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Developing Critical Thinkers: How Story Telling and Getting it Less Wrong are the Best Teaching Tools

Angela DiGioia's picture

Human activity towards the pursuit of new knowledge will enable the continued creation of stories, which will fuel exploration and social growth. All humans, regardless of their title, must be taught and encouraged to foster skepticism, open-mindedness, and a commitment to what is yet to be. (Grobstein)

Stories have been used for centuries as a means of creating an emotional bridge between people who may or may not have a common understanding of the same set of issues. They encourage human interaction and exploration of experiences to create new knowledge in our constantly evolving world. Stories empower individuals and give value to their observations and analysis, enabling them to communicate these thoughts with others. In an often polarized and politicized world, stories are the means by which human brains can interact to create shared experiences and new observations to explore. These loopy interpersonal relations and conflicts between brains are opportunities that we as a society should foster in elementary education.  More emphasis ought to be placed on encouraging critical reflection and continuous interpersonal conversation from a young age. If we fail at doing this, our already stratified society will cease to evolve and become trapped in our self-assured ways. 

As a child, I was encourage to think independently and critically of the world around me to make decisions for myself. The elementary and high school that I attended placed a great emphasis on cultural and ethnic diversity at each of these institutions.   School administration and teachers did a wonderful job of embracing our multicultural student body and integrating stories into classroom curricula. Students felt comfortable and connected, creating a vibrant community of learners who were engaged in social growth and academic exploration. “Individuals gain a better understanding of one another through the use of concrete examples...storytelling enables individuals to build the bridge of understanding between one another…storytelling becomes a mutual creation involving interaction and understanding between teller and listener.” (Abrahamson) Storytelling has been the most effective tool to generate new understandings in my education—both in school and in the workplace. It connects the two experiences through cataloguing my interpersonal relationships as memories that explain who I am today and how I came to be. 

In contrast to my experience in school, my young cousins do not seem to have any type of story telling built into their elementary curriculum. Although they, too, attend an ethnically and culturally diverse school, there is no emphasis placed on learning about each child’s background.   In contrast to my experience, they are not excited about school in the same way that I was; they feel as if they have no voice in the classroom. Extrapolating the effects of the differences in their education with mine, my cousins’ young minds have not been given the opportunity to connect and learn from their classmates, and are more reluctant to move outside of their established routines as a result.  Perhaps, the cognitive unconscious part of their brains, which attempts to continuously understand and interpret a set of circumstances, does not have the same depth of experience filed away as mine did at their age. Their minds have not been challenged to reconcile as many differences between the unconscious and conscious storyteller or between their brain and another child’s. Thus, they expand their individual understanding and openness to new events at a slower rate.

In the highly technologically dependent world in which we live, stories are the only way to engage children and adults in feeling a sense of personal connection to wider happenings. (Brookfield) In comparison to previous generations, our nation’s youth, if at all similar to my cousins, do not have the same accumulation of experiences in their unconscious from which to create their own values and sense of self. By accelerating the informal use of storytelling in the classroom, these children will feel empowered to share their experiences, triggering the collective advancement of the class (including the teacher) through interpersonal conflict. “Storytelling occurs naturally within the classroom as students relate their own life experiences with one another and the instructor…forming a sense of commonality between instructor and students.” (Abrahamson)   By weaving story telling into the course curriculum, teachers are able to teach to the student’s conscious storyteller, where it will be evaluated and incorporated into the student’s knowledge base and value system.

Story telling is a generative activity that creates an integrated and educated mind that is connected to both the logical and imaginative ways of knowing. (Egan)  I would define an educated mind as a child engaging in the world around them, asking questions, and seeking answers.  Over time, they develop their inquisitive sense and begin to form opinions about the world, other people, information that they hear, etc, based on their ability to critically assess whether they agree or disagree with a piece of information.  This child--now an adult-- embodies an individual all his or her own with specific moral and social opinions.  As a result of their ability to analyze information that was reinforced at a young age, they are able to contribute their unique ideas and beliefs to society to help others see and learn information in a new light. 

