David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Narrative in the Classroom

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The psychologist Jerome Bruner posited that there are two modes of thought. The first -- “paradigmatic” -- is the mode of science, of logically describing and explaining the world. It categorizes and conceptualizes, arranges in systems, and tests for empirical truth. It is fundamentally concerned with verifiability, with establishing the way things are.

The second is the “narrative” mode. By contrast, it makes sense of the world through stories, through the pursuit of meaning and the particular experience of human existence lived over time. It is concerned not with verifiability, but with verisimilitude; not with being right, but with feeling right.

A paradigmatic explanation proves; a narrative explanation illustrates.

All of us use both modes of thought all the time, although of course we may tend to favor one way or the other in explaining our world. As teachers, I think, we’re very good at using the paradigmatic mode. In teaching important concepts to our students, we lay out our case and show how ideas are related to one another. We distinguish between concepts that are similar but different in significant ways. The paradigmatic mode is an essential one for the classroom, an arena where misconceptions are corrected, where clarity is pursued, and where we strive to leave our students with an organized understanding of complex subjects.

I worry, though, that in our fervor to explain,we neglect the narrative approach. It’s important to remember that the two modes of thought complement one another, and work well in tandem. Much research in recent decades has suggested that narrative has powerful effects on our brains, helping us learn in ways that purely logical arguments cannot. As instructors, we should be looking for ways to make use of narrative in the classroom, both to reach those students who don’t think paradigmatically, but also to find another path to our learning goals.

Of course, the easiest way to bring narrative into the classroom is to tell stories. As I probably don’t need to say, stories are great attention-getters, and very effective at drawing students into a subject. Even personal stories can have powerful rhetorical effects for instructors, making students more likely to take an active role in the classroom.

So work to integrate storytelling into your lectures. Research the history of your discipline so you can tell the stories of great discoveries. Frame important concepts not just in terms of abstract ideas, but also in terms of the specific problems those concepts were introduced to solve. Create mysteries for your students: Present a problem and introduce protagonists in search of a solution. The essential engine of a narrative — “what’s going to happen next?” — is a great weapon in any teacher’s arsenal.

Telling stories can help our students learn, certainly. But research by cognitive psychologist Roger Schank suggests that the long-term effects of narrative-based learning are more limited than it sometimes seems. We learn by hearing stories from others — like from a professor, say — mostly when the conditions are right: when the subject is something we know and care about, when our already-held convictions are not held too strongly, when the story surprises or frightens us.

Even better, Schank suggests, is for students to tell their own stories. Our brains may need certain conditions to be met before they allow an outsider’s stories to effect much change. But we love to hear ourselves talk, and telling ourselves stories is an important way we make sense of the world.

So how do we get students to tell their own stories in our classes?

In recent years, a number of elaborate project-based pedagogies have been developed to answer just that question. These curricula have students play roles in extensively designed educational games, taking part in stories that illustrate exactly the skills and concepts teachers are hoping students will learn.

Perhaps most famous is Reacting to the Past, a series of games pioneered by Barnard College historian Mark Carnes. In them, students play roles within simulations of significant moments in history, reading extensively to prepare for their parts and “living” the story in class.

Schank has developed his own program of Story-Centered Curricula, in use at a number of universities and in corporate settings. Students take part in what is essentially a year-long virtual apprenticeship. They play roles in a simulation of the sort of situations they may find themselves in after graduation — producing a piece of software, say, or responding to a corporate crisis. They are the protagonists in their own disciplinary story.

But if you’re not ready to embrace such an elaborate pedagogy, there are more basic ways to encourage your students to take advantage of the power of narrative. One was suggested by a tip submitted to Pedagogy Unbound last month by John Maguire, a writing teacher in the Boston area. He restricts his students to only writing about physical objects — things “you can drop on your foot.” As he elaborated for The Atlantic, such a directive leads to clearer and more vivid writing. It also, I think, almost inevitably leads to the students writing narratives.

As Bruner wrote in a 1991 Critical Inquiry article, “a narrative cannot be realized save through particular embodiment.” When we ask our students to only write about concrete objects, we are encouraging them to make use of narrative, to exemplify and illustrate rather than attempt to systematize and generalize. To write about something you can drop on your foot is almost unavoidably to write a story about that object, to situate it within the structure of a narrative. It’s an ingenious trick to encourage narrative learning, and it puts the students’ own narrative powers to work for themselves.

By all means, teach abstract ideas and general concepts to your students. But when asking them to write about those ideas and concepts, try having students focus on specific and palpable entities. You may be in for quite a story.

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