Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Levels of storytelling, Part 1
   Everyday stories

Early in the twentieth century, William Graham Sumner in Folkways pointed out that stories such as Bud Cheff’s a person learns “what conduct is approved or disapproved; what kind of man is admired most; how he ought to behave in all kinds of cases; and what he ought to believe and respect.” He reminds us that “all this constitutes . . . the most essential and important education.”

This level of everyday narration may be thought of as a first level of storytelling. It goes on among us almost without pause. If the values we express in this level of narration aren’t consistent with what we say we believe and want, then we probably aren’t going where we think are.

Teachers who complain about administrators, for example, but also claim that students should respect their authority are, at best, incoherent. To get a grasp on what a school actually teaches, as opposed to what it merely espouses, visit the teachers’ lounge and listen to the stories teachers are telling about students, parents, and administrators. This will give you a better guide to a school’s moral intelligence and purpose than whatever is said in character classes or board meetings.

We educate mostly through stories whether intentionally or not. We could no more avoid it than we could avoid breathing. Even if we decided to avoid stories and to stick to analyses and explanations and the conveyance of facts stripped of narrative context–well, that decision and its consequences would become our story. Doctoral students in physics learn to be physicists partly through rigorous course work that can seem quite far from narrative, but looking closer we see that must of what they learn about thinking like physicists they learn by telling and hearing stories about study strategies they used and how they worked, shortcuts other physicists attempted and the consequences that followed, experiments that led to success or failure, behavior that led to good jobs or lost jobs, grant proposals that found sponsors and those that did not, and so on.

My point is not that we should illustrate this or that point by telling anecdotes, though that may not be a bad idea. Rather, it’s that since we can’t avoid becoming stories we should pay conscious attention to those stories. Schools–like persons, families, and communities–are networks of stories, including the everyday stories teachers create in the process of taking attendance and getting classes started, handling routine classroom discipline, approving or disapproving student requests, intervening in conflicts, and so on.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/04 at 06:46 AM
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© 2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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