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Storytelling in Learning by Julian Stodd

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We use stories everyday: to communicate, to establish commonality, to learn. They are effective packages of knowledge within a context, easily formed, easily shared, but do we really understand how they work?

In this collection of three articles from my Learning blog, i explore three facets of Storytelling. First, i ask how stories work, then go on to look at narrative, before finally sharing a story about learning.

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Storytelling in Learning by Julian Stodd

  1. 1. 24 APRIL 2014 www.julianstodd.wordpress.com © JULIAN STODD How do stories work? I'm just back from a weekend in the Netherlands, which included a visit to Efterling, one of the world's oldest theme parks and home to the Enchanted Forest. As the name suggests, it's a woodland setting for a range of set piece dioramas, illustrating many classic fairytales. For example, there's a real castle for Sleeping Beauty, where you can climb to the tower to see her sleeping and follow the sound of snoring to the guard slumbering beneath a tree. It's a combination of the old fashioned, dioramas and simple animatronics, rambling architecture, and modern !1 A collection of stories about stories HOW DO STORIES WORK? EXPLORING NARRATIVE REFLECTING ON STORIES 100 YRS OF LEARNING Stories hold knowledge: they are effective methods of sharing key information and ideas. But do we truly understand how they work? STORYTELLING
  2. 2. 24 APRIL 2014 www.julianstodd.wordpress.com © JULIAN STODD video projection. Despite a poor grasp of Dutch, the stories were mainly well known to me: fairytales straddle cultural boundaries between countries, addressing as they do some common subjects and challenges, so whilst the names may vary as does the exact makeup of the fantasy pantheon, the stories are recognisable. Stories serve many functions: they can provide warnings of the danger of straying far from home, the importance of honesty, the value of humility or the need to be brave. They can celebrate heroism, or help us come to terms with the unknown. Stories are not inherently truthful, but they may hold truth within them, albeit from one particular viewpoint or stance. They're certainly contextual, as we see with older stories that may have lost their political or social context and hence, to large extent, their meaning. For example, one diorama shows the 'Little Match Girl', who we see out on the street in the winter, huddled in the snow, selling matches to make a living. In the diorama, as she lights a match, we see scenes from her life played out in the smoke, until the final match goes out. At that point, a ghostly figure comes down and we see her soul leave, to be reunited with her mother as both head up, presumably to heaven. Happy ending or damning social comment on neglect and a child freezing to death? On one reading, a salve for guilty conscience: don't worry that we didn't make her life better, at least she was saved in the end. Or a story to reassure young children that they will never be alone, even in their darkest hour? One could view this story as Christian propaganda, or as a call to arms for social reform. Maybe it was intended in one context and subverted for another, maybe it's lost it's context and now has a new, socially derived one? Stories may serve a purpose that we intend for them, or another, entirely different one, which is emergent as situations change: we see this with photographs, which can be repurposed, cropped, contextualised or, indeed, edited, changing their meaning, altering their story. Recently one of the UK daily papers ran a story about food banks, alongside a picture of a child crying. A sad story. But the photograph was actually a stock image of a girl who was sad because her pet earthworm had died: her grief had been appropriated for a different story. A lie? An illustration? Depends what the purpose of the story was in this case: social commentary, or factual news. And was everyone clear about which purpose it served? Stories sit at the heart of learning, providing context for our narratives and building shared understanding. They are !2 Stories can be told in many ways They need authenticity if they are going to be amplified. We can use words, pictures, audio and video, painting, graffiti or music, but unless our style and stance are well thought out, nobody will hear them. Social Leaders need to be great storytellers.
