By Karen Brakke, Ph.D., Spelman College
One of my intellectual heroes is Jerome Bruner. In graduate school – back in the last century – it was his writings on infant language acquisition and skill development that guided my thinking. As my research interests drifted into early motor development, I stepped away from Bruner in favor of another hero, Esther Thelen. Then, around 2010 I joined a faculty book club on my campus and read Acts of Meaning. I fell for Bruner all over again; this time focusing on his arguments about the use of story and narrative to share meaning and create identity. Since that time, I’ve had the good luck to engage in a number of collaborations that have convinced me that story and narrative are critical tools for psychology instructors, and that these tools can be used to advantage in many ways.
Stories themselves are not new, of course, nor are the narratives or frames used to tell them. In fact, the power of story lies in its timelessness. Our ancestors have told stories since the dawn of recorded history, and probably for generations before that. Indeed, in many ways our brains are built to create and learn through stories. Throughout the millennia and across all cultures, as Bruner argues, stories have been used as a way for people to share experiences, pass along knowledge and wisdom to others, and provide frames of meaning to our lives. In short, stories have long been the tools of education.
One of the goals of contemporary teaching, particularly in this age of staggering data proliferation, is to help students generate meaning about what they learn. Why not use stories to help do this? As psychologists teaching about human behavior, many of us already use stories to support our work in the classroom. We may do so, however, with little thought other than wanting to provide an illustrative example here and there. Or we may write case studies without fully realizing the narrative devices that make some cases more effective than others. We may not take advantage of all the ways that stories can be used in our classes to introduce or assess material, to reinforce and apply concepts, or even to help our students practice life-authorship as they prepare for adulthood.
This blog doesn’t provide nearly enough space to discuss all the ways in which story can support teaching and learning. Fortunately, there are many resources available that support the pedagogical use of story in higher education. Several websites are devoted to the art and craft of storytelling. Among these is Tim Sheppard’s site (http://www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/), which provides a clearinghouse of resources that you may find helpful. If you are interested in digital storytelling, the Creative Educator website (https://creativeeducator.tech4learning.com/digital-storytelling) is a good place to start. The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/about/) provides a host of resources on case-study development and has several psychology-relevant case studies available for use as well.
Other resources not only provide practical ideas to use in the classroom, but also delve into the science behind storytelling. For a quick overview of using story to teach psychology, I recommend three articles: Green and Brock (2000), Hazel (2008), and Landrum, Brakke, and McCarthy (2019). One of my favorite sources of inspiration – and not just because I worked on it – is Telling Stories: The Art and Science of Storytelling as an Instructional Strategy, an STP ebook available for free download at http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/tellingstories.html. Collins & Cooper’s The Power of Story: Teaching Through Storytelling is a handy book as well. For a deeper dive into the role that stories play in human development and culture, I suggest (of course) Bruner’s Acts of Meaning and Actual Minds, Possible Worlds; Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, or Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. Once you start looking, you’ll find a wealth of additional resources to support different uses of story in your teaching. If you take the time to explore and let your creativity flow, I’m confident you’ll find a lot of engaging and effective ways to expand your teaching toolkit with story.
Boyd, B. (2009). On the origin of stories: Evolution, cognition, and fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Brakke, K. & Houska, J. A. (Eds.). (2015). Telling stories: The art and science of storytelling as an instructional strategy [ebook]. Retrieved from http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/tellingstories.html
Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning (Vol. 3). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. S. (2009). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Collins, R., & Cooper, P. J. (2005). The power of story: Teaching through storytelling (2nd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701-721.
Hazel, P. (2008). Toward a narrative pedagogy for interactive learning environments. Interactive Learning Environments, 16, 199-213.
Landrum, R. E., Brakke, K., & McCarthy, M. (2019). The pedagogical power of storytelling. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 5, 247-253. DOI: 10.1037/stl0000152
Karen Brakke is Associate Professor of Psychology at Spelman College in Atlanta GA, where she teaches a variety of courses and serves on several committees. A developmental psychologist by training, she has published on early cognitive and motor development as well as teaching and learning. Brakke is active in the Society for the Teaching of Psychology and has participated in many of the organization’s initiatives over the years.