Storytelling in learning: the power of narration

I arrived at the hotel at five to nine, tired from a long drive. The welcoming lights loomed out of the darkness and i was more than ready for a hot meal and maybe a beer by the fire. England in late autumn can be particularly grey and dreary affair and it had been a long drive.

As i checked in, i asked about dinner. ‘The restaurant is shut‘ came the reply. ‘But it’s only five to nine and it says it shuts at nine‘, i responded. ‘Yes‘, she replied. ‘It shuts at nine, but last seating is at quarter too‘.

And so it was that i ended up getting back into my car to drive to a more hospitable establishment, fifteen minutes away, the Methuen Arms in Corsham, which i can thoroughly recommend for it’s welcoming spirit and very fine food, and which certainly wasn’t going to turn away a weary traveller for the sake of ten minutes.

Why am i sharing this story with you? The chances are that, as you read it, you either sympathise with me, the hungry customer, or maybe with the staff at the hotel (I have cast them in the role of villains, but i maybe biased…). You may respond with your own tale of customer service, good or bad, sharing your own story in return to mine (indeed, feel free to join in below!). The point is that stories tend to engage us emotionally, they help us to establish commonality and to build a relationship. When i arrived at the Methuen Arms, i got into a conversation with the waiter about my experience and he shared that he used to work at the other hotel, regaling me with other stories about his experiences.

Stories are powerful: we use them to share and we use them to learn. As children, we listen in wonder to the battles of good versus evil, of right versus wrong, drawn into tales around the fireside.

My weekend was filled with stories: on saturday i drove to Bath, famous for it’s Roman Baths, wonderfully preserved with a new interpretation centre. Professor Barry Cunliffe has spend thirty years of his life excavating here and is one of the UKs leading antiquarians. Whilst driving, i listened to the Radio 4 programme, ‘In our time‘ where he was being interviewed about the Druids, the mysterious ancient people who predated the Romans and who were nearly eradicated in the later Roman era (before resurfacing in romanticised form in the 18th century).

The Druids have no written records, they were determinedly oral storytellers, meaning that virtually nothing is now known about them: most of our knowledge coming from writers like Caesar and Pliny the Elder who wrote about them centuries after their persecution and disappearance. We can never know the stories they told, just the echoes of the retelling. Having thoroughly enjoyed this particular story (a testament to the quality of BBC journalism, all too often judged these days on the latest celebrity scandal) i arrived in Bath to explore the new museum. Whilst Cunliffe has overseen much of the excavation, his story was told through an audio guide tour. There was the main story of the development and evolution of the Roman Baths, narrated by Alice Roberts (a prominent TV figure), with an alternative commentary provided by Bill Bryson. Both covered the same ground, but with a different angle, a different tone of voice.

Within the exhibition we got to see the imprecations to the gods, curses scribed onto small lead sheets, rolled up and thrown into the sacred spring. After two thousand years, these little packages had been trawled up, opened up and laid out for all to see within a display cabinet. Many told stories of theft and retribution, asking Sulis Minerva to ‘turn the culprit to water’, or to deny them rest or sleep. Miniature stories that often named the perpetrator or a list of suspects.

Some of the curses were on display, still rolled up, unopened, unread. Tantalising books with their covers firmly shut. Stories that may never be retold, or that maybe will be opened by future generations.

To round of the day, the Northern Ballet were performing Beauty and the Beast. The story is simple, the retelling in dance complicated: a story with no words, no lyrics, just movement, costume and scenery. Dance is expressive, a visual language, suited to expressing moods (especially with accompanying music), but hard to use in the telling of complex conversations. Costume is important here: allowing us to keep track of individual characters and their descent into chaos and ultimate redemption (in the ballet, the dancer changed, but the character remained constant, represented by the costume).

Sunday bought a trip to Lacock Abbey, where Fox Talbot is credited with the invention of photography, and where Christmas celebrations were in full swing. In the cloisters i came across a lady in full Victorian dress, sat on the floor, surrounded by children, telling stories. She told the story of why the needles stay on Christmas trees, a rambling tale where the tree, in a bid to shelter a bird with a broken wing from the ravages of a storm, holds it’s needles on from kindness. The children were captivated, as were a fair few parents and spectators.

My weekend was filled with stories: my own story of travel and dinner, the oral storytelling on the radio, the nuanced stories from Alice and Bill with their different voices relating different paths. The silent stories told on lead and the vibrant stories spoken in dance, the community of Victorian storytelling in the early medieval cloisters at Lacock, themselves part of a story stretching back over eight hundred years to when the nuns first lived there.

I learnt from them all: stories are powerful in learning, we use them to preserve knowledge, to share ideas and to draw us closer together in communities. We use stories in our learning design and to learn from ourselves. Stories can be powerful, can be spoken in many voices, can be fluid or rigid, but we should never forget their importance, never forget how they help us to learn.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Communication, Community, Conversation, Culture, History, Interpretation, Learning, Memory, Museum Education, Narrative, Stories, Storytelling and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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