Storytelling as Pedagogy

By Phillips, Louise | Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Storytelling as Pedagogy

Phillips, Louise, Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

The term storytelling is used broadly and there are many varying interpretations of what it means. In arguing a case for storytelling as pedagogy I refer to the oral art form where a teller performs a story with a live audience. In this understanding there is no book present to separate the relationship between the teller and the listener. The storyteller holds the story in her mind and uses words and gesture to bring the story alive before the listeners. Listeners can connect with the characters and accompany the teller on the journey of experience, then emerge with new insight and understandings.

The relationship with others is at the core of live oral storytelling. It is not a lone experience; there must be tellers and listeners. In education this cultivates relationality and learning communities. The involvement of others is necessary for meaning. Benjamin (1955/1999), Arendt (1958/1998) and Kristeva (2001) all claim that in storytelling, meaning rests with the listeners. Benjamin distinguishes the experience of meaning-making in storytelling from reading, explaining that story is consumed collectively, whereas a novel is devoured selfishly. Storytelling has the capacity to activate plurality of possible meanings that multiplies significance, yet resists closure, as 'storytelling reveals meaning without the error of defining it' (Arendt, 1970, p. 105). Listeners create meanings applicable to their lives and experiences. The nature of story and storytelling thus allows listeners to form multiple possible meanings.

Further to this idea of multiplicity of meanings, Fisher (1987) claimed that no story is not embedded in other stories and the meaning and merit of a story is determined through its positioning against other stories. This shared experience of meaning-making is heightened in the collective context of live oral storytelling as opposed to the individual experience of story through print text or new media technologies.

Storytelling in education

There is a strong tradition of oral storytelling as education across history, as tellers came from all sectors of society and told purposeful and functional stories that fitted with their situation (Zipes, 1995). Stories 'were disseminated to instruct, warn, satirise, amuse, parody, preach, question, illustrate, explain, and enjoy'(p. 20). The intent of meaning depended on the teller and the situation. This tradition of oral storytelling for educational purposes occurred and continues to occur across cultures according to cultural genres and values (Kramsch, 1998).

The use of storytelling as an engaging and meaningful teaching methodology is most notable in the work of Egan (1986, 1997, 2005), who proposed that teachers approach a unit of learning as a story to be told. He built his argument on the notion that 'children's imaginations are the post powerful and energetic learning tools' (p. 2) and that stories engage children's imaginations. Though few teachers have embraced storytelling as pedagogy, what draws in those who do is what Kuyvenhoven (2005) referred to as the 'listener's hush' (p. 34): those moments when listeners are completely entranced by the ability of the storyteller to bring the story alive. I too recall that moment when I first told a story to a class as a student teacher, and the gaze of the entire class transfixed upon me, well, not my physicality but rather the imagery of the story that my words and gestures painted before them. This effect tells teachers that the students are engaged as listeners and learners. Yet this is not the primary rationale for storytelling teachers to embrace storytelling in their teaching practice. The listener's hush may account for the change to storytelling teaching, but it is the deep connection and pleasure of being together through storytelling that truly converts teachers to be storytelling teachers (Kuyvenhoven).

Four motifs of storytelling as pedagogy

In my own practice as a storytelling teacher, I have identified four motifs as key elements to the workings of storytelling as pedagogy. …

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