Is narrative an endangered species in UK schools?

| a guest post by Catherine Heinemeyer |

The great educationalist Jerome Bruner wrote in 2006 that human minds think and know in two quite different ways. Firstly, there is logico-scientific knowledge, which ‘seeks explications that are context free and universal’ – principles of ‘what generally happens’. For example:

When temperatures drop below zero, water always freezes because. . .

Secondly, there is narrative knowledge, which ‘seeks explications that are context sensitive and particular’ – what has happened, and why it matters:

Well, the winter set in especially hard that year and the lake froze over. . .

Both are essential, says Bruner, but it is narrative that comes both first and last in learning. Stories build up our sense of everything that is possible, and once we have abstracted general principles from them, we return to narrative to make sense of what we have learnt about the world.

As a storyteller and researcher, I collaborated for two years with secondary humanities teacher Sally Durham and her three ‘low ability’ Key Stage 3 classes, to try to return narrative to these valuable roles. To appreciate this view of narrative knowledge visually, we imagined the richness of human experience as a metaphorical landscape. A standardised map could never capture all its complexity or guide those who might want to cross it, but we can tell stories (here represented as arrows) to share with others our own past journeys through it. Sally or I would open up a class’ exploration of a historical time period or geographical issue by telling a story (the bold arrow), enabling the pupils to experience at second hand our own explorations of this landscape, which then triggered off their answering stories (thin arrows). Gradually, a more complex picture would start to emerge of what this ‘country’ of human experience is like.


Sally and I observed changes similarly to those seen by numerous educators working with story, and perhaps most articulately expressed by secondary English teacher Betty Rosen in And None Of It Was Nonsense (1988) and Shapers and Polishers (1993). That is, we saw pupils dramatically more engaged than in usual lessons, employing higher levels of language and thinking skills, developing more attentive and respectful relationships, and drawing on enhanced imaginative resources.

Yet such exchanges are scarce in schooling. Over recent decades multiple barriers to them have been erected. The progressive era, with its democratic focus on the child’s voice, experiential learning, play and freedom, undoubtedly, albeit unintentionally, discouraged many teachers from embracing the apparently authoritarian role of storyteller. For example when the 1976 Schools Council History Project established that pupils must “‘do’ history, not merely receive it”, the word ‘merely’ succinctly expressed the prevalent perception that listening to a narrative rendered pupils passive and subservient.

Then the National Curriculum focused teachers’ eyes firmly on closely specified learning outcomes, and subsequent decades have seen teachers steered ever more toward strategies which will demonstrate as clearly as possible that these have been achieved. This is not how narrative works – a story does not tell the listener what to learn from it, but shares an experience for them to make of it what they will. Stories work unpredictably in our minds, returning over the years and layering over each other. Put simply, narrative knowledge, what we might call ‘storyknowing’, is marginalised within the English school system, because it is misunderstood and often not recognised as knowledge.

To explore the value of this ‘endangered species’, Sally and I sought to develop a storytelling practice that responded to the needs of her ‘low-ability’ pupils. We came to see how pupils both acquire and generate knowledge through storytelling. In one lesson, we embarked upon the topic of ‘rainforests’ by telling a story of an indigenous Indonesian chief who was approached by government officials to sell his people’s land for logging, to make space for poor tenant farmers. The pupils, without exception, listened avidly for 15 minutes, until I paused at a crucial point. They then experimented with their own endings to the story (many were by now confident storytellers). As the pupils played out the power dynamics of the interactions between loggers, forest people, tenant farmers, experts and officials, the depressing likelihood of the forest’s destruction hit them. Our response to their dejection was to investigate the work of Survival International, which fights for indigenous people’s rights worldwide. My field notes record that:

They are full of questions about this [. . .] I feel strangely like a university lecturer, pointing the pupils to further references, not a storyteller in an ‘intervention’ class.

We need to challenge the currently dominant perception that pupils listening to a whole narrative are in a passive role. Indeed, reasserting the value of storyknowing may restore aspects of agency, autonomy and knowledge creation to both teachers and pupils which may not be afforded by overtly ‘active’ learning strategies. One of Durham’s pupils told us he was doing his hardest work not during response activities, but when he was apparently inactive and listening:

It’s just – you know when you’re telling a story and some of us put our heads down like that [puts head down on folded arms] – it’s only because some of us do it to, like, picture the images in our heads.

Oracy is back on the agenda in education, and, cheeringly, looking likely to stay. For example, a major upcoming conference addresses oracy’s essential role in closing the educational gap between deprived and privileged young people. This is spot on: it is precisely deprived children, like the ‘bottom set’ classes with whom we worked, whose repertoires of experiential knowledge most benefit from being enriched by narratives, whether these are novels read, stories told, or simply teachers’ accounts of holiday experiences. A lucky child who has conversed, been read to, travelled, has all the resources they need to construct a historical reality in their mind, or understand a different political viewpoint. Too often we ask children from deprived backgrounds to skip this vital, narrative step and go straight to abstraction or generalisation.

However, scanning the agenda of this conference, no workshop or talk mentions story, presumably not because the coordinators are opposed to narrative, but perhaps because they are blind to its role as an irreplaceable container of life experience in a complex and unpredictable world. We need to be very careful that we do not focus all our efforts on diverting children’s talk into certain channels – talk for writing, talk for conceptualisation – denigrating the open-ended, narrative communication by which children stitch their knowledge to their experiences, and enrich their palette of imaginative resources.

Yet storytelling skills should not be excessively instrumentalised as another requirement to be fulfilled within a crowded curriculum. Stories, as Durham’s pupils remind us, move slowly. They need time and space to take shape in pupils’ minds, and like an endangered ‘indicator’ species, they cannot thrive in just any habitat. Rather learning must be shaped around their needs; in Durham’s words:

I give pupils time to listen, to think, to formulate a response. So I would say that yes, storytelling is a metaphor for the way I run my classroom.

That is the greatest challenge stories pose to education, and it is the reason they are vital.

This blog post is based on original research into the changing status of narrative in schools, drawing on the pupils’ observations about storytelling, recently published in the journal Research in Education. To read the whole article, see the journal website or read the anonymised version at the Research at York repository.

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