Learning by doing and storytelling

Menno van Dijk 1
May 13th, 2015
Article by: Menno van Dijk, Laurie Kemp
Learning by doing and storytelling

This article is part of THNK VIEWS. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners from a rich database of research papers. This article is based on the research paper Stimulating Creative Rationality to Stimulate Innovation by Joelle Forest and Michel Faucheux, and discusses the importance of learning by doing and storytelling for creativity and innovation.

 

We are taught that great minds think alike. While this may have worked during pre-twenty-first century industrial times, this is no longer the case today. We need creative and diverse minds that can navigate through the chaos, uncertainty, and adventure of our present-day society —each individual contributing in their own unique way.

Beyond knowledge factories

Much has been written about the failures of our current education system: high drop-out rates, the failure to engage children, flawed assessment and grading methods, and a huge talent deficit caused by the gap between what is taught at schools and what is required in the marketplace. And what about our teachers? The prevailing but saddening belief is that, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Designed for skills and expertise needed during the industrial age, our schools are “knowledge factories” that focus on conformity and mass reproduction of knowledge. Faced, however, with unprecedented rates of social change, technological advances and digitization, our schooling systems require major repair. How might we make education more rewarding for students and teachers, and better prepare them for society and the future at hand?

According to Joelle Forest and Michel Faucheux, the underlying issue of all these educational-related problems is that the system is too left-brain oriented, and over-emphasizes the mere reproduction of existing knowledge, instead of the actual creation of new knowledge and ideas. Creativity is confused with “the mass production of ideas.” On a societal level, this is problematic because creation and innovation, per definition, require the generation of new ideas and solutions. On a personal level, reproducing known facts just isn’t as exciting as going on adventurous quests for solutions, is it? This system hinders all levels of creative and innovative thinking —both key drivers of creation, development, and growth.

learning by doing
Designed for skills and expertise needed during the industrial age, our schools are “knowledge factories” that focus on conformity and mass reproduction of knowledge. Click To Tweet

While cramming endless rows of words might be useful when learning another language, shouldn’t the real focus be to learn how to read between the lines (and make it fun along the way)? Why not transform schools into adventurous playgrounds? How about we start valuing a multitude of possible but uncertain outcomes over single and known certain results? Why not cultivate skills like self-discovery acuity, adaptability, and resourcefulness among our children and students? We instill and encourage creative capacity by creating schools that:

  • Facilitate inter-disciplinary learning by looking for powerful combinations of separate ideas and navigating between various fields of knowledge.
  • Foster diversity in interactions and so-called otherness; educational segregation does not serve us well.
  • Stimulate group work and deep collaboration over clear allocation of responsibilities and internal competition.
  • Learn by doing through self-discovery and putting people on “adventures”; these have to be personal development journeys as well.
  • Use storytelling to communicate and also develop new ideas.
learning by doing
Why not transform schools into adventurous playgrounds? Why not cultivate skills like self-discovery, acuity, adaptability, and resourcefulness among our children and students? Click To Tweet

The power of storytelling

It is well-documented that learning is divided in inter-disciplinary learning, diversity of backgrounds, a focus on group-work and collaboration, and experiential learning, which benefits the “pedagogy of adventure”. However, the last finding —pointing to the key role of language and storytelling in developing creative rationality— is something that often goes unnoticed in the discourse on educational reform.

Storytelling transcends culture and time, all the way back to our cavemen days. Over time we turned to fairy tales and myths to transfer the wisdom and knowledge necessary for survival —for many indigenous communities, this is still the case today. Human beings remember knowledge when poured into the narrative of a story. Faucheux and Forest add that “most of our experience, knowledge, and thinking is organized as stories —it is a basic principle of our mind.” Knowledge transmission is but one of the benefits of storytelling. Storytelling encourages personal development in the form of reflection, improved communication skills, and social connection. Stories ignite personal reflection and establish relationships with others and with the unknown; it forces people to delve deeper within themselves to break cultural barriers, defy social differences, and unearth new experiences.

Above all, storytelling sparks imagination. It inspires us to go beyond mere data, reason, and logic, and helps us to “contextualize problems and relativize it on meta-level, thereby stimulating radically different logics and solutions,” the study concludes. This way, using metaphors and narration, language plays a vital role in shaping new ideas.  It opens up new worlds, and invites to abandon comfort zones and delve into the unknown.

learning by doing
Stories ignite personal reflection and establish relationships with others and with the unknown; it forces people to delve deeper within themselves to break cultural barriers, defy social differences, and unearth new experiences. Click To Tweet

The bright sheep

Why, then, do we confine storytelling to early childhood bedtime practice and kindergarten leisure time, in which children primarily listen passively? Nigerian diaspora author Chimamanda Adichie also emphasizes how our current stories and narratives show the lack of diversity in our present society.  She points to the danger of living “a single story”: our lives and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, yet, in many ways, we now live our lives in the presence of a single narrative. She recalls moving to the United States, and being confronted with widespread prejudice of what it means to be African. Reflecting on her own upbringing, she mentions the childhood books she was exposed to offered Western narrative. As a result, her own stories resolved around characters drinking English “ginger beer”, something that she had never seen growing up in Nigeria.

Learning by Doing and Storytelling 2
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” – Chimamanda Adichie @AdichieSpeaks Click To Tweet

As Adichie stresses, there are great dangers in telling a single story, yet this is what we currently do: we educate children to think alike and to conform to existing norms and dominant narratives, undermining children’s innate capacity to creative thinking and imagination. In most schools, storytelling practices are practically non-existent. In doing so, we create “bright but insecure sheep”, says education critic William Deresiewicz in a recent piece.

By re-integrating storytelling into our schooling methods, we can enable logic and creativity to jointly come to new ideas and greater solutions. Initiatives for this do exist but they often do so in the margins of society. We at THNK have elevated storytelling as a signature strength in our curriculum. Our hope is to find ways to integrate adventurous and creative learning into mainstream curricula, and create a system of education in which storytelling is rediscovered and taken to new heights.

To discover the power of storytelling for creativity, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program, a 6-month part-time learning journey to help you realize your fullest creative leadership potential and scale your world-changing enterprise.




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