Academic journal article Education

Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool in Higher Education

Academic journal article Education

Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool in Higher Education

Article excerpt


In the earliest of times, prior to the advent of writing, storytelling was the only tool available by which individuals within their communities could preserve and share their heritage. Stories not only explained life and preserved history, but also ensured the continuity of experiences from one generation to the next. Civilizations survived because of storytelling.

The earliest reference to storytelling dates to 4000 B.C. and the Egyptian tales entitled "The Tales of the Magicians" (Sawyer, 1942). Stories were also utilized by the Romans, as well as the Gypsies, whose nomadic existence carried the tales far and wide. During the Medieval period, stories were related by troubadours who were welcomed in the courts and were in great demand at inns, where storytelling was used as a means of bringing together the lives of people, thus creating a sense of community and shared understanding. After the invention of the printing press in 1450, stories became more available in print. In the 19th century, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collected folk stories, researching ancient manuscripts and gathering stories from peasant storytellers. Followers of this tradition included Peter Christian Asbjornsen, Jorgen Moe, Joseph Jacobs, Andrew Lang, and Hans Christian Andersen (Baker, 1979).

In his article entitled "Memory, Imagination, and Learning: Connected by the Story", Kieran Egan (1989) points to the power of storytelling as the link to more meaningful learning, placing it within the historical context of oral cultures who couldn't write, but who could remember and repeat their stories. Egan writes: "If one could code the knowledge to be passed on and embed it in a story form, then it could be made more faithfully memorable than by any other means (p. 456). In addition, Lucien Levi-Bruhl (1985) believes that memory in oral cultures is extremely accurate and emotional, thus the permeation of events with emotion makes them more memorable. The technique developed in oral cultures for orienting emotions with events was the story. There is little doubt that the Story is a technical tool that has provided a measure of order and stability to human societies for countless millennia. It appears through a review of the literature that the story is one of the most important inventions of humankind (Egan, 1989).

Cognitive Processing in Storytelling

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "No generalization is worth a damn, including this one." Nothing could be more to the point when it comes to storytelling than the impact of specificity based on experience and the relating of those experiences to others in the form of storytelling. Understanding and explaining the world are critical aspects of intelligence which are deeply rooted in the comprehension of past events as they contribute to, and make understandable, the comprehension of new events. This is basically the essence of learning from the beginning of time to the present, whether in a formal or informal setting.

Storytelling is an important technique in the process of learning and understanding. Individuals gain a better understanding of one another through the use of concrete examples rather than through vague abstractions and generalizations which have no relationship to life's experiences, since the sharing of experiences through the device of storytelling enables individuals to build the bridge of understanding between one another. This facilitates commonality and the shared resonance of experiences. The story provides the framework and context for individuals to better understand others by providing the key to their own vast index of experiences. Thus, the listener is able to relate in a meaningful way to the teller's point of context by working through personal experiences that result in a more profound and lasting understanding than would have been possible with a generalization. The teller and the listener come together on a cognitive and emotional level that allows the listener to relate to the teller from his or her own personal framework and thus grasp the teller's perception of the content at the same time. …

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