Putting stories to work


On Friday 22nd November, I found myself back in Parana, this time at the kind invitation of the Curitiba chapter of Braz TESOL, to give a day’s worth of presentations and workshops on intercultural language education. This will be the last of my trips out of Sao Paulo this year, and, as ever, my hosts in Curitiba were exceptionally hospitable, and the audience for the event was lively and receptive.

As usual, with such presentations, at least when you get to my age, you end up recycling and revisiting some material you have previously presented elsewhere. This can be a useful experience since the reception of the material always differs in some respects, or you find yourself listening more critically to your own words, as they tumble out of your mouth. Or someone asks a question you hadn’t thought of before.  At any rate, you take away a new perspective on topics you thought were familiar.

This time I found myself thinking more about a quotation from Ron Barnett that I often use, from one of his books on the limits of a competence-driven approach to higher education:

“A higher education designed around skills is no higher education. It is the substitution of skills for insight; of strategic reason for communicative reason; and of behaviour for wisdom.” (Barnett, 19984: 61)

This becomes a more startling quotation if we substitute the words ‘language teaching’ for ‘higher education’; thus, “language education designed around skills is no language education.”  Now, as a professional who routinely described his function as teaching the “four skills” of reading, writing, listening and speaking, that is a sobering idea. What would a classroom look like if we were to move beyond trying to teach competent “behaviour” (often codified as learning outcomes in curricular statements and lesson plans) and also tried systematically to engender “wisdom”? How do we teach wisdom in the classroom?

One truism is that wisdom comes from experience, and in Curitiba we explored the way that experiences can be shared and interrogated through stories. Stories are an obvious way of blending language activities (we encourage past-tense narratives all the time) and genuine experiences that can be shared and learned from. In a useful guide that is freely downloadable on the web, Tomkins (2009) guides teachers on ways of using stories to encourage critical reflection. There are several steps that the teacher and class are invited to follow:

1.       Story finding: this involves keeping your eyes and ears open for stories – in newspapers, magazines, fiction, gossip, conversation, social media postings or blogs, that serve as useful illustrations of issues you want to raise in the classroom. The teacher needs to develop a nose for a good story; but this is ultimately something that needs to be passed on to learners, so that they can find their own narratives to learn from.

2.       Story-telling: the learners then read, or listen to – and ultimately tell their own – stories that illustrate some issue. These acts of reading and listening go beyond the development of the receptive ‘skills’ of comprehension; they involve making sense of the story in a framework of cultural value, and within everyday ethical and moral systems.

3.       Story expanding: crucially, in Tomkins’ approach, the stories are then retold and expanded upon by the listeners. The listeners make their own meaning from the stories they hear, which usually involves seeing the events from a similar or different cultural, ethical or moral perspective.

4.       Story processing: once the stories have been shared and retold, the group of learners discusses the original narrative and the responses. What are the gaps, points of contention, similarities of judgement?

5.       Story transformation: the final stage is simply to reflect on what has been learned from the story; what can we as storytellers and audience draw from the story and the responses, to add to our lived experience?

These steps can give language teachers a procedure to follow when using stories to blend language learning with the kind of values education that is typical of intercultural studies. Ideally, as noted, the teacher would ask a multicultural class to share stories on a particular topic – but this activity demands a high level of mutual respect and empathy amongst the learners, and needs to be sensitively set up. When Andrea Assenti del Rio uses techniques from ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’ to dramatise stories about the abuse of power, she spends necessary time building an atmosphere of trust and collaboration in the classroom.

Another way of establishing the process of storytelling and responding is for the teacher to search out useful stories to bring to the classroom. There are numerous possible sources –factual and fictional – but one that is rich and accessible is the Internet. Blogs and forums are full of brief, pointed, everyday stories of human experience – and many also come complete with comments and responses. These websites can be used as a source of stories for critical cultural reflection.

I noticed one simple story on the topic of a tourist disaster on a forum called ‘Woman and Home’.  I adapted it slightly so that it reads as follows:

Flight cancelled again!