  3. 3. 24 APRIL 2014 www.julianstodd.wordpress.com © JULIAN STODD convenient packages for information and support the creation of meaning. Social leaders need to be great storytellers, but they need to understand the power of stories before they can use them. To blunder into the world of stories without recognising their power and independence can be risky. Take Quantas, who tried to tell a story of 'first class moments' only to have their story appropriated by irked passengers experiencing epic delays. You can write a story and tell it, but can you ever really own it? Once stories are told and retold, they take a life of their own. Terry Pratchett refers to his fictional element 'narrativium', the stuff of stories, and he may be onto something. Once we recognise we are within a storytelling context, we adapt our interpretation accordingly. Indeed, this is the basis of the misunderstanding (or misdirection) in the newspaper story i related earlier: telling a story in one was whilst the audience had a different context). I guess the function of stories is as varied as the functions to which we put them: they are adaptable and subversive, they lack ownership or accountability as, by their nature, they can be fictional or factual (or somewhere in between...). And, true to the best communication theory, story told may well not be story received. Whilst we may not be able to understand or master every story, the skills of the storyteller nevertheless sit within social leadership, and with good cause: it's hard to be effective without an ability to shape and share stories. In the evening, there was a storytelling character at the theme park: a wizened old man with flowing beard, cloak and staff, all iconic storytelling artefacts and traits of wisdom earned through age and experience. Children gathered in rapt fascination on low benches as he told them stories, leaning in and getting quieter at times, so that they leant in too, then bellowing and leaning back, banging his staff on the ground to make them jump at the resolution of a particular thread or chapter. All of this i understood, without even understanding more than a few words of the language. The visual and aural techniques of storytelling transcend the stories themselves (a theme i explore much more around music and learning). The authenticity of the storyteller depends to a large extent upon their mastery of these techniques: a great story told in the wrong style may lose impact. There's more than words to stories, just as there's more than notes and lyrics to a great song. There is passion and purpose, intent and energy. Storytelling is a co-creative process, a dance between audience, author and the story itself, which writhes and twists between their respective grasps, searching for it's meaning, finding it's purpose. Narrative Stories are special: we relate to them emotionally, directly, we feel and hear them with our hearts and souls. Stories engage us in ways that elude straight facts. The very process of communication involves stories that we fashion and shape according to our audience: choosing how to narrate them, the speed to tell them, the very words we use and the inflexion we deliver them with. Written stories, oral histories, organisational narratives, stories of joy, loss or love, they reach out to us across the media. I want to think about narratives and how we use them in learning. It’s a term that i throw around widely: building personal narratives, co-creating group narratives, developing organisational narratives, so i thought it was about time to take some space to explore the concept in more detail! !3
  4. 4. 24 APRIL 2014 www.julianstodd.wordpress.com © JULIAN STODD For me, the narrative is the underlying story: it’s the structure of the tales that we tell and we use it in learning in various ways. Organisations shape a specific narrative around a particular topic and, once it’s clear, we build learning experiences that are anchored around it. individual learners build narratives around learning: exploring as they develop their own language and understanding and relate it back to their everyday reality. Communities co-create a narrative, drawing upon each others experience and understanding to create meaning, to build a shared story and to share it. Developing vocabulary Learning is not about parroting what i know and say: it’s about building your own underlying foundational concepts and creating a vocabulary (of words and actions) that are your own, that overlay the meaning. It’s about making it real for yourself and taking action as a result. Learning is about change, but that change is personal, evidenced by your ability to think differently, do things differently, act differently. As we learn, we develop our vocabulary around a subject, we find ways of explaining ourselves, honed by misunderstanding and mistakes, shaped into the stories that we tell. It’s about practice and feedback and the footsteps that we take out of formal learning. co-creating meaning !4
  5. 5. 24 APRIL 2014 www.julianstodd.wordpress.com © JULIAN STODD But learning is not only an individual activity: we create meaning ourselves, but in the Social Age of learning, we come together in communities and, in those communities, we co-create meaning. Meaning is one step beyond pure knowledge: it’s about our agility, our ability to assimilate multiple sources of knowledge and to create meaning from that, to take transformative action as a result. The co-creation of meaning is the building of a shared narrative, in practice, this is often the outcome of the dialogue within forum spaces. To really gain value from this, we need to take the right stance on moderation, with the moderator often literally documenting the co-created narrative. Personalising learning The process of writing a personal learning narrative is about taking the learning and making it your own. In practical terms, this may be done through blogging, through a learning diary, through structured tools to create a personal narrative. It doesn’t particularly require the support of the organisation, but it’s valuable to know that there is a safe space to do this (often an informal or semi formal space, like a personal blog or diary). There is no assessment of narrative, although a learning logbook may form part of a formal learning experience. Narrative is about taking ownership of the learning, it’s a highly practical activity and, in some ways, the onus is on the organisation to relinquish control of the messages and recognise that, once the learning is out there, it’s owned by the community, by individuals, telling their own stories around it. Building tribal knowledge There is organisational value in learning narratives, helping to build tribal knowledge: the informal knowledge that resides within communities. If we use the right