Storytelling in the Social Studies Classroom, pp. 2 of 8

When teachers introduce stories into their lessons, what may be achieved are lessons that are “far richer in content and fuller of wisdom” than anything they had planned to achieve prior to the lesson (Jackson, 1995, p 22). One of the reasons why stories can deliver far more than they promise is because in stories, it is left to the listener to make the psychological connections between events and to interpret them personally. In other words, storytelling allows listeners to define their own meanings of events told to them. Thus, very often, the story can achieve much more than a logical recounting of facts can. Moreover, stories help us create vivid mental images and experience many things that we would otherwise not experience (Ang, 2014). Jackson (1995) argues that there is a place for stories in the school curriculum as stories:

“…leave us with altered states of consciousness, new perspectives, changed outlooks, and more. They help to create new appetites and interests. They gladden and sadden, inspire and instruct. They acquaint us with aspects of life that had been previously unknown. In short, they transform us, alter us as individuals.” (p 9)

Stories, hence, have transforming power and the potential to amplify the efforts of a teacher. It is hence not unusual that at the end of a lesson, a learner’s key takeaway could very well be a story and the lessons that accompany that story. A story “does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time” (Benjamin, 1968, p 90). When a story lays claim to a space in the memory of the listener, it has the potential to be repeated someday to someone else. Hence, stories are also powerful tools for the retention of knowledge.

How do teachers tell stories? Because storytelling so often happens incidentally, stories are often told without the audience of peers and we have few accounts of storytelling in the classroom. As a research assistant at National Institute of Education, I was privileged to observe many social studies classrooms over three years of data collection (2013-2015) and to listen to some of these stories told by teachers. During this period of observation, the curriculum in use was the one before the present 2016 secondary social studies syllabus, organized around “Being Rooted, Living Global” (MOE & UCLES, 2015). This article centers upon four stories. They are not exhaustive, but a selection of some of the more creative and enigmatic stories that I have encountered. The audiences of these stories are students between the ages of 15 to 17. All names used in the following recounts are pseudonyms. Even though the examples given are from the secondary level, the ideas and suggestions in this article can have applications in primary social studies.

Moral Story

Stories are oral and dynamic in nature. When a teacher tells a story, the students are right there. The teacher shapes the story according to the circumstances of the time, and students’ reactions and responses are all part of the telling. The following story was told in response to a comment made by a cynical student in a Normal (Technical) classroom. In this lesson on “Caring for Society”, Ravi taught his students the importance of doing good and contributing to society by giving multiple examples of individuals who had done charity work. Towards the end of the lesson, Ravi asked, “When people do all these acts of kindness, how do you think they feel?” Most students agreed that it would feel good both to do a kind act and be a recipient of one. But one student did not agree and said, “In Singapore, you help people, people call you a busybody.” At this point, as the class was about to end, Ravi introduces this story:

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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