The Power of Storytelling in Education

Neohumanist Storytelling

By Tang Tamminga

We don’t just tell stories, stories tell us!

For many years I have been telling my children stories. And from stories I designed the curriculum. Every Monday they would get a new story, and in subsequent classes they would explore the two elements of stories that make stories so healthy for the brain: character and structure. They would collect their artwork and worksheets in self-made story pockets. By Friday the children would act out the story and take their story pockets home. The following week the cycle would start again.

In those days I did not use books: all my teaching was story-based. I did a semester long series on fairytales, a one year curriculum centered on multicultural stories, environmental education (one year), local stories, seasonal stories… It was a wonderful magical time. And the children were happy. And so were the parents. Our school grew exponentially.

Much of what I did in the classroom was intuitive: it felt good to develop a bond with the students through stories. They participated well, learned many good skills, expanded their knowledge base, and I hardly had disciplinary problems

It was only in later years that I began to read about what stories actually do to children and what stories might be better. Obviously, there were many differing opinions.

I knew that the Orthodox Jews have a rich story telling tradition. So, what did they say? The debate on what stories were proper and what stories should be objected to kept a group of men spell bound for an entire night. When one of their members met the group the next day, the conclusion of the night long discussion was that all stories were ‘kosher’.

This was my personal experience as well. In our school, I would tell all kinds of stories: fairytales, folktales, fables, biographies, and so on. I aimed to do so always in an age-appropriate way. What mattered for me was did the stories ‘transport’ the child. Was it engaging enough to captivate the child and take the child’s attention into the world of their own imagination?

In the Waldorf tradition the discussion on how to structure the storytelling curriculum is based on Steiner’s direction to begin with fairytales, and then move on to fables and legends, and subsequently myths. From there it moves on to biographies and historical tales. This approach supposedly reflects the growth of consciousness. As such, this sequence reflects an individual’s growth. What many Waldorf schools find challenging is to find a similar sequence of literature in non-European cultures. While the concept of the evolution of awareness seems appealing, making this universal seems a challenge.

So, what would make a story suitable for a Neohumanist curriculum?
Can we come up with guidelines that could help us define more clearly the Neohumanist approach to Storytelling?

Based on my understanding I do not feel bound by a particular sequence of stories. The main criterion that I see as NHE’s core principle, is always, “does it work for the children?”

Having said that, it may take me a thousand stories to find one tale that I feel I want to share with my students. And I have listed some of the criteria that I would ascribe to such a story:

  • It needs to generate imaginative thinking
  • It has to enhance critical thinking
  • It offers reflections on values and conflict resolution
  • It shares knowledge of history, culture, geography, nature
  • It inspires ideal actions.
  • It helps inner understanding
  • Linguistically it is compelling
  • It offers different layers of understanding (for different ages)
  • It generates the desire for learning more
  • Offers a wisdom perspective.

Choosing stories is highly personal. Even if a story covers these ten points, but you don’t like the story, I would not encourage you to tell such a story. But these ten points do convey a reference for us to analyze and value a story.

For that reason, I want to clarify these ten points.

A Story needs to generate imaginative thinking

As a teacher, we may consider a story important because it covers the knowledge we want the child to learn. As a language teacher, I initially graded my story choice based on the vocabulary or sentence patterns the children could learn from it. Often though I found that my students would reject such stories. They lacked the magic of a captivating story.

From this I learned that the first criterion for any story is that it has to be imaginative.

From the scientific research point of view, stories that captivate the imagination, either stimulate dopamine secretion, the feel-good hormone that makes children enjoy the story, or cortisol, the hormone of heightened attention, in case of more fearful stories.

The stimulation of the imagination in my opinion is the main purpose of storytelling. A healthy imagination, a trained imagination provides the basis for a healthy adult life. Storytelling is one way to help children develop a healthy unconscious world of imagery that can help them remain sensitive to their inner values, instead of being cut off from their own thoughts.

This is also the main objective of Neohumanist education, to enhance expanded consciousness, and sensitivity to the inner realms of the mind.

Stories have to enhance critical thinking

While storytelling is often a process of a storyteller guiding the children’s thoughts (research shows that storyteller and students synergize their brain wave patterns during story settings), the storyteller has to offer a question, rather than giving the answer. Especially in moral dilemmas, the story creates the situation, we hope we can allow the child to make recommendations for the further evolution of the story. Many fairytales are great in this. Fables on the other hand offer a more black and white picture of what is right and wrong.

What also is recommended is to analyze with the children the characters of a story. The Pied Piper led the children away, but was he the really bad guy? We also use this critical phase to break assumptions. Did the wolf really want to eat the little pigs, or was he just knocking on the door to borrow some salt, and got upset when the pigs refused to open?

Was Goldilocks the undisciplined child who disturbed the orderly household of the Bears, or was she the lost child (maybe an immigrant/ an orphan) desperately looking for something to eat and a place to live?

We do not need to provide answers, but encourage children to deliberate, consider different options and in general apply a ‘rationalistic mentality’, another of Neohumanist Education’s primary objectives.

Stories offer reflections on values and conflict resolution

The search for meaning, the quest for who I am and what I should be is so fundamental to all that children do, that a story has to support this search. In the teaching of morality there are two approaches. One is the direct one, where the storyteller offers a clear-cut picture of what is right and what is wrong. The other approach is one whereby the storyteller kind of leaves it open to the children to judge the situation.

