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Narratives and

Traditional Storytelling

Stories: Legacies of who we are - Awele Makeb (9:00)

Storyteller and educator Awele Makeba combines performing arts and history to tell a powerful story from the American civil rights movement.

Digital Storytelling as an Assessment Practice

Review of the Literature

Narratives & Traditional Storytelling

In Edward Wilson’s book, The Future of Life, he makes this observation about narratives:


We all live by narrative, every day and every minute of our lives. Narrative is the human way of working though a chaotic and an unforgiving world. The narrative genius of Homo sapiens is an accommodation to the inherent inability of the three pounds of our sensory system and brain to process more than a minute fraction of the information the environment pours into them. In order to keep the organism alive, that fraction must be intensely and accurately selective. The stories we tell ourselves and others are our survival manual (p. 10).


First Form of Education

Narratives historically have been the way in which humans pass on the knowledge of the world around them.  Stories that in fact help the people and the culture to survive and thrive in a hostile environment.  Storytelling was the first form of education.  In the book, Wisdom Sits in Places – Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, Keith Basso quotes a bit of wisdom from one of the elders Nick Thompson, “That is what we know about our stories.  They go to work on your mind and make you think about your life…” (p. 58). Stories do work on your mind and make you think deeper.  Stories help you define yourself, where you come from and what you know. 


To continue this thread of wisdom, Gary Witherspoon in the book, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe uncovers more insights about storytelling.  When listening to and telling stories, it is important to remember that human beings actually create the world within which they live, think, speak and act.  And even though they occupy the same globe, they traverse very different worlds (p. 3).  Through the telling of stories and creation of art, humans relate to one another. With language, man has the ability to express himself actively, creatively and become a powerful part of his universe.  If he is void of language, then he is impotent, ignorant, isolated and static (p. 62).  Our language and our stories become a vital piece of whom we are, where we come from and ultimately assist in pointing us to where we are going in this life.

The Evolution of Storytelling

The following is a link to a multimedia piece created by the author about the Evolution of Storytelling.

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Please watch and make comments to the VoiceThread.  There are a total of 31 slides including a reference slide.  This presentation will take approximately 20 - 25 minutes to view (more time may be necessary for comments).

The Primordial Metaphor


David Thornburg (2013) constructs a primordial metaphor around how people learn and communicate knowledge through the campfire, the watering hole, the cave, and life.  He starts with the campfire, where for thousands of years storytelling was used as a mechanism for teaching.  Through the telling of stories elders passed along their wisdom to the next generation.  Good stories encompass both cognitive and affective realms.  A story can tell a truth or teach a belief while evoking the emotions of the audience.  Another element of a good story is that multiple interpretations can be derived from the same tale. 


This is one reason why adults and children can enjoy the same story as each takes away different elements or meanings.  The campfire where stories were told was a sacred place with the flames being the focal point.  The backdrop was the sounds of the night and the storyteller’s voice sharing his wisdom with the next generation who in turn shared with future generations.  This gift of sharing stories and passing on our wisdom essentially became embedded into our DNA.  Many times metaphors were used to tackle topics much too confrontational to be addressed head on in the daylight.  There is a quote from Robert Frost summing up the campfire experience, “We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”

Thornburg goes on to relate the computer screens of today with the campfires of yesterday.  Perhaps he should have added the flicker of the television or the movie screen to be today’s biggest storytelling devices, but no matter the modality humans are drawn to the flickering light of storytelling for teaching and learning as well as for entertainment.


He continues the metaphor with the watering hole being the location where peers share their stories and make connections.  The cave is the next place where individuals go to find solitary places to reflect upon what they have heard and learned.  Finally, he completes the metaphor with the space called life.  This is when people take what has been learned and apply it to everyday situations.  

In today’s terms, the watering hole could be the social media sites that have become so popular in our culture.  The solitary places could be the creation of videos or blogs where people have a space to reflect and speak what is on their mind.  Life is when the knowledge is taken from the technology into the real physical world to enhance ones personal life.  Each of these spaces has a place within the digital storytelling experience.

