Stories are learning

Stories are an age old method of communicating to someone the events of either a fictional or real thing that happened. Whether it is the story of Harry Potter and his [SPOILER ALERT] defeat of the dark wizard Voldemort [/SPOILER ALERT], the story of Jesus or the story of Les Dennis, there are many different types of story we can tell, and we can tell them in many different ways.

Stories help capture the imagination of students and to allow them to learn in an exciting and fun way. YATES, D., et al. (2011). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Part 2 Part 2. Burbank, CA, Warner Home Video.

Every day we write a story. Its the story of us, and it perhaps isn’t written down explicitly but it is recorded in our actions and our methods of living. When we live we do stuff, learn from it, and change our future actions accordingly. The same is true in school. We start with no knowledge, we do stuff, we learn from it, and we use that learning to alter our future somehow.

We also hear about other peoples stories every day. The news is all about stories, but how this is presented on TV and in newspapers is more factually based – usually (I expect) due to limited time or space. The internet provides a new forum with infinite space and whatever time the user deems appropriate for them, so stories can be told with more depth than ever before. Some excellent examples of this journalistic story telling have been demonstrated by the BBC recently. An article on the Grenfell fire survivors emerged which told the story of the fire from the perspectives of the residents of the 21st floor. The way the BBC tells the story, through images, pictures and a web based narration technique is a great way to build understanding of what happened and how it happened to all those people. It uses titles, images and diagrams effectively to lead the reader through the article. There are another few examples from the BBC which demonstrate great story telling.

So in class why not actually tell a story to teach students something? There is lots of research available to support how good it is to use storytelling in the classroom but evidence is also anecdotal. Who can remember the class you did on the rock cycle? Ok who can remember the fictional character Barry the Rock who took a trip down the Severn? The way this can happen in the classroom may take many forms. The first example would be from a lesson I gave in my first few years of teaching. It was a Year 8 (Grade 7) lesson on Rocks.

The story chronicled Barry and his epic journey from the land to the sea. This was a really straightforward way of using a small story to have students learn something in a more engaging manner, but it was a very basic story. Another reason for presenting a story in this way was that my middle set class could have more practise talking out loud and speaking in front of a group. So whilst the visuals were there to aid understanding of what was happening, the story itself is not interactive or exciting in itself. There is also little room for student creativity outside of how they act it out in class – and then only a few may be able to participate whilst the others watched. How then could this same idea be developed to help students take the learning from just listening, to learning by doing? Well one method I love (and learned from Students at Learning 2.0 2015) is to use Google Maps.

Start on the first point labelled (red) and follow Barrys journey. Now Barry and his journey have been plotted and detailed in geographical locations. The process allows for a little more creativity on the students behalf’s increasing engagement and they can invent the story and add the little extra bits of learning they want to add as they go. They can even add links to this to show outside learning. The beauty of a story is that it usually takes place in time, and as everything moves and changes with time, most things have some element of a story to them. A combination of the slides and the map would be perfect (as far as I know you cant embed pictures onto the map, but if you could do something like that it might be a good link between the geographical layer, the text layer and an image layer). This could even use other video making apps in order to create a more interactive story (Google books for example to create a “build your own story about Barry”… etc).

Take another recent project I undertook with my grade 10 students. I wanted them to learn all about Thermal Energy transfer. This included conduction, convection and radiation, and the way I wanted them to do this was by answering a question. One example was “Why did many of the early coal miners die?”. Now there are ways to do this easily using a single sentence, but to ensure learning took place I wanted them to demonstrate their knowledge using ‘Explain Everything’, an APP for Android and Apple devices which allows you to use pictures, video and annotation to explain what you are doing. Making a video is to tell a story, and the same is true when trying to explain Physics or other academic work. If you are answering a question, why not tell the story of how we got there? If we are trying to convey understanding, we need to know the science. We ask the question, we build knowledge to the point where the viewer is able to answer the question, and then we answer the question. Story telling is not necessarily all about Barry, but its about how we engage students in a dialogue that leads their learning in the right direction.



2 thoughts on “Stories are learning

  1. Love the story of Barry the Rock. What a creative way to spice up a lesson. I bet there are kids who still remember Barry quite fondly.

    Although you can’t embed an image directly onto the map, you can add one to the description. Check out this mapfrom our Oral History project a couple years ago. Unfortunately, it seems some of the images in the descriptions haven’t survived, but it is possible.

  2. Alex, I love it! Barry is a Rock Star! It takes geologic time scale and quickens its glacial pace. It seems like a great use of story telling for teaching something that every igneous school of rock student knows is hard to conceptualize. Also, I have played around with making walking maps using .gpx files which can be put in a file converter to change to a .kmz file for Google Earth or maps. I learned this odly enough though participating in a big story telling project called Out of Eden Learn which is a project of Harvard Project Zero, National Geographic, The Pulitzer Center and others.
    Here is the link for making digital walking stories using GPS.
    Maybe something fun to try in the future?

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