Socrates said that until thirty, one should train in habits. After that, he said, there was scope for discussion. In our age, young people become independent at a much younger age and require the ability for independent moral thinking much earlier. The consensus is that both approaches are to be applied for a healthy moral thinking. Linking values to stories is an important aspect of this process.

When an Utku (Inuit) woman wants to teach her child to control anger, a kind of behavior highly praised in Inuit communities, she will use stories. Stories show children the values that underlie how we live together and deal with our issues.

It is never one story that generates the values we aim for. It is the collective body of narratives that can inspire certain kind of behavior.

In science it is said that brain cells that fire together, wire together. Patterns become reinforced. In Neohumanist Education the principle of social equality is a key objective. Stories can be means to generate this from deep within.

Stories inform about knowledge of history, culture, geography, nature,

Traditionally stories were used to teach the next generation about history and the laws and habits of their society. Elders would gather the younger ones and share the stories.

In Neohumanist Education we aim for universal values. Stories are fundamental to understanding other cultures, other races, other people.

In fact, for many storytellers the peace building effect that stories have on those who listen is a primary motivation to continue to share stories. In many conflict zones, storytelling is employed to increase social harmony. Research on communities of the Gatka tribe in the Philippines shows that where there are more storytellers, the society is more harmonious.

In storytelling circles, it is said that if you know one’s story, you won’t hurt them. Stories share knowledge of other cultures and through this bring insight into the other’s life style and choices.

Stories inspire ideal actions

By listening to stories, we develop imagery in our mind that we want to be like the protagonist, the hero or heroine in the story. This sense of bonding (caused by oxytocin secretion that happens during storytelling) can inspire one to greater action.

Research shows that when a group of children has listened to a story and then finds an old woman in trouble, 50+% will offer help, while a control group who played video games, largely ignore the old woman in distress.

Stories make us better people!

Stories help inner understanding

Storytelling inspires self-reflection. By listening to stories we develop self-insight. Fairytales offer a unique path for this. For example, in one of the stories of the Brother’s Grim, Brother and Sister, we find the sister represents self-control, the brother is impulsive, and the prince is wisdom. While we probably we would never use this language with the children, the imagery of the story reflects these values. Many other Western fairytales have a similar meaning.

In Asian fairytales we do not find this psychological complexity. These are more inspired by Taoist and Buddhist thought and deal with eternity, rather than the psyche. Either way, these stories help bring understanding of the impulses that drive our thinking and actions and how to deal with them.

Linguistically a story is compelling

A story has to employ certain language patterns or word choices that make it entertaining to listen to. Research shows that without such attractive or attention-grabbing language, the child will not be as engaged with the story and thus will lose focus.

When choosing a story, we therefore recommend you consider that if you want to tell the story, what linguistic tools could you use to make it entertaining. The manner a story is written is often very different from how it is told.

Research has shown that children will pay more attention to the telling of a story than the reading of a story. Though both have their uses, consider the effort to make it a told story rather than one that is read ort copies the written language.

A story offers different layers of understanding (for different ages)

As you invest much time and effort in making a story ready for telling, consider that the same story can be used with different age groups. If you have a mixed age group, that is an obvious consideration but also if you teach different classes, see how the same story can be employed.

Usually the main criterion for this flexibility is that the story has a simple structure. This allows a simplified version as well as a more complex one.

A story generates the desire for learning more

Educationally speaking, the story is often analyzed: the characters, the structure, the time, setting and theme, are all important elements. Does the story you consider have these? If so, can you easily make extension activities naturally?

If you consider the drama activity, will you be able to offer the props to perform the tale?
Can the story link to other stories, such as in the whole language learning system is encouraged? Can you incorporate song sin the story? (highly recommended!)

Offers a wisdom perspective

Stories finally have to take us to a place beyond stories. A storyteller, by enacting the characters in the story, is a participant, and at the same time the storyteller is an observer, who at will can change the perspective, become someone else, and convince the audience of this other’s character’s logic. A storyteller thus finds a place beyond the ups and downs of the story, a wisdom perspective.

In Neohumanist Education the teacher has to be deeply self-reflective, practice some form of living that is beyond the fluctuations of life. In my experience, this personal practice can be reinforced by storytelling. Taking the mind beyond the story, while totally embodying it, in one way sums up the essence of any practice for self-realization.

As we encourage the teacher to take this route, we find that we do not just the story, but the story tells us. It begins to take us to awareness that makes us wiser, calmer, and handle life with more insight.

If this happens to the teacher, I believe this will also happen to the students.

I believe that if we want to transform schools, we have to start with developing a story-based curriculum. But there are pitfalls. The story choice may not always be in line with the ideals we set out for. In one school district in California, a particular version of Little Red Riding Hood was banned because it contained an illustration of Little Red Riding Hood with a basket with a bottle of wine for grandmother. The book was banned as it promoted alcohol. In another school district Snow White was only allowed to be read with parental permission. It was considered as being too violent. The list goes on.

No story is perfect and our choices have to be careful. What does remain important we offer the child a wide variety of story sources, and provided the teacher, the storyteller, is attuned enough, the child will be enriched.

If in the first ten years of life a child is offered a rich source of oral literature, the next ten year will be smoother and balanced. Neohumanist schools can be a safe place for children to grow, story by story!