Narratives in Teaching, Learning and Research

Narratives are a basic fundamental human capacity and the role of narratives in education clearly merits our attention.  Narrative is an extended language configured in a way that embodies life.  It has a rhythm springing from the patterns of human life and interaction. There is a structural symmetry between the content and human existence. It helps to remember, that knowledge has been gained within the context of someone’s life and as a product of that person’s inquiry.  In focusing on narratives in the framework of education we can explore on how to build it into the curriculum and make it an integral part of the teaching and learning experience (McEwan, 1995).

There are two types of narrative structures.  The first is a summation of human consciousness, which relates to the growth of knowledge or the discovery of ideas gathered through the deployment of human projects and practices.  The other is an individual consciousness, which are stories of an individual’s educational growth and development.  Throughout our lives we tend to naturally create narratives to give coherence and meaning to the whole lived experience (Bruner, 1990).  These narratives of lived experiences represent constructed knowledge, not just the conveyance of information.  Narratives allow us to put ideas into our own words, so we can make meaning of them.  As we begin to learn we are forming our own unique narratives. 


Narratives give us a way of expressing our ways of knowing by helping to organize and communicate our own personal experiences. If we start to understand that the central focus of narrative is to create human meaning making and formation of identity, then we can grasp the significance of narrative in education.  With this in mind, narratives can play a vital role in helping to construct the future of the curriculum, the process of learning and ways to inform the practice of teaching (McEwan, 1995).


Narrative Pedagogy

The work of Richard Hopkins (1994) is a good starting place to when considering narrative pedagogy.   In Hopkins’s book, Narrative schooling: Experiential learning and the transformation of American education, he proposes a narrative schooling grounded in the philosophy of John Dewey.  Dewey stated the that education is a continuing restructuring of the learner’s experience with the process taking into account personal meaning and social context.  Basically, the content being presented needs to connect with the learner’s prior experience and the learner must have opportunities to actively engage with the content based on their own personal lived experience (Dewey, 1938).  Hopkins enhances Dewey’s ideas by adding the narrative process through which the learner demonstrates meaning of their experiences and content.  He writes, “Narrative is the indispensable process through which emplotment and meaning attribution flow…” (p. 10).


One educational arena that has explored narrative pedagogy is the field of nursing.  Diekelmann (2003) discovered over the course of a 15-year study with teachers, students and clinicians that how nursing practice is being learned is as important as what is being learned.  She found the use of narrative pedagogy, in which teachers and students share and interpret their lived experiences to gather collective wisdom in order to address existing challenges, was an effective practice.  Bringing together both teachers and students to learn from each other’s perspectives was useful in this educational environment.  She found when multi-perspective thinking is enacted, new possibilities for teaching and learning happen in both the classroom and in clinical situations.


There were two themes that emerged from this study, the first is “Thinking as Questioning: Preserving Perspectival Openness” and, the second is “Practicing Thinking: Preserving Fallibility and Uncertainty.” In the first theme, students were not asked to specifically answer questions, but to persistently explore the meaning and significance of the practice.  They were to explore and expose the underlying assumptions embedded in the experience.  Through this exploration the teachers and students collaborate in new ways that preserve perspectival openness.  In the second theme, thinking shifts from being a means to an end into cycles of interpretation.  In this situation, uncertainty and fallibility are preserved.  Students are not “told”, but “guided” into thinking and learning difference content and practices.  Through sharing of various viewpoints about how to solve a problem, students think through a situation and go beyond the problem to become deeper thinkers.  This helps students learn the importance of generating many perspectives in order to understand a situation and see the complexity and uncertainty of each situation.  By using narrative pedagogy to help students think differently, profoundly, and perhaps collaboratively they create a deeper meaning and understanding of the situation. This assists them in being able to tell their story or achieve the learning outcomes of the experience.


Traditional storytelling and narratives have proven to be a fundamental structure of human meaning making.  The narrative gives use an epistemological perspective that we can understand and relate to on many levels.  As an example, which is easier to remember a list of facts or those facts woven into a story that ties them together for deep meaning? To go even further, which is more intriguing or engaging for the listener or learner, the list or the story?


To continue along this line of thinking, the next section discusses the use of digital storytelling for academic and personal growth in learners.

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