Our daughter has now been stranded in Lanzarote since last Friday and now the flight today has been cancelled too. That’s three flights that have been cancelled now. She is so upset and was sobbing over the ‘phone. We feel so helpless but what can we do? Very distressing. I joked that she might be home for Christmas. Wish now I had kept quiet.

Having noticed the story (step 1) , the teacher can ask the learners to listen to it, or to read it (step 2). As well as checking for reading or listening comprehension, the teacher can ask the learner to share their own three key points about the story. Are their perspectives similar? In this way the learners retell and expand upon the story (step 3). How do your learners comment on the posting?

Since this is a forum, the learners’ suggested responses can be compared with some actual comments made on the original posting:

1.       I can understand why your daughter is so upset. We got stranded in Lanzarote at Easter because of the volcano and although it sounds wonderful to be getting an extra week added to your holiday it is actually really stressful. Is the airline looking after your daughter? Has she been offered accommodation etc?


2.       I am sorry to read of your daughter’s situation. It must be hard and a worry for you and her. Still as you say she has some insurance and at least she is with friends and her situation isn’t her fault. I am sure she will be home soon.  Her employer sounds level headed and fair so try not to worry too much!


3.       After our experience earlier in the year I am really glad that we booked our flight with Thomson. The RyanAir people had to fend for themselves as your daughter is having to do. It is good that she is with people who are looking after her – let’s hope she can get home soon.

We can see even from these brief responses the importance of being able to articulate emotions clearly when responding to personal stories: ‘I can understand why X is so upset’, ‘it is really stressful’, ‘I am sorry to read/hear of…’, ‘it must be hard and a worry for you’, etc.

The learners can then be invited to re-tell the story, perhaps from the daughter’s perspective. How does she feel about the situation now, after the phone call? How does she feel about her parent’s failed attempt to cheer her up?

Now that the story has been understood, expanded and seen from another perspective, the learners can compare the difference between the different narratives and responses (step 4). The teacher can elicit the function of each of the narratives – the parent might be seeking reassurance; the daughter might be looking for acknowledgement of the parent’s tactlessness, or she might be more forgiving, depending on how the learners imagine her story. The first two responses show empathy and seem to respond to the parent’s desire for reassurance; the third, however, seems less empathic: the author seems to be congratulating himself on choosing a superior travel option, although, more charitably, he may simply be giving advice for the future. This is an example of a ‘second story’ in which the writer (a) narrates a shared experience and (b) observes that his outcome was better than that of the person who tells the ‘first story’.

Finally, we can look over the activity as a whole and ask what it can teach us (step 5). One thing is that blogs and forums express personal narratives, often written by people who share their experiences, good and bad, for others to comment on. They may be self-congratulatory or they may be seeking comfort. The commentators may take up the invitation to reassure the story-teller, or they may give advice based on their own experience – possibly in a way that will make them appear to be smug. A small nugget of practical, everyday wisdom to come from this kind of story might be that we should restrain ourselves from making poor jokes when we are talking to someone who is upset.

And so we go through life, ideally learning from our own experiences or the experiences of others, transformed into stories. Ideally. Sometimes we need to practise that kind of attentive learning. In the words of Stroobants, Chambers and Clarke:

“We do not learn from experience. Experience has to be arrested, examined, analysed, considered and negotiated in order to shift it to knowledge.”

The language classroom can be a wonderful place to make this happen.

Further reading

Barnett, Ronald (1994) The Limits of Competence. Buckingham & Bristol: The Open University Press

Stroobants, H., P. Chambers and B. Clarke (eds) (2007) Reflective Journeys. A Fieldbook for Facilitating Lifelong Learning in Vocational Education and Training. Rome: Leonardo da Vinci REFLECT Project Publication, Instituto Guglielmo, Tagliacane,

Tomkins, A. (2009) Learning and Teaching Guides: Developing Skills in Critical Reflection Through Mentoring Stories. Higher Education Academy Network for Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/hlst/documents/resources/ssg_tomkins_mentoring_stories.pdf


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