A qualitative research study in 1997 (Strauss and Corbin) studied the researcher and subjects in an iterative process where participants’ responses and reflections of the research questions were studied over time. As the study progressed, their reflections deepened and protocol questions were changed in order to better represent their thinking, reflectivity, and input. During the interviews, students repeatedly discussed the plots of stories by relating them to their own life experiences, creating a “transactional relationship” between reality, memory, and imaginary/narrative worlds. (Bruner) These types of loopy connections help learners to identify what they know and can contextualize with what is unknown, affording them the ability to create new understandings through their interaction with the story teller (3rd Loop). Students that participated in this study demonstrated that the story telling experience was both educative and powerful because it allowed them to compare and control their understanding by comparing real and fantasy worlds. The students remarked that story telling created relationships between students and the story, between the story and life experience, and between the teller and listener. As the studied progressed, subjects began to either challenge their own traditional and conformist ideas or adjust their consciousness to reflect their new view of a specific story. (Interaction of Loops 1, 2, and 3) (Mello)

As demonstrated by this study, story telling is the means by which we as humans interact and evolve throughout our lives. It is the link between the often fragmented parts of people’s lives, enabling children and adults alike to make connections to their own lives as well as diplomatically relate to others through the role of listener.    The act of telling, combined with the content in the story itself, creates an undeniable connection between the learner and both the interpersonal and intrapersonal realms. (Mello)

Over the past few weeks in class, we broke into small groups to address a question that was posed to us.  In all of my groups, we told stories of our own education and beliefs as they related to the question.  Stories enable human beings to relate to each other through an emotional connection that is built between the teller and the person listening.  After the teller is finished, the listener likely feels that they were actually there for the experiences that the teller was describing.  They too would be able to tell the story to another person now. In this way, knowledge and learning are accelerated through the passage of information through the medium of stories. Although the story is latent with the teller's bias, the person listening is able to assess what resounds with them and what does not and why. There is no Truth established in this iterative process, although new knowledge is created through the conversation that arises between the teller and listener. (Loop 3)

If utilized effectively, story telling eliminates cultural, social, and economic inequality by establishing that there is no absolute Truth. Humans are connected by interpersonal conflict and the creation of shared experiences. In this model, teaching is storytelling and a curriculum is a collection of the great stories of our culture. Teachers are the tellers of our culture’s tales and should be awarded higher honor. (Egan) Because storytelling as a much an art as a science, practice is required and should be encouraged in schools from a young age.  Children are full of stories and observations and, like adults, often need to be reminded that they do not possess the Truth on a given topic.  By practicing how to civilly engage in the process of telling and listening with adults and other children, stories will build the foundation for children to become adults who are able to express themselves clearly and succinctly. They will be able to convey information as well as to critically and respectfully assess other information that they encounter in the world towards the end of “getting it less wrong”.

 Works Cited:

Abrahamson, Craig. (Spring 1998) Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool in Higher Education, Education, pp. 440-451. 

B. Bickmore, D. Grandy, P. Grobstein. Science as Storytelling or Story Telling? A Conversation About Science Education…and Science. /sci_cult/scienceis/bickmoregrandygrob.html.

Brookfield, Stephen. (1987) Developing Critical Thinkers: Challening Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bruner, Jerome. (1990) Acts of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Deresiewicz, William. (June 1, 2008) The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, The American Scholar, Cover Story.

Egan, Kieran. Memory, Imagination, and Learning: Connected by the Story.

Grobstein, Paul. (2005a) Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising, Journal of Research Practice, Volume 1.1, Article M1.

Grobstein, Paul. (2007) Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Sharing, Journal of Research Practice

Mello, Robin. (February 2, 2001) The Power of Storytelling: How Oral Narrative Influences Children’s Relationships in Classrooms, International Journal of Education & the Arts, Volume 2, Number 1.



DP's picture

Grobstein (2007)

The Grobstein (2007) citation should be revised to:

Grobstein, P. (2007). Interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and beyond: The brain, story sharing, and social organization. Journal of Research Practice, 3(2), Article M21. Retrieved from

Paul Grobstein's picture

different kinds of story telling?

"story telling eliminates cultural, social, and economic inequality by establishing that there is no absolute Truth"

I wish.  But I suspect we both have to admit that there are equally "stories" that promote and sustain inequalities of various kinds.  And that in turn raises a more general question.  If all understandings are "stories" then its useful but not sufficient to increase attention to story tellling in classrooms.  There must, as well, be some way to distinguish some story telling from other story telling, and to promote that which "eliminates ... inequality"?  Are these ideas in some sense naturally linked or are there actually two distinct ideas here?