technologies, as well as the right methods of engagement with learners, we can capture and share these. We can start to view learning narratives as the building blocks that support organisational culture and that can start to inform future cohorts of learners. Sharing Inherent in learning is sharing: it’s a key trait of a Social Leader, to find, filter and share knowledge and the stories that surround it, as well as for individuals trying to build reputation. Reputation, in the Social Age, subverts hierarchies, subverts positional power and authority and travels with us from job to job, throughout our lives. The narratives that we build form part of this, they help shape and cement our reputation, snapshots of our learning along the journey. Crucially, learning narratives are not our magnum opus, they do not need to stand forever: when i look back through the narratives i’ve created through the blog, the earliest ones are virtually unrecognisable to me. They let me chart my own progress and thinking, i can literally see where and how i’ve changed along the way. Legacy All of this forms part of our personal legacy: can you remember what you were doing today, last year? If i look back through my learning narrative, i can at least see what i was thinking about then! Personal and community narratives help us to track our progress and learning, they let us chart our change. !5
  6. 6. 24 APRIL 2014 www.julianstodd.wordpress.com © JULIAN STODD Narrative are important: stories about our learning, individually or community co-created. Organisational narratives bring us together, let us see how change has affected us, over time. The use of narratives in learning is important: stories are so important to us that the ways we create and share them are significant, not only to engage us but also as part of our own learning and change. What you can do: 1. Try to incorporate the use of personal narratives within a learning project 2. Think about how you narrate your own learning, and whether you can chart progress over time. 3. Consider how and where you co-create meaning: where are your communities? Questions for organisations: 1. How does your organisation use narratives? 2. Do your communities draw out shared narratives, or are they lost in the flow? 3. Where is the legacy? Reflecting on stories: a century of learning It was in one of the breaks in the rain that i settled in the cafe. Built into the old Town Hall, it sat in the market square of a typical medieval rural English town. Large windows in the formerly open arches looked out over the dappled cobbles to the row of shops: a bookshop, opticians, traditional butchers. In the cafe there were just a few of us sat around, reading, talking, thinking and listening. And Eve. In the corner, alert and talkative, sat Eve, ninety eight years old and bright as a button. The Town Hall had been built in 1540, whilst Eve had arrived in 1914, just at the start of the First World War. In fact, she had been born barely thirty feet from where she now sat, in a house that still stood alongside the market square. Eve talked and everyone else listened. Why? Because her stories were captivating, relevant, alive and told like they had happened yesterday. The house that stands today, with it’s satellite dish and pretty curtains used to be divided in two. It was divided in two in 1940 when, at the age of 26, the Second World War came to town. Bombers returning to the coast who had failed to find their targets would jettison their bombs over Eve. The first time the windows were blown out at the back, her mother just swept up the glass and didn’t complain. The second time she fretted and at the third she had the window bricked up. It was only supposed to stay that way till the end of the war, although it’s still closed up now and, i suspect, would require extensive planning permission to re open. Fortunately, Eve slept on the other side of the house, although that didn’t save her when she woke up one morning to find the whole rear wall of the bedroom had gone. !6
  7. 7. 24 APRIL 2014 www.julianstodd.wordpress.com © JULIAN STODD And as we sat in the sun, watching the last traces of rain drip from the trees, Eve told the story of the row of houses at the top of the Market square. ‘What houses’, asked one of the waitresses, indicating the empty space. In 1941 when the bombs had dropped there, all six houses had disappeared, although thankfully only one was occupied. A granny, her daughter and a young boy, who she described as having played in the village. The tragedy that the whole family had moved down from London to be safe from the bombs. She described how everyone had cried, how the town had come together in sorrow at the loss of one little boys life. It was with real compassion that she described the rationing, the fear, the noises, expressing how terrible it had been and the hatred and fear of the Germans. But then going on to say how we were doing the same things to them, how scared they must have been. “If only they could have got together”, she said, “think how many lives could have been saved”. Reflection and the passage of time taking us away from the sounds of bombs and tears shed for a small boy, to a place where the stories became something to remember, but to wish that people had had more wisdom, maybe a hope that we had learnt from it all. As her stories travelled through the decades, gathering moss like the building we sat in, she talked about her own journey, the things she had learnt, through to the present day, describing how she came out every weekend to sit in the cafe, seeing some old friends, talking to different people. “You have to make a life for yourself” were her parting words. I felt a great sense of continuity sat there for probably forty five minutes, just listening. Her friend opposite, the elderly man with his teenage grand daughter, the waitresses, different people from the town as well as visitors. Everyone caught up in the stories, fielding questions, listening to the story told as we sat on the very stage where it took place. Against the pace of change that whips around us, against the frenetic activity to adopt new things, the move, to expand, to break down our horizons, it was a curiously miniature drama, but one told with great clarity and compassion. Captivating and relevant to the place it was told. What i learnt from it? The power of stories, the congruence of place and tale, the need to make a life for yourself, to take ownership and not expect it to drop into your lap. And the sense of calm, of community and of sunshine on the cobbles and the brightness of the stones that had stood there for five hundred years. Find out more... www.julianstodd.wordpress.com This collection of three stories comes from my blog about learning. Head on over to find more stories about storytelling and learning. !7