Stories and shared experience: the basis of learning

“I make Math into a story, it’s as simple as that.” – A colleague, teacher of forty years, on why he, and his subject, are beloved by his students. 

“What we share becomes the context of the shared narrative. Becomes the context in which we live. The stories what we tell, what we push out, becomes who we are.”Renny Gleeson

Community is something I hold to be essential – and learning communities have proven vital for teacher growth and student learning.  In fact, the culture of a learning environment is one of the most important determinants of the success of the individuals and the institution. I hope this blog will be a nexus for the kind of community I want my students to grow within, that I want to evolve through as an educator, that I desire to participate in with parents and colleagues, and that I want my son to join as he grows.

As human beings, we create meaning of our lives through story and dialogue. But not according to the Common Core Standards apologists, who, for literacy standards, have come up with the ratio 80%/20%: students should read and compose non-fiction 80% of the time, and other genres (including fiction, poetry, and drama) should be relegated to whatever time remains. In fact, CCS “Architect” David Coleman has gone further, baldly stating that when students go into the work world, “no one gives a shit about how you feel.” (Watch the video from about 8:45-10:00 for the full context of the quote.)

One of the field’s foremost educational psychologists for the past several decades, Jerome Bruner, still wonders about cultural resistance to admitting the power of narrative in education — despite its crucial role in our historical human drive to create meaning.  In this passage from a 2007 interview, it seems as if he is speaking directly to the indulgently dismissive Coleman:

“Why are we so intellectually dismissive towards narrative?” he asks. “Why are we inclined to treat it as rather a trashy, if entertaining, way of thinking about and talking about what we do with our minds? Storytelling performs the dual cultural functions of making the strange familiar and ourselves private and distinctive. If pupils are encouraged to think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances, they are demonstrating useability of knowledge about a subject. Rather than just retaining knowledge and facts, they go beyond them to use their imaginations to think about other outcomes, as they don’t need the completion of a logical argument to understand a story. This helps them to think about facing the future, and it stimulates the teacher too.” (Full interview)

In the last sentence, Bruner makes a gesture toward something he’s researched and argued for decades: human beings as individuals, and human beings together in cultures, create meaning primarily through narrative – not through argument.

Narratives take all shapes and forms, and not all are created equal. But from the narratives we consume, we make meaning of our lives.  Flip on the TV, and you’ll see it everywhere, no matter what your stripe. Situation dramas, situation comedies, sports games and sports news, and even reality television and soap operas allow us to witness a life from the outside, giving us the opportunity to witness others making meaning.  And, apparently, we crave these stories. Perhaps they help us to understand our lives as they are – or perhaps they allow us a new reference point from which to re-envision our present and our future.

But I do not believe that even the most frivolous reality TV drama is devoid of a use. Bruner once wrote:

“Our sense of the normative is nourished in narrative, but so is our sense of breach and of exception.”  (Acts of Meaning, 97)

In essence, we learn from stories not only how to be, but what not to be; and, more importantly, from them we begin to consider how to become.

In high school classrooms across disciplines, students and teachers alike create and share stories as a mode of building understanding. A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a math teacher colleague; he is a veteran of forty years, retiring at the close of this one. He is revered by students and faculty alike because he is a superlative teacher. Frustrated by recent changes to our school curriculum, I asked him what he thought about the historic shifts of curricula and education policy. Not one to linger long on critique of that which he doesn’t have control, he shared two things with me: one that allowed him to survive for forty years, and one that allows his kids to survive – no, thrive—through trig, pre-calc, and calculus. “The kids stay the same. I shut the classroom door and teach the way I want to, and the kids learn. That has never changed.”

But that isn’t the whole story. As you can tell from his words, these 40 years of teaching  aren’t about breaching the normative for the joy of rebellion. He always has student learning as his highest priority, and for this they love him and all that comes with him:  thick-paned glasses, half-dozen pens in his shirt pocket, his unabashed passion for math, and his essential hope for their long-term success.

How does he do it?

“I make Math into a story, it’s as simple as that.”

There’s a sequence of events – this leads to that leads to that and so on. And students are engaged in a process across an expanse of time, discovering how something works alongside someone who cares; who they connect with; who can share a narrative in numbers. They are learning, deeply, and more than just math — even if they aren’t engaged in constructing arguments that their culture, current policy wonks tell us, demands of them in order to be successful.

My colleague and his students shut the door; they tell stories; and, together, they create a culture of learning.

This is what community looks like.

This is the world of learning that I want my students, and my son, to inhabit. This is what I want to learn.

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About chrismazura

Born into the family business: education. Teacher of journalism and writing for new media. PhD student. Runner. Meditation instructor. Lover of cookies.
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