Bringing History to Life with Storytelling
This blog is the fifth of a series of five on the topic of storytelling and history. While I am not a historian, I have had a life-long love of history and have been privileged to work as a storytelling consultant to national museums. Writing this blog provides me with a way of working out and articulating my method when telling historical stories.
This series of blogs is structured as follows:
Part 1 - Storytelling
Why Stories Stick: Narration and the Organisation of Ideas
Part 2 - Character-Focused Storying (using the example of the story of the Suffragettes)
Part 3 - Event-Focused Storying (using the example of the Battle of Hastings)
Part 4 - Artefact-Focused Storying (using the example of a wooden Spindle) Memorising and Telling
Part 5 - History and The Tales That We Tell - Summary
If you are interested in more of my thinking on using storytelling to teach history, I have an article, 'Storytelling the Past' in the Historical Association's magazine Primary History (Issue 86, Autumn 2020) CLICK HERE - please note that this article is behind a 'pay wall'.
This concluding blog in this series on Storying the Past is an adapted and updated version of Chapter 7 ‘Stories of pipers and tales of tall ships: history and geography through storytelling’ from Daniel, A.K. (2012) Storytelling Across the Primary Curriculum. Abingdon: Routledge (CLICK HERE).
My childhood love of history has never worn off and stories that were populated with kings, pirates, martyrs, scientists and tyrants have stayed with me – a statement which reveals some of the tensions within the teaching of history in school, indeed, about the very nature of history itself. Although I don’t want to spend a lot of time entering a debate that is explored elsewhere, and by others who speak with an authority that is in contrast with my simple enthusiasm, it is important to acknowledge that the approach of treating history as story is not an uncontested one.
The skills of the historian can be viewed as the ability to engage in ‘...examination of sources and interpretations in a critical, appraising way to generate theories about their validity and reliability: historical methodology is characterised by scrupulous respect for evidence and disciplined use of the imagination (Davies and Donoghue 1998: 117). Davies and Donaghue argue for the place of story in history teaching, but recognise that the need for children to examine, interpret, appraise and, above all, be critical is in conflict with the potential for them to be cast in the role of passive receivers of a personal interpretation of events. The Finnish sociologist Matti Hyvärinen, in his paper ‘Towards a Conceptual History of Narrative’ (2006: 23) cites an earlier essay by the historian Louis Mink: ‘Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles, or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story’. In other words, the narrative structures that we ascribe to historical events are artificial structures imposed on events which unfold through human encounters – encounters that are lived moment to moment rather than plotted. And to be fair, in Parts 2-4 of this blog series I have provided an approach to story making that is unashamedly structuralist, demonstrating Hyvärinen’s point.
In my work, I often return to Livo and Reitz’s assertion that story is a ‘way of organising language’ (1986: 5), which means that, whether we are creating tales around characters, events or artefacts, historical stories are linguistic frameworks, a series of connections which enable us to make sense of the past. These connections, of course, represent the storyteller’s particular viewpoint as they inevitably include some details and exclude others (and at the same time ascribe affective and moral value to them). Indeed, the very act of choosing to study a particular character, event or artefact privileges that character, event or artefact over others which are not chosen for close study (a point of particular relevance to the classroom teaching of history). The storyteller, then, cannot help but take an evaluative stance towards historical events, and the characters that people them, communicating this evaluation not only through the language chosen, but also through non-verbal elements of communication.
The storyteller, or storytelling teacher, is not only reducing the breadth of human experiences to a series of linked events (with points of commencement, crises and conclusion that have been imposed on seamless time), but they are also claiming the authority of a person who can speak without reference to a source text. Their standpoint, their evaluation, carries a personal weight that reading a story from a book would not carry. Alan Farmer and Christine Cooper (both committed to the role of storytelling in history teaching) cite unpublished research by Bage (1995) when they suggest:
Some fear that stories appear to locate too much power in the hands of the teacher. The storyteller/teacher can oversimplify: can sketch characters as caricatures and complex situations as archetypes of good or evil. Arguably, when the teacher ‘takes for granted’ the moral basis or outcome of a story or an episode in history, the children learning from it are denied the opportunity critically and democratically to decide their own version or interpretation of what ‘this story means or shows’. Storytellers can impose coherence where there is none. They can promote acceptance, close down possibilities and exclude questioning. (1998:27)
However, Farmer and Cooper go on to argue that the teacher (and, for our purposes, the storyteller) is present as a person with a wider frame of historical knowledge than the children with whom they are working, and creating story is a means by which order can be given to otherwise disparate events. As Rosie Turner-Bisset states in her book ‘Creative teaching: history in the primary classroom’:
‘The ordering of experience through the sequencing of events in a spoken narrative seems to have a much more lasting impact on the human mind than does a collection of facts and concepts, or even an organised web of linked ideas’ (2005: 87).
