Patrick Ryan, shares an extract from his new book, Story Listening & Experience in Early Childhood.
Once upon a time storytelling was widely seen in kindergartens, public schools, children’s libraries, public parks, and settlement houses. Prevailing pedagogies expected, and in some cases required, that those working with children have an ability to tell stories orally, from memory. Friedrich Froebel, founder of the kindergarten movement, recommended that when educating young children ‘there should be pauses. . . .which are filled up most suitably by stories.’ His work, with other 19th century child study movements, had significant influence on prominent educators, philosophers, psychologists, librarians, and social reformers in the Progressive Era (roughly the 1880s through 1920s). This resulted in extensive storytelling practices in several contexts, in both formal and informal education.
One example from that period is still practiced at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (UCLS also known as Lab School), founded by John Dewey. Teachers there embedded a storytelling practice that has survived since the school’s inception in 1896. For a hundred and twenty-five years, Lab School students have had weekly story times, hearing folk and fairy tales told orally without books or other aids. Teachers’ reports regularly referred to this practice until librarians took over in the 1930s. Since 1949 Lab School librarians have kept records of every story told, its teller, its source, and which classes heard it during each weekly story time.
These records support the librarians’ storytelling in a practical sense, but also instigated a study resulting in Story Listening and Experience in Early Childhood, a book by Donna Schatt and myself. Donna worked at UCLS as the librarian when I was a student teacher there. As educators and storytellers, we kept in touch, sharing observations of educational storytelling which led to this book. We knew the kind of storytelling at Lab School was not common elsewhere, and such detailed formal records listing thousands of titles told over decades were unusual. This led us to look at how and why Lab School storytelling came about and whether it was always unique to UCLS.
Our first two major tasks were examining primary resource material (original documents left by Lab School educators who initiated storytelling in the 1890s and 1900s) and interviewing current and former students (adults ranging twenty to fifty years of age) who as children had participated in the storytelling programme. In all the years of Lab School storytelling, it appeared no one ever explained to students why they had weekly story times, nor did teachers link the stories to any instructional work. The only reason given to new teachers and librarians for the storytelling programme was that it had always been done.
Nowadays, most of us—teachers, librarians, and professional storytellers working in schools—view storytelling as a means to develop reading interests and promote book circulation. Some storytelling practices have more didactic aims, such as teaching language, grammar, or creative writing. Lab School librarians assumed storytelling was established to promote reading and library use. But when Donna and I looked into the Lab School archives, we found original lesson plans, work reports, memos, and articles from its first three decades providing a clear rationale for frequent and regular storytelling in schools. By also checking contemporary teaching manuals, journals and educational philosophy and psychology books for indications of storytelling outside UCLS, we discovered how wide-spread the practice and theories supporting educational storytelling had been.
Teachers, librarians and educational philosophers at the turn of the twentieth century articulated a commonly held view: that folk and fairy tales ‘fostered’ and ‘directed’ children’s imaginations. Francis Parker, acknowledged by Dewey as the father as Progressive Education, asserted in 1882 that ‘Every teacher should be an excellent storyteller, so as to make the half hour each day given to storytelling, a delightful one to the children.’ These educators observed that children who listened to stories regularly and frequently were better at developing vocabulary, comprehension, and what we now call critical literacy and situation modelling (the ability to visualise and imagine). They considered reading stories and listening to them as related kinds of thinking, with the latter reinforcing the former. They also firmly believed that story listening developed a sense of citizenship and community, with storytelling playing a crucial role by helping students understand cultural traits and acquire social skills.
Reasons for storytelling and descriptions of what happened when children listened to stories, provided by these century-old publications, were exciting to uncover. They echoed much of what former students said in the interviews, where we asked for memories of Lab School storytelling. They remembered story time as the best thing in their early years of education, as being even better than playtime. They rarely described favourite tales or story details, which we had expected, and instead talked about how listening to stories made them feel. That feeling was so pleasurable they wanted to recreate it, motivating them to remember and play with language, helping them visualize, and driving them to replicate the experience by reading as many books as possible. They also attributed story listening experience as the main explanation for acquiring life-long attitudes and habits, such as a sense of closeness with others in the school and community, and a desire to know and understand other people and different viewpoints and explore other cultures.
Progressive Era educational philosophies and practices were a response to mass migration, industrialization and urbanization, and the recognition that democratic society needed informed citizens. Storytelling helped teachers of that period manage challenges that today’s educators would recognise, specifically diverse multi-lingual communities, disaffected or disruptive students, and a rapidly changing society. For teachers of that time it was self-evident that storytelling nurtured better teacher-student relations and established happy and productive classrooms. They were not alone in this. Social workers in settlement houses, play leaders in public parks, and, especially, children’s librarians all viewed storytelling as an essential part of childhood development. All recognised these primary reasons given at the time for widespread storytelling.
From the 1890s through 1930s ,story times in public libraries were for children aged eight through twelve. Librarians recognised children often had difficulties transitioning from learning to read to reading independently for pleasure or learning; story listening supported this transition. Kindergarten and primary school teachers, inspired by Froebel’s instructions, told stories to the younger children. Shared picture book reading, known so well today, didn’t develop until much later with improvements in printing technology and affordability. Teacher and librarian training colleges taught mandatory storytelling and children’s literature course to support professional practices.
The third major task Donna and I tackled was finding solid, scientific evidence supporting what past educators said about storytelling and explaining what today’s teachers, librarians and professional storytellers see when children hear stories. Typical in an age driven by results, we needed data on the outcomes of oral story listening. There was little hard evidence supporting our arguments, only anecdotal reports and qualitative studies. So we extrapolated data from congruent and tangentially related empirical research, such as in literacy studies, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, folklore and anthropology. We compared our findings with the few available quantitative studies on story listening.
Recent advances in cognitive psychology and neuroscience have confirmed that Progressive Era ideas and observations regarding storytelling were justified. The way teachers and librarians of the past talked of and practiced storytelling anticipated Vygotsky’s ideas regarding the zone of proximal development, Piaget’s descriptions of accommodation and assimilation, and concepts explored by Bruner and other cognitive psychologists such as emergent literacy, executive function, metacognition, theory of mind, empathy, and optimal psychology.
Educational storytelling declined from the 1930s onwards due to political and economic trends which may sound familiar. School policies evolved, emphasizing standardization, new technologies, easily measured outcomes and testing. Many promoting these trends believed that storytelling duplicated what could be taught more efficiently by using reading schemes, subject textbooks, workbooks, and shared reading. However storytelling never died out completely, supported mostly by public and school librarians such as Augusta Baker, Ellin Greene, Eileen Colwell and Grace Hallworth who continually promoted storytelling. Leading educators—especially those espousing Dewey’s theories of collateral and transformational learning, like Philip Jackson, Vivian Paley, Harold Rosen, Betty Rosen, and Kieran Egan—also regularly demonstrated the role of storytelling in children’s intellectual, emotional, and social development.
So like fairy tale protagonists set challenges and quests, our three tasks led to a satisfactory ending. Story Listening and Experience in Early Childhood doesn’t claim causality. But by connecting dots in related subject areas it does explain more about storytelling than was known and sets out strong scientific arguments for its expansion in formal and informal education. The book also reveals a need for more quantitative, long-term studies on the effects of story listening. And it provides our favourite succinct and convincing rationale for storytelling, which came from a former Lab School student who reflected:
At school, during that time of day, you were just supposed to have a story. And
then you get older, and you think, ‘Damn! I wish I still had story time.’
Story Listening & Experience in Early Childhood Donna Schatt and Patrick Ryan, Palgrave Macmillan)