Wednesday, 2 December 2020

How important is narrative in your classroom and school? Principle 19

Part of what separates humanity from other creatures is that God made us to be story tellers. From the beginning story was to hold a special place as part of human existence. Harold Rosen (in ‘Stories and Meanings’) reminds us that much of human existence is dependent on story, for it helps us to move through the seeming chaos of life towards understanding. In fact, some of life’s greatest insights are shared through story. As well, much human wisdom, knowledge and understanding have been passed down through the ages in the form of stories.

Alasdair MacIntyre in his book ‘After Virtue’ goes further and suggests that ‘man (sic) is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal’. We frequently think in narrative, pass on our personal history, envision the future and speak of the present predominantly through story. 

But you might ask, am I claiming that God’s story of redemption is evident in literature? In a sense, I am claiming this. Barth saw it this way, and drew on Calvin’s idea that all of creation is the ‘theatre of God’s glory’. Literature he argued, even that written by the non-believers, can be used by God as part of his general revelation to mankind. Tate suggests that Barth’s use of ‘parable’ is appropriate, as secular stories can point to a meaning beyond the basic narrative. Secular parables might be used by God to speak to particular people in specific contexts. I too believe, that just as God uses the preaching of biblical literature to reveal inexplicable meanings at times for the preacher’s audience, so too, secular parables can be used by God to point to the central narrative of God’s redemptive plans for his creation.


Understanding that God can reveal himself through all of creation, including the works of humankind, should free us to embrace secular literature, Indigenous dreamtime stories from varied nations, folk tales and even the anecdotes of life as vehicles for God’s revelation of truth to us. This is not to suggest that all that is written in the name of literature should be freely shared with our children, but it does allow us to avoid the extremes of disengagement with the literature and stories of the world, as well as avoiding total assimilation and acceptance.


I wrote a number of years ago in my book ‘Pathways to Literacy’ that literature is not just about the enjoyment of story. I claimed that it is about life, and one's world. As such, literature and stories do much more than entertain, they can act as:


• mirrors to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances;

• sources of knowledge;

• sources of ideological challenge;

• a means to peer into the past, and the future;

• vehicles to other places;

• a way to reflect on inner struggles;

• an introduction to the realities of life and death; and

  a way to raise and discuss varied social issues.


Pathways to 'life' and understanding

Chapter 7 of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' is devoted to a discussion of ‘Storytelling and Life’, and in it I explore story in detail. I contend that people learn from stories in their varied forms, and frequently share their lives with other students through stories. The Bible is filled with stories and it is a key way in which God communicates with us. God has given us the ability to tell stories and understand them as a key means of his revelation to us. It is through God’s stories that we understand who he is. And as God’s creatures made in his image, the stories we share directly and indirectly in life, can point to or away from God. How do the stories we share at school suggest implied views on the value of humanity, our beliefs, hopes, fears, and knowledge? Is my classroom a place where children tell their stories, and where others listen and gain hope and inspiration to seek God? To what extent are our stories and those we encourage in school life, echoes of the central meta-narrative of the Bible, that is, God’s redemptive plan for his people? For as Tolkien suggested, the gospel of Christ is “the greatest story of them all.”


Trinity College Library Dublin

What I’m suggesting is that literature as a form of narrative offers readers endless possibilities for exploration, imagination, learning and challenge, and it serves a key role in school education, particularly in the elementary school years. This role for literature is much broader and less explicitly connected to biblical truth than traditional Bible stories for children. But nonetheless, stories can point to, and illustrate, God’s salvation narrative and his work in our lives. They can also be used by God as part of his general revelation and common grace to us, both to enrich our imagined and hoped for view of the ‘good life’, and in the process, drawing attention to aspects of the human condition. As a result of this, stories can bring into focus truth, beauty and goodness, as well as human virtues that reflect the grace and providence of God. The eighth chapter of my book (“Imagination and Life”), might be helpful if you’d like to explore these issues some more.


Related references of relevance to this post


Trevor H. Cairney (1990). Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature, Portsmouth (NH): Heinemann.

Trevor H. Cairney (1995). Pathways to Literacy, London: Cassell.

Trevor H. Cairney (2018). Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning and Formation, Eugene (OR): Cascade Books.   


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