A solution to concerns over the power of the teacher as a purveyor of personal interpretations of historic events is to make our standpoint explicit – when we relate historic narratives we need to be clear about whose tale we are telling, and recognise the evaluative nature of our storytelling. It is possible to use storytelling to lead to meaningful dialogue about the complexity of issues that become woven together to make an engaging narrative. Further, it is noted in the 2007 OFSTED report History in the balance: history in English Schools 2003-2007 that children are weak at ‘linking information to form an overall narrative or story’; by constructing historical narratives themselves, teachers are providing a model of conceptual organisation in narrative form.
Having given some consideration to the nature of storytelling and the use of the story form, we need also to consider the content of those tales we use in classroom history. Here another tension is revealed, between that of the retelling of the remarkable against the study of the everyday. According to theorist William Labov, a reportability (or tellability) is what makes us want to listen to a story, and a reportable event is that which ‘is least likely to have occurred and has the greatest effect on the lives and life chances of the participants’ (2013: 23). Stories of the powerful are often inherently tellable because they have the greatest effect on the greatest number of lives. None of this means that the lives of the workers or the poor are not tellable, but they need to be framed in a different way so that we are drawn into a personal sympathy for their circumstances and the events that surround them.
During a fascinating panel session on storytelling and history for the World Storytelling Cafe (CLICK HERE), storyteller Dave Tonge discussed the way that surviving artefacts tend to be those belonging to the powerful. Organisations such as the National Trust in the UK are putting a lot of effort into telling the stories of those who worked in great houses and on the country estates, but the majority of the artefacts that remain associated with these people are, of course, those that defined their working lives rather than personal effects (of which they had far fewer than the wealthy and powerful). At the age of six my hero was Horatio Nelson – his life story was told (with fairly unsophisticated line drawings) on the children’s television programme ‘Blue Peter’ and I treasured any book that had details of his transformation from unpromising sickly child to Britain’s greatest naval hero. Living in the south of England it was not too difficult for my parents to take me to see Nelson’s Flagship HMS Victory at Portsmouth, and I will never forget the experience of seeing something of how the ordinary sailors lived (and suffered) - my insight into the lives of the working people was both motivated, and given context, by the story of one remarkable (and flawed) man. Of course, at that time, Nelson's support for slavery was not part of the story that was told of him, and so the tale of his life did not lead to me think about the tragedy of how the lives of others were traded. When I was eleven I was fortunate enough to visit the treasures of Pharaoh Tutankhamen when they came to the British Museum – drawn, yes, by fabulous items of gold, but made significant because of the intertwining stories of the boy king and the Egyptologists who discovered his tomb (of course, this meant Europeans rather than Egyptian authorities) - needless to say, I was fascinated with anything connected with Ancient Egypt for the next seven years. Although Tutankhamen was a king-god, through that visit to see his treasure in the British Museum prompted me to learn about the lives of the ordinary people of Egypt – their work, their homes, their gods and their interconnectedness with the pharaonic system. Both of these chapters in my life journeys into history were initiated by story, and both were embedded in my consciousness by being connected with significant life experiences. A child king and a naval hero, however, are hardly representative of the mass of humanity who populated the cultures of which they are iconic, but the stories associated with them are full of the tension necessary to hold an audience – and they lead to other stories. Nelson leads us to think of the ordinary sailors whom he led (and the struggles of their families); the life of Tutankhamen connects us to those of his subjects who lived in his shadow, toiling in the fields, fishing in the Nile and carving out his tomb.
In an interview with the Times Newspaper in early 2010, Michael Gove (the future Secretary of State for Education) stated that parents would like to see ‘children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England’. Whilst I am not a natural apologist for the views of this ‘unashamed traditionalist’, there is a germ of truth here which has the potential to enrich the classroom teaching of history. Few of us who work in education would see history in terms which could be shorthanded to the kings and queens of England (particularly anyone working in another part of the U.K.) but the ‘great’ stories of history are compelling. The stakes are high in the game of royal politics and the conflicts that are played out, between opposing and helping forces affect not only the protagonist, but nations and even continents – heightening the inherent tension in the tale. The struggle of the Saxon farmer to provide for their family is of itself fascinating social history but, in the end, that family’s fate has only limited repercussions (sidestepping the ‘Butterfly Effect’ suggested by Chaos Theory). The stories of generals, queens, revolutionaries, religious zealots and social reformers are important because they pull us into the historic milieu and help to contextualise deeper and more grounded learning about people who were ‘just like us’. The historian Sarah Dunant recently remarked in a radio broadcast that her teachers had ‘hooked us with the story’ and then ‘hit us with the ‘real stuff’ (in this case the complexity of the English Reformation), and it is this hooking ability of story that cannot be denied. A.J.P Taylor stated that ‘we shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that history at bottom is simply a form of storytelling.... there is no escaping the fact that the original task of the historian is to answer the child’s question: “What happened next”’
Developing the base skills for history through storytelling
Extending the knowledge base for history is addressed below in considering the telling of historical tales in the classroom, there are elements of historical understanding and skills that are addressed through working with story itself.
