Technology + Storytelling + Critical Discourse = Learning 2.0

October 12, 2008

However good they are, web 2.0 technologies are still immature. Watch the editors of Opening Up Education, John Seely Brown, Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar, speak about the impact and implications of emerging technologies and you’ll see what I mean.

Part 2

Part 3

Now, if as it appears, the model of education is changing from one of pedagogy-as-knowledge-transfer to socially constructed knowledge, then it seems to me certain social skills–storytelling and critical discourse–are more important than ever. Otherwise, the opportunity to get together with people from all over the globe is wasted. Recently we’ve begun experimenting with web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, IM, Google Apps at my school. The students quickly master the technologies. They can learn to edit a wiki page without being taught. But they see these things as toys. Teaching them how to use the technology is easy–and will get easier as the technology develops. Teaching them how to think and how to tell a compelling story is, as it ever was and ever will be, immensely more challenging–and immensely more fun.

I can’t think of any more practical tool for the job than philosophy. (It may be a few years away yet, but I think we’ll soon realized what a mistake it was to drop it from the general curriculum so long ago. For a savage critique of Canadian education, read Hilda Neatby’s So Little for the Mind: An Indictment of Canadian Education. Written in 1953 is still largely holds true today.) We’ve been teaching practical reasoning and philosophy to middle school students at Island Pacific School for 14 years. The syllabus covers some formal logic, the structure of argument and fallacies, ethics and a survey of Western philosophy. But we’re an independent school and have more flexibility than any public school.

But the program needs work. I need a better look at non-Western philosophies, among other things. And I need to connect it to storytelling.  I do not mean to novel structure, or those zig-zagging plot diagrams. I’m interested in how you teach what a story is, what it does and in why we have stories at all. “Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history,” says Scientific American has a rather cold account of campfire tales. Richard Rorty says the best answers to our philosophical questions will be found in stories. Interestingly, when I ask my students to tell me their stories, they can’t. “How I spent my summer holidays” just doesn’t cut it. At best that would make a chapter. Even so, but they never write their adventures as if they were chapters. Students often write pedantically, not because they can’t write well, but because they can’t tell stories well. They have no sense of their own lives being part of a narrative, much less any sense of humanity having a narrative. Granted, there is probably something developmental involved here; I think you need meta-cognition before you can write your own story. But I don’t see in any curricula anywhere trying to coax real storytelling out of students at any age. Neither do I see any requiring students to memorize and tell stories. The best place to learn how this will be in something else we tossed out long ago, to our shame: Canadian First Nations culture. Their’s is a living model of socially constructed knowledge passed on through storytelling.

I’m glad to see web technologies develop. But I’d like to see concurrent development of philosophy and of storytelling in language/literature curricula in grade school curricula. Without those two, Learning 2.0 just doesn’t add up.

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2 Responses to “Technology + Storytelling + Critical Discourse = Learning 2.0”

  1. davidadewumi Says:

    Would love to chat with you about Heekya, the storytelling platform we’re building. http://blog.heekya.com/2008/10/heekya-as-educational-tool.html

    Another blogger, Morse’s Code , wrote a great post about Heekya and it’s potential as an educational tool. Read the post here:

    Heekya which is an digital storytelling tool that allows people to create stories that happen in real life. You can use it as a digital scrapbook or you can add to stories that are happening in the world. It is like the wikipedia for story-telling where others can come and create their version of the feature story, whether it is about a world event or a personal event (wedding). I can see a great potential for educational uses of this tool. Students can express their viewpoint about a specific event in history, current event, or storyline in a book or a topic. It also helps students to see the viewpoints on others on the same event or topic. This tools looks very promising and I am interested in using it to see what other possibilities it has for personal and educational use.

  2. braddodaddo Says:

    I saw Heekya a while ago–thanks for the reminder. I’ve sent Heekya an email so hopefully you’ll grant me a trial so I can play around with it.

    In any case, however good the tools are, we still need to get at the question, What does it mean to tell a story? I think there are two answers: First there is a simple accounting or this-is-the-way-I-see-things. That’s what Morse Code is talking about. It’s important and it’s certainly more than the sort of storytelling you get by reading through the aggreagation of someone’s Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn postings. Heekya could be a tool for that, but it won’t guarantee that it’s more than that.

    Secondly, there’s more to storytelling. The sorts of things that appear on social media sites are plot and chartacter details: here are my photos from my vacation in France, here are my favourite books, here’s what I think about the election results and so on. These tell the world about me, but they do not tell the world my story. And, as any critical reader knows, plot driven stories are fun to read, but not really very interesting. In a good story, the main character–that’s you or me–has something to overcome, a lesson to learn. This is not to suggest we are passive observers, mind you. When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. Today, we live, but by tomorrow today will be a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story. But, I might now ask, why does anyone tell a story? Madeline L’Engle says it has “something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.” Or, as Walt Whitman wrote in Oh Me! Oh Life! “The powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” This final line of his poem is framed as an answer to a question, what good we amid “the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish…”? Whitman’s choice to use the future tense fills the poem with tremendous hope; it conveys a sense of prediction and promise. But the hope is contingent on us; we are inescapably the authors of our own verses and we must admit that we may either contribute something good or something mediocre, or worse.

    So, if a new technology can help me build a sense of story, as I’ve just described it, as well as the skill of storytelling, then it’s worth something. But it will need to have more leverage than good old pen and paper. I’m genuinely curious to see what Heekya can do.


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