Engagement, Policy

Learning from Stories, Stories of Learning

Several years ago, after a lecture I gave on research methods to first year undergraduates, a member of class came up to me. The woman, considerably older than me and from the Carribean, asked if we could have a quick word. I agreed, and asked her if she would like to go to my office. No, she assured me, that wouldn’t be necessary; hers would be a quick inquiry, and we could stay in the classroom where we were. As the other students emptied out of the room, we pulled two chairs aside, and I asked her what I could help her with. She looked me straight in the eye, and then asked me “Where does confidence come from?” Having expected a question of an informational nature – what was the word length for the essay, or how could one access particular resources in the library – I was rather taken aback. What a question. How could I respond to her, in a way that would be both useful to her, and honest?

We spoke for some time – about her life before she had moved to Britain, her decision to come to university, and her tremendous difficulty in translating her life experiences into an academic framework. Still, she pushed for an answer. In the end, what I offered her was this: for me, at least, self-confidence comes from knowing what you know. There is something very fundamental about validating one’s own life experiences, regarding them as a legitimate source of knowledge, all the while recognizing the inevitable limitations of what we know personally, and even what can be known. When we become familiar with the rock upon which we ourselves stand, a secure footing can afford us a sense of orientation to the world around and beyond us. In the intervening years, I have thought back to this conversation, and believe that it encapsulates for me much of my philosophy of teaching and learning. In the context of formal education, students are often positioned as if they know nothing; it is, however, our task as teachers to resist this construction. Rather, we must communicate to those with whom we are entrusted that what they bring to the table is of value, and show them how what they know can be used as a basis for intellectual exploration.

In this article, I will discuss the importance of bringing lived experience into the classroom, and why and how this is a cornerstone of the teaching I have done for many years. Teaching is most effective, I believe, when students come to feel that the subject matter is worth caring about, that it has something to do not only with the world around them, but with their own lives. And so it is that I structure my teaching in such a way that there is room for personal storytelling. It is my contention that learning with and through narratives is a very effective tool for bringing people into discussions who might otherwise be excluded. If we believe, as I do, that stories are vital to who we are, and how we are in the world, that they change over time, and that they are both unique and culturally inscripted, then it follows that these stories have a great potential for bridge building, for making vital connections between individuals and the world of ideas. We know that personal stories – narratives – are always told from the perspective of the present and that the past is being continually rewritten in line with understandings anchored in the present and looking out towards the future. As such, they serve as a key for unlocking an oftentimes blocked door to making sense.

Stories do not come out of nowhere, nor do they simply represent an experience or an event as it actually happened. Rather they are always a representation of that, and as such are a very rich means for accessing inner truths – those ideas, beliefs, and commitments that an individual holds dear. When thinking about the relationship between selves and stories, a number of key questions emerge:

  • Who tells their stories? Who remains silent? Who do they tell their stories to? Who are the main characters in the stories? Who is absent, but was present? Who drives the motion of the story? Who has power and how is it negotiated?
  • What stories do we tell? How do students decide which experiences of theirs they are willing to bring into the classroom and why? Which stories must forever stay outside the gates of the school, or university?
  • Where does the story take place? Where is it recounted? How similar or different are these worlds?
  • When do the stories start, and critically, where do they end? How does this construction help to create the very point of the story?
  • Why is this story being told? What is its strategic function for the speaker?
  • How is the story interpreted? By the speaker? By the listeners?

As teachers, we must demonstrate to our students that we think we have something to learn from them, as well as some knowledge and skills to impart.

Paulo Freire has emphasised that real learning can only happen in the classroom when teachers have a sense of the world in which their students live:

Educators need to know what happens in the world of the [students] with whom they work. They need to know the universe of their dreams, the language with which they skillfully defend themselves from the aggressiveness of their world, what they know independently of the school, and how they know it.[1]

Becoming genuinely acquainted with the worlds of our students – both real, as they are lived, and imagined, including their dreams and their greatest fears – is a very demanding and dynamic project. As teachers, we must demonstrate to our students that we think we have something to learn from them, as well as some knowledge and skills to impart. Again, quoting Friere, “…teaching cannot be a process of transference of knowledge from the one teaching to the learner. …Learning is a process where knowledge is presented to us, then shaped through understanding, discussion and reflection.”[2] We work up information, including the facts of our existence, into knowledge, much as a potter uses clay as her material which will be made into a piece of ceramics. Ideally, this process of transforming information into knowledge is what we as teachers help to foster in our classrooms.

