Using stories in education – Egan

Kieran Egan points out: “…we still deploy stories to shape children’s understanding and interpretation of experience. Because we do not use traditional myth stories in sacred contexts, we can easily fail to recognize how this ancient technique is ubiquitously used in modern societies to communicate and reinforce who ‘we’ are, what ‘we’ believe, and how ‘we’ should behave. While religious stories are perhaps the most obvious surviving examples, they jostle, and sometimes compete, with a huge variety of more informal stories – jokes and ‘urban myths,’ family stories that reinforce certain norms and values, proverbial sayings and warnings echoed from well-known stories, simplified national histories, accounts of office politics, conventional plots of movies and TV shows, and so on. The story is particularly important among the socializing techniques we have inherited because it orients the emotions of the hearers and so more powerfully shapes their commitments to the values and norms coded within it.
The bad news is that our evolution equipped us to live in small, stable, hunter-gatherer societies. We are Pleistocene people, but our languaged brains have created massive, multicultural, technologically sophisticated, and rapidly changing societies for us to live in. Now [-p.13] that’s not so bad in itself, as our brains can adapt to a huge range of social conditions. The bad news is tied to that ingenious evolutionary adaptation that led to the extended growth of our brains outside the womb. One result of this development – wonderfully efficient for hunter-gatherer tribes – is that in our early years, we learn effortlessly a language, a concept of our society and its norms and values, and conceptions of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. We are equipped, that is, to orient ourselves conceptually very early and quickly. Whatever children learn from the stories they are first told becomes quickly fixed and serves as a template for future learning. This rapid and deeply etched early learning served hunter-gatherer societies so well because their stability and solidarity were sustained by their members all sharing an unquestioned and homogeneous worldview or ideology.” (pp.12-13)

Learning to follow stories, and to construct one’s own, is a foundation of education. The story is our best tool for helping one person understand what it is like to be someone else. We can thereby enlarge our understanding of others and enlarge our sympathy. The storehouse of modern and traditional stories from a wide variety of cultures is an important resource for a whole range of educational purposes.
Of course stories have been, and are, used to indoctrinate children. The indoctrination works if the stories all have a common message – about the superiority of one’s social group and the wickedness or stupidity of all others. The best defense against this kind of indoctrinating is not crudely to censor stories, but rather to ensure that children are introduced to a great variety of them.
The kinds of stories that most commonly engage young children’s attention use another prominent cognitive tool [Egan describes ‘cognitive tools’ that can be put to better use in the improved Imaginative Education he advocates in this book]. Think of the Grimm fairy stories and their almost universal appeal to children, West and East and in between. Each story, just below its surface, has a simple structural element. Emotionally charged binary opposites – like courage/cowardice, security/fear, love/hate, good/bad – provide the main element that gives shape and provides access to the meaning of the events. The story of Hansel and Gretel would be just one thing after another if it weren’t carefully structured to attach our emotions of security and fear to the sequence of events. The story plays with those emotions and their interactions and conflicts. How fearful that [-p.55] the children should be hungry and lost in the forest; what a relief that they find an edible cottage and are invited in; how fearful that the wicked witch …Again, the educational trick will involve abstracting the feature of binary structures from fairy stories and seeing how it can be used in teaching algebra, history, or whatever.
A part of the folklore of educators at present, which has always bewildered me, is that young children are ‘concrete’ thinkers. Now clearly this idea captures something about the way young children’s thinking differs from adults’; but it is generally taken to mean that young children therefore can’t understand abstractions, among other intellectual deficiencies they are presumed to labor under. The trouble with such folklorish beliefs is that they then prevent those who hold them from seeing children except through those beliefs. But consider the foundations of those Grimm fairy stories – security/fear, courage/cowardice, good/bad: what more abstract ideas have you ever learned? Think also of the characters – they are not people in any rounded sense but representatives of beauty, simplicity, greed, terror, goodness, and so on. That is, it’s not just the underlying structure of the story that rides on abstractions but the characters also embody abstractions.
Young children do not usually use theoretic abstractions, but their thinking is constantly suffused with abstractions. Indeed it seems to make better sense than to claim that young children are concrete thinkers to claim that they make sense of the ‘concrete’ better when it is tied to underlying abstractions. It is the abstractions – love, hate, fear, security, anxiety, good, bad – that are more profoundly known and pervasively used in their thinking. Our educational program, then, will be sure to draw on, to stimulate, and to elaborate children’s use of abstractions. These emotionally charged abstractions are clearly another cognitive tool, we will sensibly try to develop another utility of our new oral language operating system.
The Grimm fairy tales, and children’s games, and most of what engages young children’s imaginations are built on these abstract, emotionally charged binary opposites. And if early schooling is to introduce children to the great stories and games of our culture – our [-p.56] history, science, mathematics, literature, and so on – we would surely be a little dense to ignore the structural feature we can see in all those other areas of their spontaneous engagement. Again, it might take a little ingenuity to see how to present mathematics and history in such terms, while ensuring they do not falsify what we want to teach. But only a little ingenuity is required, and the rewards in terms of children’s understanding can be enormous.
As time and experience, and education, continue, children learn to mediate between the opposites that provide their first grappling tools on knowledge. We each learn to build a conceptual world between the extremes – between the ideally good and the bad, the totally secure and the dangerous, the infinitely courageous and the cowardly. Education is a process of elaborating that conceptual middle world to more adequately reflect in language the world we experience. But our adult recognition that the binary terms we begin with are not adequate representations of the complex reality should not lead us either to fail to recognize or deny their utility in the earliest attempts to grapple with areas of knowledge.” (pp.54-55)

Generating images from words is one of the powerful cognitive tools that come along with oral language. Its immense utility was discovered long ago in the creation of shared images and feelings about who ‘we’ – our family, tribe, or nation – are, what we are doing here, and what we are supposed to do for the time we are here. In tandem with the story, this tool provides the conceptual glue that binds people together in society and generates their sense of solidarity and identity. Americans learn a story about their country’s founding and identity, and they learn a set of images, with appropriate emotional responses that support the story. Oddly enough, other countries do the same, in their peculiarly different ways – their stories and their potent images leave ‘us’ cold.
Given the range of social and psychological functions this image-forming tool allows us to perform, it is clearly something we need to use in educating and a tool we need, in turn, to educate. That is, when teaching mathematics, science, or history we need to attend beyond the concepts and knowledge to the images that can make the concepts and knowledge engaging and vivid. We will also be sensible to consider the conditions, apart from frequent use, that will stimulate increasing flexibility and sophistication in use of this tool. You may scan educational textbooks til your brain crumbles, but you will find hardly any notice of image generation from words, and no discussion of how teachers can stimulate and develop it. [-p.59]
Most commonly today we don’t simply ignore this cognitive tool but we almost seem intent on suppressing it. The young child today is bombarded with images. TV, of course, is the great enemy of this tool’s development, constantly providing images and undermining exercise of the capacity to generate one’s own images from words. We encourage instead the easy generation of stereotypical images. We, similarly, give children storybooks full of illustrations. Nearly all young children will be engaged more by an oral story told by an adult – even when told hesitantly, stumblingly – than by one read with many visually attractive illustrations. At least, this is the case when children have actually heard a story told. Many children today never experience this. Either they watch movies, or TV, or, at best, have a story read to them while they look at the pictures. Given the importance of generating images from words in the development  of the imagination, many children – often those from affluent backgrounds – suffer impoverishment of this tool from the beginning. So we will want to do something about this in our educational program.” (pp.58-59)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Kieran Egan (2008) The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. Yale University Press: New Haven and London

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Literate Contexts, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Teaching excellence, Understanding Education and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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