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The Neuroscience of Narrative


The best validation for using the storytelling schools method is always the evidence before us, the evidence in our own classrooms. Storytelling teachers are our staunchest advocates. They sing the praises of the method for; accelerating language & communication, achieving better writing outcomes, delivering curriculum content, and for reaching beyond subjects. Teachers love the many levels upon which the method supports learning & teaching. They see that our storytelling way provides a meaningful context for focus on the key competencies and that learners emotional literacy and well-being is also supported.

One question that often arises at our training events is, why narrative? Usually, with a perception of time pressure and curriculum balance, teachers ponder, is it right to give such focus to narrative form? The quick answer is yes. In the Storytelling Schools handbook Chris talks about how 'our minds are hard-wired for stories', how since the earliest of times, man has told stories as a way of passing on knowledge and skills to each new generation.' But why does using narrative as a route to learning works so well? Certainly, not many of us are destined for the publishing world. Post schooling, most of us will cease to write for pleasure. But, even if we are not a regular book reader, we do not stop engaging with the narrative form. Science and evidence-based practice are now backing up the notion that we are 'hard-wired for stories'. Education journals, science and media articles on the neuroscience of narrative have been popping up regularly. It has finally become topical to discuss the delays and deficits in our children language and communication.

My take on it is that the one thing people are most interested in is people. We want to know about and understand other people; to 'encounter' people in familiar, unfamiliar and 'unimaginably' different circumstances to our own, to relate to people with the same values as our ourselves, and to be challenged or swayed by the values, ethics, and actions of others. Without the pages of a book, we participate in the narratives of our lives and the lives of those around us. Our daily 'talk' includes sharing about events, describing the people and situations we've encountered, collating both important and trivial information for others. Conveyed along with this 'story' is our mood and the mood of others. We share our stories with our children, our partners, and spouses, our colleagues, and its composition forms much of our 'inner voice' - the language we 'think' and 'imagine in'.

In recent months Storytelling Schools NZ has spread its wings and widened its conversation with storytelling teachers across New Zealand. These conversations reiterate one overarching reflection. That is, that teachers and students alike are smiling and enjoying learning in this way. Don't underestimate the power of heightened enjoyment. Storytelling teachers have fun teaching in this way. Learners engage more deeply in oral language and literary tasks both because of the shared experience with their teacher and peers, and because of their interest in the characters, context and events of a good story. In, The Neuroscience of Narrative and Memory, Judy Willis MD explains that;

The experiences we have with narratives starting as young children establish supportive conditions in the brain for learning and remembering, based on a foundation of emotional connections to the experience of being read to or told stories. In addition, the familiarity of the narrative pattern becomes a strong memory-holding template.

Judy describes this enjoyment and engagement with a story as the 'dopamine-reward response'. (Read in full here: Edutopia September 12, 2017)

On a recent yoga retreat with the girls, I didn't expect to pick up an out of date yoga publication and read another article on the importance of narrative and the biology of stories. I read about a yoga teacher who had become involved in humanitarian work. Perhaps in a campaign called Off the Mat? While working in East Timor and other war-torn areas, she had listened to the stories of aid workers and people affected by conflict and human violation. If I have this right then perhaps we are talking about Marianne Elliott, now founder of action station.org.nz. Here is what she had to say;

I have been reading about the neurobiology of stories. Our brains have either been designed or evolved to make sense of the world through story. If you give me a whole lot of really interesting information about people in a world different to my own, I store that in my brain as data. But if you tell me a story, I store that as a memory. It becomes how I believe the world is. A well-told story can be a way to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes. IT's a way to cultivate empathy. I have huge confidence in the power of story to enable us to connect with each other in really profound ways across great distances.

In Storytelling classrooms our children are learning about people, place, and society, and are given a window into a world wider than their own. In the stories they hear and learn, they find the language patterns and words for both their school writing and their own unwritten narrative voice. Learning through narrative holds their interest and attention in school and beyond.


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