Narrative Learning Theory: How stories can support knowledge organisation and recall in the Primary Classroom

Stories are an integral feature of any primary classroom. Ask any teacher from Early Years to Year 6 and they will tell you how even their most challenging of classes could be spell-bound by a favourite picture book or novel. We also know the power of stories in supporting our wider teaching (and of course many of us have a wide repertoire of texts linked to whatever subject we may be studying at a given point in time).

That said, I have this week been looking for some hard evidence on the power of stories or storytelling within the classroom. And I have struggled to find much at all. Yet us primary teachers KNOW just how much impact a good story can have!

Prior to beginning my teaching career I worked as a research assistant on a project called the ‘narrative learning project’. The project was focused on HE students learning on work placements and identified three features of narrative learning:

  1. Learning through stories heard
  2. Telling stories about learning experiences
  3. Learning as the result of telling a story (realisation)

Our intention was to apply narrative theory (which was largely based in organisational learning at the time) into the field of educational learning in the HE sector.

Many years later, I am now considering how narrative learning may help us to recognise the value of stories within the classroom.

Storytelling has been consistently used as a method of communicating knowledge and information – its use spans both time and culture. In particular, stories have been used to pass down information about personal, familial and cultural histories, as well as conveying expectations surrounding social and moral behaviours. Aesop’s fables for example, were first told over 2000 years ago in Greece and are still told to children in the UK today to impart moral messages.

On the subject of organisational narratives, Stephen Denning (2000) writes about the role of storytelling in ‘Knowledge-Era Organisations’. Stories are identified as being a key feature of knowledge management. There is a notable range of research to support this. And yet little on the subject of storytelling within education. Except of course a lot of teachers who say how important reading a good book is for their class!

If we refer once again to Denning, what else is a school but a knowledge-era organisation? Our business is knowledge management! But what can we use from narrative learning theory, alongside existing learning theories to tell us:  WHY are stories are so effective within the classroom?

Reissman (1993) quotes Jerome Bruner, noting the role of narratives as ‘memory storage devices, which help us structure experience and organise memories’. Storytelling in the classroom may provide children with a powerful way of making sense of information, and committing it to long-term memory.

The process of learning can be summarised in a basic form as the storage of information (or knowledge) in the long term memory, so that it can be accessed and utilised at a future time (retrieval). The process of transferring information from the short-term memory to the long-term memory is known as ‘encoding’.

In a knowledge-based curriculum, teachers aim to ensure that knowledge taught is organised and stored in the most efficient manner in order for it to be retrieved most easily. Hence the increased prevalence of learning tools designed to aid the organisation of memory, such as ‘knowledge organisers’.

The complexity of memory means that it is difficult to identify the most effective way of presenting information for retrieval: memory is made up of complex networks and relationships. Our knowledge of an object for example, is as defined as what it is as much as what it is not e.g. a square is a quadrilateral, it is not curved and is not a triangle. It is also not a bird nor a plant.

Stories act as semantic code – they provide multiple layers of meaning and anchor points for the information that is being communicated. We can relate information in a story to our own experiences, of places, situations, emotions, objects etc. Having multiple anchor points therefore supports organisation, and ultimately retrieval.

The use of quality texts for storytelling may have an advantage over oral storytelling (upon which much of the theory of narrative learning is based): Paivio (1971) demonstrated that whenever abstract material can be converted into concrete ideas, recall is enhanced. Exclusive reliance of the verbal system for encoding and retrieving information is limiting, however using both verbal and visual systems together (known as dual coding) further supports the transfer of information into long-term memory. If we know that visual code (i.e. images) further support the organisation and retrieval of information, we can then see why picture books may be so powerful.

Once children’s language comprehension skills are sufficiently developed (typically from aged 7 onwards) the visual code may be taken from verbal cues in the form of imagery, whereby children are able to create their own images to support knowledge organisation and storage, utilising their existing knowledge and based on prior experiences. Ultimately, this may then lead to stronger and more complex links between new and existing knowledge.

Of course, when attempting to use stories as a means of communicating key knowledge as part of a curriculum, this may bring some difficulties, as there are a number of variables which will affect the effectiveness of the story as a knowledge-communication device: schema theory tells us that because so much of the memory is built on personal experience, prior exposure and environmental factors, there is much variation between individuals on how memory and knowledge is organised – therefore, the quality of learning will vary between individuals. This variance is not unique to learning through stories however, and applies to all learning that takes place. There are some variables unique to storytelling, which may impede its power in knowledge communication – in particular, the extent to which stories are adapted as they are told, or the omissions or additions that may be made by the storyteller. Reissman also notes that the quality of the storytelling will significantly affect how the reader responds to the story. We could infer from this that the quality of the written text would also have a notable affect.

As part of our research in the narrative learning project, we proposed the theory of ‘stories for counterpoint’. In this, we suggested that when telling personal narratives, often one story was not sufficient: instead, narrators told a number of stories, and that these were carefully selected and told in counterpoint to one another, to give a broader but more accurate picture of a person, place or experience.

If this were to be the case when using stories to support learning in primary schools, the key point would be the need to supplement stories with other information that has been carefully selected by the teacher to ensure the most accurate, concise and balanced teaching points, which would support the most effective communication of the curriculum.

In summary, the use of stories in the form of carefully selected, quality texts may support the communication, organisation and retrieval of knowledge by providing increased context and multiple layers of meaning to which learners can relate new knowledge. The impact of the story on learning, will be affected by the individual’s prior experiences and knowledge, and also by the quality of the story that is told, and how it is told.

But of course… us teachers knew that all along…

Author: littlemissdht

Teacher first, Deputy Head second. Passion for teaching, always learning.

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