This article is part of a three-part series on storytelling.
Augustine argued that human beings are story-shaped people, stretched between what ought to be and what will be. What is it about a story that is so powerful?
The aim of this and the future articles is to draw to attention the current research on moral or character development and to suggest that one powerful tool we can use in our classrooms as we seek to help our students develop a moral character based on Biblical truth is story telling. The first article looks at ‘the why’ of storytelling, the second article discusses the research of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt who looks at where moral responses in a person come from – the head or the heart – and gives some insights into ‘the how’ of developing moral character. The third article outlines the successful use of story in graduate and post-graduate classes to engage students in ethical debate and decision making but to also challenge and change values.
When we interact with a story the listener or observer engages not only on a cognitive level but also on an emotional level; the characters challenge our ideas of right and wrong, justice, fairness, love and hate, mercy and forgiveness as we engage emotionally with them in their journey. We feel their longings, identify with their hopes, may forgive their indiscretions or alternatively judge their actions and see the possibilities of a different journey. As onlookers in a story we often have the advantage that we don’t often get in life of being able to see the bigger picture, to see the story from beginning to end and from several characters’ points of view.
Consider the Dickens' story A Christmas Carol which Stephen Garber explains is a commentary on the consequences of capitalism without a conscience. By directing our attention to one businessman and one child Dickens invites us into a deeper reflection on the greater moral issues at stake in this story (Garber, 2014, p.220). We are given glimpses of despair and injustice, love and care, and the sadness of life that is undeserved, alongside glimpses of the emptiness and lack of joy for one who appears to have everything except love and friends. When Scrooge comes to an understanding of his own depravity and changes his business model, we the observers are vindicated in our hope that kindness can restore a better order. The story connects with the reader on more than the cognitive level. It connects on an emotional level as well. We are not left assessing an economic model of profit and loss but a human story where motivation and a changed business model of connection and emotion leaves the reader feeling justified in their judgement of Scrooge and delighted in the joy of seeing Tiny Tim’s situation improve and Scrooge finding joy and meaning in life.
Storytelling is a powerful and enduring means of communication that has widespread appeal. It crosses cultures and communities; in fact, many of our earliest learning experiences most likely involved stories, some told to us directly, others read and, still more, played out around us. Even before we had the ability to articulate what we knew, felt and thought, we learned to make sense of our world through stories (Alterio, 2002, p.1). To learn through storytelling is to take seriously the human need to make meaning from experience, to communicate that meaning to others, and, in the process, learn about ourselves and the worlds in which we live (Alterio, 2002, p.3). Alterio says that 'students who learn through telling and reflectively processing their stories develop skills that enable them to link subjective and objective perspectives, capture the complexity of experience and bring about thoughtful change to self and practice' (Alterio, 2002). This outcome is supported by other researchers like Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985); Brockbank and McGill (1998); Brookfield and Preskill (1999); Moon (1999); and Reason and Hawkins (1988) (Alterio, 2003, p.2).
Wright claims that stories not only determine how people see themselves and how they see the world but also how they experience God, and the world, and themselves, and others (Wright, 1991, pp.22-23).
Perhaps this is why so much of the Bible is written as a story. The history of Israel told in the Old Testament chronicles God’s interaction with his people across a timespan of about 4000 years and through many stories. There are insights and lessons to be learnt from all of the stories. Stories of courage and bravery, of disobedience and faithfulness, of endurance and betrayal, of kings and nations, of foreign gods and ultimately of God’s faithfulness to and love for his covenant people. In the New Testament Jesus himself uses stories to communicate deep truths to his listeners. Jesus understood that story authority is the authority that really works. Giving people a set of rules to live by or even a list of doctrines, allows them to simply disagree and walk away. Telling them a story, however, invites them to come into a different world; they are invited to share a worldview or better still a ‘God-view’ (Wright, 1991, p.22-23).
In our imaginings, in our longings, at our best and worst, we are people whose identities are formed by a narrative that begins at the beginning and ends at the ending – the story of Scripture itself (Garber, 2014, p.202).
Alterio, M (2002). Using storytelling to improve student learning. http://desarrollodocente.uc.cl/images/Innovaci%C3%B3n/Storytelling/Alterio_M._2003.pdf
Wright, N.T (1991). 'How can the Bible be Authoritative'. The Laing Lecture for 1989. Vox Evangelica 21, 7-32.
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This article provides an insight into some of the content of EdComm's online Professional Learning course: Storyteller's Guide to the Galaxy.
Storyteller's Guide to the Galaxy course is a five hour online course and is accredited by NESA at Proficient level.
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