Long before the beginning of formal education, the printing press, and telecommunications, storytelling was the means for passing information and wisdom from generation to generation. Whether they described real events or utilized parables (or both), stories were the main tool for teaching and learning. Whether told around the campfire at family gatherings, on the battlefield, or in a sacred place, stories introduced listeners to the world of fantasy as well as to the realities of life, helped people understand their world, and provided the means for creating a public memory of history.
Stories remain a mainstay of informal, family- and community-based life and learning. Everyone’s life is made up of many stories. Sharing them is a way to connect with others on a more-than-superficial level, to pass on our experiences, and to build community. As Schenectady, New York storyteller Marni Gillard says, when people are encouraged to honor their own uniqueness, they are more apt to honor each other. Storytelling is a great way to share our uniqueness while at the same time discover our similarities.
Storytelling and Life Learning
In an article for Life Learning Magazine called Run Bus Car Broken, writing professor Gina Cassidy describes how storytelling is also an important step along the path toward joining what author Frank Smith calls “the literacy club.” Gina tells the story of her 21-month-old daughter.
“Coming out of the library, we had discovered that our car’s engine would not start. Seeing the bus go by, we made a dash for it: pregnant mom toting toddler, books, and diaper bag. My daughter thought this was great fun – the running and the bus ride. She blurted it out to her Dad when he came home. It made a great story: ‘run bus car broken.’ ”
As anyone who has listened to a small child breathlessly tell his or her own “run bus car broken” story knows, small moments in time can make great stories. And really, most moments are small ones. In his Life Learning Magazine article World History, Cricket, and the Eye of the Beholder, writer and ed tech designer Nathanael Schildbach reminds us that the stories of history are about everyday life and are being created by us all, on an ongoing basis. He writes,
“Marrying the notion that history is created and that it is created by all of us is the belief that everything is history. Since everything is created and not just spontaneously happening, everything is relevant to understanding history, and I mean everything. Anthropologists learn much about ancient civilizations by looking at their garbage, but have you ever had a history teacher who said that your grandparents’ trash was history?”
Learning is About Understanding
Storytelling is something we all do all day, whether it’s to explain why grandma can no longer walk as quickly as she used to, to share an amusing incident from our day over the dinner table, to gossip around the water cooler at work, to sit down at the computer and write an entry in our blog or social media account, or to play a video game. Stories are one of the main ways we human beings turn isolated experiences and facts into an understanding of how the world works. After all, real learning is not about knowing something, it’s about understanding it. And that’s what was happening all those evenings around those prehistoric campfires!