Fundamental importance of narrative in education

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By Dr Tony Hall

The ‘new’ English Senior Cycle syllabus is now over a decade old. It is truly an innovative syllabus in the texts – poetry, novels, films and plays – selected for study each year.

This year, for example, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca is included as part of the comparative study. This mode of literary analysis enables students to compare and contrast different texts using criteria such as genre; theme or issue; social setting; general vision/viewpoint; and cultural context.

Casablanca is a great selection – it is a great story. It is a very accessible text, a sweeping narrative that covers myriad themes, emotions, and characterisations, particularly the central characters’ contribution to a greater cause. They are willing to sacrifice personal happiness in the struggle against tyranny, a very significant human and societal goal at the time of the film’s premiere, 26th November 1942, and subsequent general release. Casablanca is a text that embodies the power of storytelling. Consequently, it is a film with significant pedagogical potential, particularly in contemporary, challenging times.

Narrative and storytelling are fundamentally important in education, culture and life. According to the educational psychologist, Jerome Bruner, narrative/storytelling is “about the most generic thing we have”. He argues that “Over and beyond their organising power, [narratives have an] astonishing range of uses: confessions, excuses, justifications, just to know what happened”. (Bruner, 2007)

A great example of this is provided in Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, where he encourages his students to write excuse notes for famous literary and historical figures, as a means of encouraging them to write creatively, indeed as a means of encouraging them to write at all. McCourt had found his students were writing the most wonderful and creative excuse notes, to avoid having to turn in homework. Consequently, he used their creativity in this form of written storytelling to make compelling, imaginative connections with the school curriculum.

According to Bruner, life itself is autobiographical – we are each the protagonist, the main character in our own, ontogenetic narrative. Stories provide an “Enormous amount of unification within a society”; “There is no culture in the world without stories” (Bruner, 2007).

For Bruner, narrative and storytelling are so inextricably and intrinsically a part of human experience that we are born with an innateness to structure the world narratologically – in story-form. Our learning of syntactic structures and grammars in early life is even determined by our inherent predisposition to make stories of our experiences in the world: “one of the most ubiquitous and powerful discourse forms in human communication is narrative. Narrative structure is even inherent in the praxis of social interaction before it achieves linguistic expression; it is a “push” to construct narrative that determines the order of priority in which grammatical forms are mastered by the young child.” (1990: 77)
The Learning Scientist Roger Schank (1990: 16) argues that “All we have are experiences – but all we can effectively tell others are stories. Knowledge is experiences and stories, and intelligence is the apt use of experience and the creation and telling of stories”.

Bruner contends that the influence of narrative extends throughout our lives, bestowing meaning and structure on what we experience: “it is our preferred, perhaps even our obligatory medium for expressing human aspirations and their vicissitudes, our own and those of others. Our stories also impose a structure, a compelling reality on what we experience, even a philosophical stance.” (2002: 89)

Bruner’s views of narrative in education are based on Aristotle’s Poetics (c.335 BC), including the twin ideas of peripeteia – “the story’s peripeteia, the thing that turns it on its head”- the twist in the tale; and coda (or commentary/ message: essentially the moral of the story).

Stories help to make the strange familiar, but they also serve to render the ordinary exceptional. This dual narrative process between ordinariness and exception cultivates, according to Bruner, “a lively sense of the possible” in education and life. The key to effective teaching is to exploit this dynamical potential of narrative – effective teaching is effective storytelling. Bruner furthermore provides us with three fundamental narrative principles for education:

  • Multiplicity: there are many possible ways of knowing;
  • Perspectival: our interpretation of anything is shaped by our worldview, which challenges the verifiability of human understanding;
  • Comparative: the scope of our understanding is affected by the existence of alternative ways of knowing or seeing the world.

The changing fortunes of Rick, Ilsa, Victor and the other characters in Casablanca exemplify the fundamental importance of narrative in education, culture and life.  In the oft-quoted words of Shakespeare’s Jaques, in Act II of his masterpiece pastoral comedy, As You Like It (also a text in the comparative study): “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players”.

Dr. Tony Hall is Head of the School of Education and Vice-Dean for Learning and Assessment, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies, NUI Galway. He is involved in a European research project on meaning-oriented pedagogy and the ideas of Viktor Frankl in education - a collaboration with the University College of Teacher Education/Viktor Frankl Hochschule, Klagenfurt, Austria.

The meaning of education

Bruner, J. (2007) Cultivating the Possible. [Public Lecture: Oxford University]. March 13th.
Bruner, J. (2002) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. US: Farrar Straus & Giroux.
Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Casablanca (1943) Directed by Michael Curtiz [DVD]. US: Time Warner Company.
McCourt, F. (2005) Teacher Man: A Memoir. US: Scribner.
Schank, R. (1990) Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence. US: Northwestern University Press.
Shakespeare, W. (2005) As You Like it. London: Penguin Classic.