School is for Stories

School is for Stories

Let me tell you a story.

Once, not long ago, there was a young person of indiscriminate age, gender and ethnicity. They lived a fairly ordinary life. They had no special powers that they knew of, they weren’t the chosen one, or the one that everyone liked or didn’t like. In fact they were pretty average and quite ordinary. The only real super powers they displayed were courage, intelligence, creativity and a sense of humour.

But then one day something extraordinary came to pass. They discovered that there was a terrible thing that was happening. A great evil was coming over the land and causing wide spread misery and pain. This young person wanted to stop this, to stand up against this evil and make things better. They knew they couldn’t do it on their own and so they gathered together a team.

This team was made up of similar people with a variety of different personalities and strengths. One person was good in some areas while another was good in others. The team also had no super powers or special abilities. All they did have was their courage, intelligence, creativity and senses of humour, and, despite their differences and difficulties they had to learn to work together and to trust each other.

Over weeks and months and years, they struggled against the forces of evil in the world and the problems that the evil brought. They tried many ways to solve the issues and failed many times, until finally when they thought all was lost they found a final way to succeed, a final way to create a solution to the problems. Together they brought all of their skills together and crafted a brilliant plan. This plan would work.

The young founder of the group presented the plan to the elders and with their blessing the team put their plan into action. Again there were struggles and difficulties but the young founder presented the vision of what they were trying to do and why. The team rallied behind them and worked hard and finally, after years of effort, they succeeded.

The end.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s basically similar to almost any drama or adventure story ever written. An ordinary average protagonist comes into conflict with a powerful evil antagonist and has to rely on their courage, strength and the help and support of their friends to work together and overcome the conflict and make the world a brighter place and after a long struggle with many twists and turns they finally succeed.

Cool huh? These kinds of stories have been inspiring people for generations.

I am a recovering teacher and trainer. I’ve spent the last few years teaching adults and young people various different things according to the current curriculum requirements.

During this time, when I used to meet other people socially, the conversation would usually go something like this:

Person: So what do you do?

Me: I’m a teacher.

Person: Seriously? I hated school.

Me: Yeah thanks…

Most people I know did hate school and now by extension hate having to learn new things, especially things that they feel they ‘have to’ learn, rather than ‘want to’.

They also have a hard time remembering any of the “learned” facts that they spent hours memorising (For example, who was the first prime minister of Australia?). This lack of motivation to learn something new was also coupled with the age old question of “WHY do we have to learn this?” (or why should I care?)

The issue of motivation is really only an issue because it’s not there. My four year old son knows the names, habitats and dietary requirements of over 20 different species of dinosaur (while I struggle to name more than 5), just because he’s motivated. It’s relevant to him and his friends and where he is in life at the moment.

Similarly, I can remember most of the story lines of a TV series I watched once many years ago (such as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones) but I struggle to remember what I did at my workplace last month. Not because I have a particularly bad memory, but because the series (and the dinosaurs) connected with where I was. These things make an emotional impact on us and we are involved in their story (even if it’s a story that we make up, as is the case with my son, who spends hours making up stories about his dinosaurs.)

One of the differences between learning facts and learning stories is that stories make things much much easier to remember.

For example, consider these two different questions: “What is the tenth letter of the alphabet?” vs, “What were the three materials that the houses were made from in the three little pigs?” Chances are that you were able to answer the second question easily without resorting to counting out the letters on your fingers like you did with the first.

However there’s something else about this that is really important: Everyone is the hero in their own story.

Why does the hero have to learn new skills and apply themselves and get smarter and learn to work with others and grow and change? Because they can see that they are part of a larger narrative. If a child asks ‘why do I have to learn this?’ then we can put them into a situation where that knowledge becomes necessary because it’s part of that narrative. Lets put them into difficult situations and then show how something like maths can be used in this situations to get them out of it.

What if we ONLY taught things that they might actually use and then showed them how all of these skills are interconnected in how they survive everyday life, like make friends, form a team, play games, get popular, build things, make money, and find real world actual problems that they could get together and solve.

School might then make more of an emotional impact and be memorable as a place where they can practice those skills and learn which things they enjoy and can improve. This is one of the theories behind the idea of teaching transferable skills.

These are the basic set of skills (called 21st century skills) that can be used in almost any situation, including, communication, teamwork, problem solving, initiative and enterprise, planning and organising, self-management, learning, and technology.

These skills based around a practical approach and a narrative that places each person as an active participant in learning to achieve their own goals would probably do more to motivate young people to learn and bring that learning with them into the wider world as they grow up. Or at the very least it can’t be worse than what we’re doing now.

We need to teach young people that they aren’t victims of an education system but that they can be creators of their own stories.

That’s something I wish I was taught at school.


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