01/03/2017 11:20 GMT | Updated 02/03/2018 05:12 GMT

The Power Of The Story


What is 'good teaching'? I was recently discussing this with my students, when one of them remarked 'you seem to have had a lot of good teachers when you were at school'. It was one of those comments that left me thinking, and as I went through my memories I realised that not only was she right, but that they all shared a specific quality- they were talented storytellers.

The first excellent storyteller to teach me, and the one who influenced me the most was my paternal grandmother. She could make a mundane incident in her past live vividly for me. She could conjure up the heat haze on her balmy June wedding day, during the blazing 1914 summer in which the First World War was declared (my ex-soldier grandfather was called up on 15th August, less than three months later), or make me believe that I could actually see the lamplighter's soot-smeared face at her first floor childhood bedroom window, smiling and waving at two little sisters who were supposed to be asleep, but were in fact playing quietly together ('he never told' she said).

Then there was my lovely, jolly Year Two teacher who told us story after story about Anansi the Spider, a favourite with her when she was a little girl in Ghana, and my sensitive, literary Year Six teacher who actually took us to Westminster Bridge in the early morning to read us William Wordsworth's poem Upon Westminster Bridge.

The head teacher of the primary school I attended encouraged her staff to utilise the local area, a mile south of Tower Bridge. We were told stories of Shakespeare's Globe (not yet rebuilt), and taken to the pub courtyard where Shakespeare rehearsed his plays, which also neighboured the old site of the Tabard Inn where Chaucer's fictional pilgrims left for Canterbury. This culminated in a modern English Year 5 production of Julius Caesar and a teacher retelling of some of the more child-friendly Canterbury Tales, such as the story of Chanticleer.

How did we ever have enough time for all this? In those pre-SATs and pre-accountability days, the last half an hour of every school day for every year group in the school, from Reception to Year Six was spent sitting on the carpet, listening to the teacher read a story. It was here that I first heard The Chronicles of Narnia, a children's version of theIliad and Odyssey legends and, in Year 6, several Dickens novels, the narrative of some being set in the streets around the school. The literary Year 6 teacher was also very good at characterisation, and it is always his impression of Fagin, Scrooge and Mr Micawber that I hear in my mind, despite having seen the characters interpreted by many different actors since my first encounter with the stories.

Finally there was my secondary school History teacher, who, alongside teaching us Acts that passed through Parliament and battles that were fought, made sure that she provided us with small 'storytelling' extracts within each lesson that made the historical characters live for us; for example why Queen Victoria loved Disraeli and despised Gladstone, why Queen Elizabeth I most likely considered that on the whole, it probably wasn't a good idea to marry (which was also my introduction to basic feminist concepts), and why the Kaiser thought that he should have really been the King of England.

As an adult, much of my research has focused on narrative and storytelling, particularly the evolved nature of storytelling for human beings, and the ancient oral transmission of cultural narratives such as that found in the contemporary Native Australian process of Dadirri, which requires unhurried listening.

Is such unhurried listening a skill that our children have lost in our current, restless 'always on' culture, with its constant connectivity and the requirement for fast paced learning? Might there be some connection between minds that are never still and contemplative, and the increase in mental breakdown amongst young people?

Perhaps we should return to the last half hour in every primary school being a time for storytelling, and possibly for the youngest children, mount a national campaign to encourage parents to ensure that the bedtime routine includes story time. Stories are a natural food for the human mind, and it is likely that cultivating the skill of Dadirri in western cultures would be just as conducive to the health of the mind as 'five (or even ten) a day fruit and veg' are for the health of the body.