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Educating with storytelling: the oldest new trick in the book

New text this week! There’s still a lot I have to digest (and re-read) in Spiro and Alexander’s NITLE paper, but for the moment I’m moving on to Bryan Alexander’s book The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. I’m delighted to have such a specific resource at my disposal; it’s especially pertinent to the way I want to frame this independent study through my experiences with ds106, a class that’s focused on the practice and analysis of storytelling, digitally and otherwise. And if it seems like I’m focusing a lot of my time on Alexander’s work, it’s because I am. Not only is his writing directly applicable to my project, it was his lecture on “The Visible College” that made me realize I had to pursue this new media thing more seriously. (Kudos, sir!)

I’ve skipped ahead to chapter 14, “Digital Storytelling in Education.” Toward the end of this post I’m also going to try and pull in a bit more about the “make useful stuff” educational model I’ve been talking about. I’ve just discovered the University of Lincoln’s Student as Producer initiative, which is basically my last two blog posts put into practice across a whole university. So awesome!

Digital storytelling in education is one of the most awesome education initiatives I’ve ever come across. Of course it doesn’t work for every student, or even every teacher, so for storytelling to be employed successfully it has to be chosen after careful consideration of the classroom environment, course content, and the educator’s teaching style. For me, teaching through storytelling seems so brilliant and obvious that going into why it’s awesome feels a bit superfluous. Instead I’m going to focus on how and why this approach sometimes fails, because analyzing those failures might help to illuminate a larger picture here.

Like Alexander mentions in his book, teaching with and through stories is nothing new. We process much of the information that we receive on a daily basis in the form of a story, so it makes sense for that method of communication to extend into the classroom. One of the greatest examples of classroom storytelling I’ve ever seen was in my freshman year of high school. Our history teacher was explaining a particularly intense battle during, I believe, the Greco-Persian wars, and went so far as to act out the battle as he was talking about it. Our entire class was enthralled; there may have been applause at the end.

At the other end of the spectrum was the last Spanish class I took at UMW. For one of our group projects, we were tasked with creating a scene in Spanish, the general theme of which was chosen by the instructor, writing a script for it and acting it out in front of the class. I’d done this assignment in previous Spanish classes, and it was always executed with varying degrees of success. As in every other instance, the students with an aptitude for language became more adept, the students who were less skilled squeaked by and became more frustrated. The professor was not involved in the way we created our scenes, in the how or why of our storytelling; there was very little investment from behind the podium, and the performance of the class clearly reflected that.

I think it’s notable that the one time I recall this assignment working, in the sense that it was rewarding to complete and helped me to better understand the content, was again in high school when we were asked to shoot a video instead of simply performing the scene. Even though my Spanish has always been pathetic, the familiarity I had with the medium made me more confident, less stressed, and made the content easier to learn.

In both of these cases, it’s clear that instructor involvement is crucial to making a story-based lesson work. It seems obvious, but in a lot of what I’m reading the passion and investment of instructors in the delivery of this model of teaching is understated or omitted. For students to fully commit to, and understand the full potential of, story-based learning, the instructor has to commit first. If a teacher can’t convey why storytelling is important to the classroom, or show their class how that storytelling can be an effective learning tool for the students themselves, those students will probably approach the assignment superficially.

This is where I call out my fellow students and our failure to see beyond an assignment we don’t immediately see the value of.

One of the major roadblocks I’ve seen my fellow students stumble on when professors try and integrate tech and storytelling into the classroom is that story-driven assignments are seen as trivial, lacking direct relevance to the course’s content or being overly complicated because of the creativity and complexity involved. Especially at the high school level,this is because rote memorization and testing (standardized and otherwise) are the norms, and as students we’re taught to value those methods above all else. If you can’t score a 450 on your SATs or a 5 on the Advanced Placement environmental science exam, your brilliant webcomic isn’t going to make up the difference. While there are plenty of students who jump on the opportunity to complete a more creative, story-based project, especially if it involves some kind of digital media, it’s rarely without the feeling that such an assignment is only a short break from the “real” work of endless memorization and tests.

Granted, the lament that high test scores are valued more than the ability to think in complex, creative, big-picture ways is nearly as old as storytelling itself, and there are plenty of educators, administrators, and even students fighting to embrace a more creative model. I personally believe both are necessary, and in a perfect world rote test-taking and creative story-based learning could support and enhance each other.

One place where that might be happening in real time is the University of Lincoln’s Student as Producer initiative. While not focused on digital storytelling specifically, the aim of the project is to reestablish the relationship between student and professor so that students can craft their own meaningful research. The website’s “Project Proposal” section state the following:

The purpose of the Student as Producer project is to establish research-engaged teaching and learning as an institutional priority at the University of Lincoln. This means that research-engaged teaching and learning will become the dominant paradigm for all aspects of curriculum design and delivery, and the central pedagogical principle that informs other aspects of the University of Lincoln’s strategic planning.

The success or failure of such programs can’t fail to have an impact on the way we see education as a whole, and, if we’re lucky, we’ll be seeing many more initiatives like this one in the future.

Next week, just to remind myself, I’m going to look at ds106 specifically in the context of Alexander’s work, and will be dipping back into the NITLE paper I was looking at over the last few posts to do so.

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