I was startled to have my pre-conceptions about the importance of narrative as a teaching tool challenged by a re-reading of Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed‘. Here Freire states that ‘Education is suffering from narration sickness’.

I have long believed that the most effective teachers are those who can tell a good story. Embedding complex ideas and concepts into a narrative framework enables youngsters to contextualise and move from situated to symbolic learning.

Everything is a tale: what we believe, what we know, what we remember, even what we dream. Everything is a story, a narrative, a sequence of events with characters communicating an emotional content. We only accept as true what can be narrated.

Fables teach us that human beings can absorb ideas and concepts through narrative, through stories, not through lessons or theoretical speeches. Characters must confront life and overcome obstacles, figures setting off on a journey of enrichment through exploits and revelations.

However, Freire claims that the story-teller is taking control and encouraging passivity in her listeners. The fundamentally narrative character of the teacher-student relationship ‘involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening Objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified’.

If ‘the teacher’s task is to “fill” the students with the contents of his narration — contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance’ then of course this eminent commentator is right. But I disagree that ‘the outstanding characteristic of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power’.

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) does not have to

lead the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content’ turning them ‘into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher.

This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

Freire’s book was published in 1968 and it describes education as it was then. Freire goes on to say that ‘knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry, human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other’. I vividly recall the excitement with which we read ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ as student teachers soon after it was translated into English and the attempts we made to make learning more relevant, contextualised and fun for our pupils than it had been for us.

And how much better we have become since then. And I still believe that narrative is the basis of most good teaching.

The case for story-telling in education is powerfully made by Pat Kane in his report of a visit to a school in New York where computer games form the basis of everything that’s taught. He describes the school’s response to ’20 years of debate about how educators should respond to the gaming revolution’ where “highly immersive” learning experiences are created.

The pupils move through the curriculum by means of 10-week “missions” – scenarios in which they have a problem to solve, and take on dramatic roles (explorer, scientist, investigator, for example) to do so. .. Pupils here are “finding relevant resources, doing mathematical calculations, reading and analysing texts, designing tools, repairing broken systems, creating models, doing scientific experiments, building games, or a host of other activities”.

These missions are richly narrated and imagined. In The Way Things Work – a science-maths curriculum “domain” (a themed area of the curriculum), a video will be disrupted by the appearance of the Troggles, small creatures which like to invent things (but are terrible at it), and who leave mysterious packages of materials and messages around the school that the pupils have to piece together.

Thus, ‘the solution is not to “integrate” them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves.”’

A recent example appears in LTS’ Connected magazine (not online yet): Science being taught through an interdisciplinary approach with a project based in the study of castles. The emphasis was on alchemy in the Dark Ages:

With the teacher writing letters from the King of the castle and setting the children a series of science-based challenges, including cleaning old coins in different liquids and examining tooth enamel erosion and blood types of mythical creatures, it’s little wonder that the pupils were fully engaged.

These examples beautifully illustrate Freire’s point that,

liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. .. Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world …

Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation.

Problem-posing education affirms [learners] as beings in the process of becoming.

So the narrative becomes a point of departure, affirming learners as ‘beings who transcend themselves, who move forward and look ahead, for whom immobility represents a fatal threat, for whom looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future’.

I’ll continue to tell my stories and try not to let my own interpretations get in the way of real learning.