Thursday, January 28, 2010

Storytelling in Education

By Mark T. Burke

I thought I would tell a story, about stories.  Because you are a blog reader, you no doubt find value in learning through stories.  Stories provide context to information that otherwise could be conveyed and easily forgotten.  Without context, information has little value now-a-days.  After all, much information can be found in a matter of seconds using the internet.  In our age of information and high stakes testing, education has recently centered more on delivering information and testing the student’s abilities to restate that information, in order, in time, accurately.  Story telling has become a waste of time, a communication and educational transmission method thought to have little value.

During my years of teaching, I witnessed many well intentioned educators fall victim to the “no stories in your classroom” feedback from reviewing administrators.  Administrators have been under extreme pressures to ensure students pass exams and schools achieve established levels of performance and progress.  Those pressures have led many administrators to advise teachers to “stick to the facts” in class.  Teachers have also had a hand in eliminating storytelling from the classroom.  Too often, those well intended educators allow themselves to get carried away during the story, straying from the focus of the lesson and allowing the act of telling the story to overshadow the value of the point of the story.  It seems no wonder stories have been relegated to little more than wastes of time or “filler” activities.

I hope you agree that allowing storytelling to become undervalued in the classroom is not a good thing.  I’m pleased however, that storytelling is making a comeback.  Rich media applications have allowed students to tell stories through methods not so different from the creation of a Hollywood production.  Social media, especially blogs, allow us all to share educational anecdotes, case studies, and event recaps quickly and easily to targeted audiences (akin to telling stories around the campfire to a captive audience.) But those are examples of written and developed stories.  As teachers, can we learn to meet the demands of our high stakes curriculums while harnessing the value of storytelling? 

The better question to ask is “as teachers, can we afford NOT to harness the power of storytelling?”  I believe the answer is NO WAY!  When I am teaching, interjecting stories is a critical part to delivering facts and information in context.  As music educators, telling stories about the pieces students are studying is an absolute must.  Imagine teaching a solo composition without discussing the “story” behind the music, even if that story only involves a simple tale from the time period of music.  Discussing just the notes and all the obvious markings on the page only mirrors what the written music has already laid out in front of the performer.  The real value we add to the student is helping them tell their own story. By conveying our stories, we help them develop and communicate their own stories.  Our job however is to ensure the story is relevant and shared with the student, not merely “told to them.”  Getting carried away with our stories is a sure fire way to turn off a student, loose focus on the lesson and sacrifice progress in lieu of a self gratifying moment on the podium. 

So we must learn to tell stories and encourage students to do so affectively as well.  Have you ever had students start to tell you a story about their life, inspired by something during your lesson only to interrupt them so you could move on?  We’ve all experienced the never ending story told passionately by a 5th grader.  They can actually be hard to stop once they get rolling.  Of course, our stories can be equally difficult to bring to a close, as I’ve proven by the length of this post :-).

Why is storytelling so important?  If you believe we are entering a new era, the Conceptual era, pushing us forward after the ending of the Information era, storytelling will become growing important.  As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, information is readily available.  Since everyone has rather immediate access to information, learning is not about acquiring information.  Learning is the process of synthesizing facts and information into something more valuable to the learner, something that can add meaning to their lives of the lives of others.  In music, finding value in hearing music played accurately in pitch and time (like a lifeless MIDI track), is similar to the appreciation of acquiring facts and figures.  Being MOVED by a piece, from the expression of the performer is like being inspired by a well crafted and delivered story.  The later will change someone’s life. The former will simply take up valuable time in our lives. 

I highly recommend Daniel Pink’s, “A Whole New Mind.”  The chapter on “Story” is a refreshing look at how we must all learn to convey meaning through story.  It is my hope that I inspire students to do the same, through words, but more artistically, through music.

What are your favorite stories to tell?  Do you consider yourself a good storyteller?  In your opinion, is storytelling a skill or an art? 

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