning process. This is essential because they shift the focus to the learners from the teachers. It is increasingly being acknowledged that the focus in education needs to shift from the teacher to the learner. Learner- centric learning ensures that the student critically interacts with the content and that it is accessible to him/her. The teacher becomes a facilitator. The lesson plan is then required to not merely cover the topics deemed important by the teacher, but to facilitate engagement and responses from the students. Narrative or story pedagogy would ensure that the lesson plans are accessible and captivating. It emphasises the importance of individual as well as collaborative thinking to find solutions. The agency is then restored to the learners. We need to create learners who can think critically and act collectively and using stories in schools are a step towards that end.

Sharvari Karandikar