Narrative and Stories in Adult Teaching and Learning.
by Rossiter, Marsha
Narrative and stories in education have been the focus of increasing
attention in recent years. The idea of narrative is fertile ground for
adult educators who know intuitively the value of stories in teaching and
learning. Narrative is deeply appealing and richly satisfying to the human
soul, with an allure that transcends cultures, centuries, ideologies, and
academic disciplines. In connection with adult education, narrative can
be understood as an orientation that carries with it implications for both
method and content. This Digest presents a brief overview of a narrative
orientation to teaching and learning and then explores how stories and
autobiographical writing promote learning.
THE NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE
A beginning point for a discussion of narrative and story in adult education
is an understanding of narrative as a broad orientation grounded in the
premise that narrative is a fundamental structure of human meaning making
(Bruner 1986, 2002; Polkinghorne 1988, 1996). The events and actions of
one's life are understood and experienced as fitting into narrative episodes
or stories. Accordingly, identity formation and development can be understood
in terms of narrative structure and process. In this view, "the self is
given content, is delineated and embodied, primarily in narrative constructions
or stories" (Kerby 1991,p. 1). The narrative metaphor as applied to adult
development (e.g., Cohler 1982; Hermans 1997; Rossiter 1999) sees developmental
change as experienced through the ongoing construction and reconstruction
of the life narrative. As Kenyon and Randall (1997) comment, "To be a person
is to have a story. More than that, it is to be a story" (p. 1).
Given the centrality of narrative in the human experience, we can begin
to appreciate the power of stories in teaching and learning. We can also
see that the application of a narrative perspective to education involves
much more than storytelling in the classroom. Such an application necessarily
leads to an experience-based, constructivist pedagogy. The basic "narrative
proposal" for education holds that the "frames of meaning within which
learning occurs are constructions that grow out of our impulse to emplot
or thematize our lives" (Hopkins 1994, p.10). Therefore, the most effective
way to reach learners with educational messages is in and through these
narrative constructions. Learners connect new knowledge with lived experience
and weave it into existing narratives of meaning.
The narrative orientation brings to the fore the interpretive dimension
of teaching and learning. Gudmundsdottir (1995) notes that pedagogical
content can bethought of as narrative text, and teaching as essentially
the exercise of textual interpretation. Educators not only tell stories
about the subject, they story the subject knowledge itself. In so doing,
they aim to maintain some interpretive space in which the learner can interact
with the subject. To tell too much, to provide the answers to all questions
spoken and anticipated, is to render the active engagement of the learner
unnecessary. To tell too little is to leave the learner with insufficient
guidance or support in constructing her or his own meaning and relationship
with the content (Leitch 1986).
STORIES AND LEARNING
The use of stories is pervasive in adult education practice. Case studies,
critical incidents, role playing, and simulations are among the story-based
techniques mentioned frequently in the literature (e.g., Taylor, Marienau,
and Fiddler 2000). Storytelling is perhaps particularly prominent in literacy,
English as a second language, and transformative education (e.g., Cranton
1997; Mezirow 1990). Wiessner's (2001) recent inquiry into the use of narrative
activities among emancipatory adult educators underscores the prevalence
and complexity of such activities. Teacher stories are increasingly used
in teacher formation and continuing education curricula (e.g., McEwan and
Egan 1995). In short, stories are widely employed as a powerful medium
of teaching and learning. But how do stories foster learning? The following
discussion highlights selected concepts and practices that may help to
clarify the dynamics of story-power in adult education.
Stories are effective as educational tools because they are believable,
rememberable, and entertaining (Neuhauser 1993). The believability stems
from the fact that stories deal with human or human-like experience that
we tend to perceive as an authentic and credible source of knowledge. Stories
make information more rememberable because they involve us in the actions
and intentions of the characters. In so doing, stories invite--indeed demand--active
meaning making. Bruner (1986) explains that the story develops the "landscape
of action" and the "landscape of consciousness"--the element of human intention.
As audience, we are engaged with the story on both levels, and it is through
this dual involvement that we enter into the minds of the characters and
into the deeper meaning of the story. We must fill in, from our own store
of knowing, that which is unspoken. In so doing, we create as well as discover
meaning, and we pose the questions we ourselves need to answer.