Teaching which is built upon the importance of personal experience requires:

  • An acute appreciation and acknowledgement of the importance of positioning: of the student, of the teacher, of the topic. All knowledge is situated – “there is no view from nowhere”[3] – and the acquisition of knowledge is a fundamentally dynamic task. Recognizing that knowledge bases are created and built up from particular positions, the classroom must be a space that uses, rather than resists, this locality. Moreover, questions of teaching “marginalized youth” inevitably invite questions of boundaries: marginal to what/to whom? How are the categories of insider and outsider created and sustained in education? What can we do within our classrooms to make those boundaries more fluid, to shift the eyes of the beholder?
  • Demonstrating that what is to be studied actually matters. It is not sufficient to assume that students will engage with the subject matter simply because not to do so will result in poor performance and ultimately negatively impact upon life opportunities. Rather, curiosity needs to be ignited, and this is true for both teachers and students. A teacher who has grown numb to her subject matter is not one who will ignite a flame of intellectual passion in others. Interest and enthusiasm are not always contagious, but they are often so.
  • Making connections between stories of the self and other stories, and ultimately to other forms of knowledge. While students’ personal experiences are an important starting point for intellectual engagement, it is essential that they come to appreciate that individual stories are never just individual. While we are all of us unique, we can at the same time extract from concrete particulars to wider questions of culture and social structure. As Rice contends, “The story of an individual life – and the coherence of individual identity – depends, for its very intelligibility, on the stories of collective identity that constitute a culture. … cultures and societies organize individual identity.”[4] Individual stories reveal far more than their particular content. They also serve as an indicator of that which the speaker regards as “tellable”, and are created as a response to perceptions of audience. Moreover, and critically, individual stories can serve as the engine to social change. Not only telling one’s stories, but hearing those of others, can be a critical moment in the awakening of a political consciousness, that is, realizing that one’s experiences are shared by others (and, by implication, might be at least partially a result of factors which extend beyond the self.) In this way, the cultivation of narrative knowledge can be a primary means for exploring the relationship between structure and agency.
  • An especially fine-tuned ear for listening beyond one’s own horizon of experience. Individuals tend to tell stories only when they feel they will be listened to. Deep listening is, as Erika Apfelbaum argues, a “risky business” for it requires individuals to entertain the possibility that the world is or can be a very different place from how they imagine it to be.[5] This is why a good teacher is someone who is endowed with a rich imagination, not only with regards to her subject matter, but also in her ability to enter the world of those she wishes to teach. She must be willing to accept the possibility of profound differences between her real lived experiences and those of her students, and to think creatively about how to bridge the chasm between those perspectives. Moreover, as Freire observes, “[B]y listening to and so learning to talk with learners, democratic teachers teach the learners to listen to them as well.”[6] The activities of listening and learning are integrally bound to one another and are demanded both of teachers and students in the transmission of knowledge.

A vital part of my job, as I see it, is to provide them with tools that will help them not only to understand their own lives as they are living them, but also to imagine other ways of being.

In virtually every class I teach, I try not only to create an atmosphere in which students feel they can talk about their experiences in relation to the topics we are discussing, but also to build into at least some of the assessments a role for reflections of a personal nature. I will give two examples of this here. The first comes from my class on political psychology, where the first assignment for the class is to write an essay on their own political psychology. The instructions read:

What are your political beliefs and where do they come from? Have these evolved over the course of your lifetime? What were the most significant influences on your political beliefs? How do these beliefs correspond to the actions in your daily life? What experiences have been most influential in forming your ideas, and why did you make sense of these experiences in the way(s) in which you did? What might have been another way of interpreting those critical experiences? What role did other individuals and/or groups play in the development of your political psychology? Using your own biography as a case study, examine how your experiences compare with a) the assigned readings b) outside readings c) class discussions and d) lectures. You will be assessed on your ability to apply key concepts and debates to your own life.