Turner-Bisset (2005) suggests that history is understood through three parallel strands: substantive knowledge, syntactic knowledge, and attitudes and beliefs. Substantive knowledge comprises facts and concepts, and in turn the concepts can be broken down into first, second and third order. Bisset describes her first order concepts as ‘over-arching concepts which define the ideas with which history is concerned’. She lists these as: chronology, a sense of period, change, continuity, cause, effect, historical evidence and interpretation of evidence. Second order concepts are those such as society monarchy and church that allow us to understand historical situations, and third order are labels, such as The Middle Ages, used to denote discrete periods in time (2005: 17-18).
Looking at the first order concepts, there is clear commonality with those concepts needed to both understand and make story. In the early years, the language of the past is embedded in narrative sequencing from contextualising phrases such as once upon a time, many years ago and in ages past, to more general temporal language such as before, after and then. Story, therefore, has a role in developing a sense of chronology. Reflecting on research into children’s awareness of time, Pat Hoodless reflects that ‘Stories which make use of time as a device are certainly an excellent stimulus and a good resource for extending children’s understanding’ (1998: 110), although she goes on to state that teachers do need to focus on the time dimension in the story.
Similarly, the internal logic of story, is a basic grounding in causality – indeed, the appropriateness of different solutions to problems, and possible consequences of actions can be explored in dialogic forms of storytelling and where children tell their own stories. This creation of new tales and re-interpretation of established narratives also leads into the need for children to be able to organise ideas for themselves (part of what Turner-Bisset refers to as syntactic knowledge) using higher order thinking skills such as evaluation. Although Hoodless’ research on children’s sense of chronology reflected on the role of children’s literature the dialogic nature of shared storytelling enables children to negotiate the structure of the tale, to use the evidence of the narrative as it develops to structure logical conclusions – in other words to develop the metacognitive skills needed to develop historical awareness.
In this series of blogs, I have tried to present storytelling as a universally familiar practice, and one that can be turned to pedagogic ends without the feat of memorisation that has too often been associated with classroom storytelling. The teacher-storyteller’s task is to identify the learning that they want the children to focus on, choose key events associated with that focus, and use their innate capacity for spoken language to make human connections between those events.
I will leave the final word to Robert Lacey:
Our brains are wired to make sense of the world through narrative - what came first and what came next - and once we know the sequence, we can start to work out the how and why. We peer down the kaleidoscope in order to enjoy the sparkling fragments, but as we turn it we also look for the reassuring discipline of pattern. We seek to make sense of the scanty remnants of the lives that preceded ours on the planet. (2004: xiii)
 Michael Gove MP in The Times Newspaper - March 6 2010
 Sarah Dunant ‘A Point of View’ – BBC Radio 4 Broadcast 19-11-10
 A.J.P Taylor (1983) cited in Farmer, A. and Cooper, C. (1998) Storytelling in History
Daniel, A.K. (2012) Storytelling Across the Primary Curriculum. Abingdon: Routledge
Davies, J. and Donoghue, A. (1998) ‘Teaching reading skills and history at Key Stage 2: a complementary approach’, in P. Hoodless (ed.), History and English in the Primary School: Exploiting the Links. London: Routledge.
Farmer, A. and Cooper, C. (1998) ‘Storytelling in history’, in P. Hoodless (ed.), History and English in the Primary School: Exploiting the Links. London: Routledge.
Hoodless, P. (1998) ‘Children’s awareness of time’, in P. Hoodless (ed.), History and English in the Primary School: Exploiting the Links. London: Routledge
Hyvärinen, M. (2006) ‘Towards a conceptual history of narrative’, Collegium: Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1: 20–41. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/14920453.pdf (accessed 6/4/21)
Labov, W. (2013) The Language of Life and Death: The Transformation of Experience on Oral Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lacey, R. (2004) Great Tales form English History: Chaucer to the Glorious Revolution, London: Little Brown
Livo, N. and Rietz, S. (1986) Storytelling: Process and Practice. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Ofsted (2007) History in the Balance: History in English Schools 2003–07. London: Ofsted.
Turner-Bisset, R. (2005) Creative Teaching: History in the Primary Classroom. London: David Fulton.
World Storytelling Cafe (2021) Connecting The World by Story, Bringing history alive through stories. Available at: https://worldstorytellingcafe.com/performances/connecting-the-world-by-story-bringing-history-alive-through-stories/ (accessed 6/4/21)