The learner involvement factor is also related to the power of stories
to stimulate empathic response. It is the particularity of the story--the
specific situation, the small details, the vivid images of human experience--that
evokes a fuller response than does a simple statement of fact. This detail
provides the raw material for both cognitive appreciation and affective
response to the experience of another person. Educational programs that
aim to foster tolerance, appreciation of diversity, and a capacity for
perspective taking (e.g., Rossiter 1992) draw upon this dynamic of story.
Stories educate as instruments of transformation, as well as information
(Jackson 1995). Because stories lead from the familiar to the unfamiliar,
they provide an entryway into personal growth and change. As Clark (2001)
notes, it is when one can identify with a character who has changed that
one can envision and embrace the possibility of change for oneself. Stories
of achievement and transformation can function as motivators, pathfinders,
and sources of encouragement for struggling adult learners. In short, stories
enable us to engage with new knowledge, broader perspectives, and expanded
possibilities because we encounter them in the familiar territory of human
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITING AND THE LIFESTORY
Autobiographical writing as an activity through which learning is fostered
and mediated is a major strand of narrative in adult education. Karpiak
(2000) has looked at the use of autobiographical writing with adult students
in higher education. In her view, such writing leads to learning and growth
as it enables the adult student to bring a sense of order to life, to highlight
moments of decision, to bring closure to painful events, and to gain insight
into their own development. A somewhat different approach has been developed
by Dominice (2000). His "educational biography" process involves each student's
preparation of oral and written autobiographical narratives, focused around
a life theme chosen by the student. The narratives are presented to and
interpreted by a small peer group of students. Other examples include the
use of autobiographical writing in continuing professional education for
teachers (MacLeod and Cowieson 2001) and in developing library research
skills (Lawler, Olson, and Chapleski 1999). These are a sampling of settings
in which the value of autobiographical writing is realized: students develop
a deeper understanding of their own learning processes and learning goals
(Butler and Bentley 1996).
Because of its obvious connection to life review, reminiscence, and
oral history, autobiographical writing is a staple in programs for older
adults (e.g., Birren and Birren 1996; Randall 2001). Birren and Deutchman
(1991) outline in some detail a process that combines individual reflection
and writing with the sharing of life stories in a supportive group. Guiding
themes such as family, career, money, decision points, or loss are suggested
as organizing structures for life story segments. According to Birren and
Deutchman, this process of autobiographical writing contributes to continuing
development, ability to adapt to the changes of aging, a sense of integration
and fulfillment, and cognitive functioning among older adults.
The connection between the construction of the life narrative and transformational
learning is increasingly clear. As Hopkins (1994) has said, "Our narratives
are the means through which we imagine ourselves into the persons we become"
(p. xvii). The transformative dynamic of the self story lies in the profoundly
empowering recognition that one is not only the main character but also
the author of that story. White and Epston's (1990) concept of "restorying"
experience as a method of family therapy has informed and influenced narrative
educational methods (e.g., Fitzclarence and Hickey 2001). Randall (1996),
in fact, sees restorying as the central process of transformative learning.
The basic idea is that when individuals "externalize" their own stories,
they are better able to locate and assess their own stories within larger
familial or cultural contexts. The process opens the way for learners to
choose alternative narratives. Kenyon and Randall (1997) have developed
the restorying process for use by helping professionals, including adult
educators, as a method to foster positive life change in learners. The
central transformative dynamic is a matter of gaining a more critical and
empowered perspective on one's life through telling and interpreting one's
A narrative orientation to education is grounded in an understanding
of narrative as a primary structure of human meaning and narrative as metaphor
for the developing self. The actual uses of narrative and story in adult
teaching and learning are literally unlimited because they arise from infinite
expressions of interpretive interplay among teachers, learners, and content.
And so we cannot reduce narrative into a handy toolkit of teaching techniques.
What we can do is recognize the autobiographical dimension of learning.
We can appreciate that stories--like education itself--draw us out, lead
us beyond ourselves. And we can conclude that narrative--in its many manifestations--functions
as a powerful medium of learning, development, and transformation.
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