The second example comes from a class I teach on aging. Here, half of the course mark is based upon what I call an “intellectual journal”. For each week’s topic, I pose a number of questions that I ask students to respond to. The questions are rooted in the student’s life experiences, but they must relate these questions to other course materials, including readings, films, lectures, and class discussions. Sometimes the journal questions require students to do a short practical exercise. Here is an example of instructions for the entry of the second week of the course, when the topic for discussion is “the meaning of the category of age”:

Interview three people who are, from your point of view, “young” “middle-aged” and “old”. Find out what “age” means to the person with whom you are speaking. What is their chronological age and what, if anything, does this age mean to them? These conversations do not need to be recorded, but you should take notes during and afterwards. Following this, write in your journal about the meaning of age and aging.  How do your ideas compare with the people you interviewed? What is old? Are you old? What is the meaning of life in old age? In middle age? In youth? Moody (1991) suggests that we think about “life as a whole” and focus on “unity of human life.”[7] What aspects of your life help you to do this? What hinders you? Is this a desirable goal, and is it realizable?

In both of these examples, my intention is to establish that students are, in themselves, people who come to us with experiences and certain kinds of knowledge, and that those are a valid foundation on which to build other kinds of knowledge. A vital part of my job, as I see it, is to provide them with tools that will help them not only to understand their own lives as they are living them, but also to imagine other ways of being, and ultimately to see and understand new aspects of the world in which we live.

In preparation for writing this article, I spoke with Agazi Afewerki, whom I orginally met in Toronto in 2009, at the conference on Marginlized Youth and Contemporary Education Contexts. Agazi was one of the young people who was invited to tell the audience his story, how he had come up through the Pathways to Education programme (www.pathwayscanada.ca/home.html) , and had gone on to study first Business, and then Law. (He lives in London, England, where I teach.)

In our conversation, Agazi stressed time and again that the most important influence on his (highly successful) educational career was those teachers who had showed a real willingness to listen. Regardless of the subject matter, if teachers were able to create in the classroom space for students’ experiences to be validated – even if those experiences might not seem relevant – they fostered in the classroom an open, yet intellectually stimulating environment where real learning was possible. Much of what Agazi said echoed with my own experiences, both as a student and now as a teacher. That it is not always possible to create such an environment is obvious; but too often it is the educational system itself that gets in our way. With the emphasis on pre-established, transparent learning objectives, we become less and less flexible as we enter the classroom, less open to how we approach the topics we wish to teach, and less sensitive to how certain discussions may engage or silence our students.

In the pre-conference workshop in which presenters were invited to participate, we were asked to answer the question “What do you believe to be true but can’t substantiate?” I would like to conclude this essay with my response to this question, as scribbled on my workshop papers:

I believe that everyone is born with the potenial to be curious about the world around them and beyond. It is our job as educators to ignite that curiosity and to provide students with the skills to explore it. This creative act of making meaning (which includes but is not limited to investigating our own position in the world, and enhances the possibility of realizing our own potential) is one of the core activities that identify us as being human.

EN BREF – L’apprentissage à travers et au moyen de récits est un outil très efficace pour intégrer à des discussions des personnes qui pourraient autrement en être exclues. Si nous croyons que les récits sont vitaux à notre être, qu’ils changent avec le temps et qu’ils sont à la fois uniques et culturellement inscrits, il s’ensuit qu’ils comportent un potentiel considérable pour établir des liens vitaux entre les individus et le monde des idées. Un récit ne représente pas tout simplement une expérience telle qu’elle s’est déroulée. Plutôt, c’est toujours une représentation de celle-ci et, ainsi, un moyen très riche d’accéder aux idées, convictions et engagements auxquels tient quelqu’un. Il est très exigeant d’apprendre à vraiment connaître le monde – tant réel qu’imaginaire – de nos élèves. À titre d’enseignants, nous devons montrer que nous sommes ouverts à apprendre de nos élèves, comme nous avons à leur transmettre des connaissances et des compétences.

[1] P. Freire, (1998) Teachers as Cultural Workers – Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, translated by Donoldo Macedo, Dale Koike, and Alexandre Oliveira (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 72.

[2] Ibid., 22, 31.

[3] T. Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[4] J. S. Rice, “’Getting our Histories Straight’”: Culture, Narrative, and Identity in the Self-help Movement” in J. Davis, ed. Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002).

[5] E. Apfelbaum, “The Dread: An Essay on Communication Across Cultural Boundaries,” International Journal of Critical Psychology, no. 4 (2001): 19-35

[6] Friere, 65.

[7] H. Moody, “The Meaning of Life in Old Age” in N. Jecker, ed., Aging and Ethics: Philosophical Problems in Gerontology (New Jersey: Humana Press, 1991).

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