Book Review: Story Proof

I read the Kindle Version

I haven't always been an avid reader of fiction. When I was younger I ate books for breakfast, but around high school I kind of stepped away from fiction. I have always guessed it was because I was being told what to read, and never had enough time to read what I wanted to read. To this day, I still hate Shakespeare, and have an involuntary gut reaction to any mention of him. It wasn't until I was in my early twenties that my appetite for stories was rekindled. For me, I think it was partly because of the wonderful worlds of Jasper Fforde and the opening of new horizons in Japanese fiction, as well as comic books, mythology, and folklore.

"Story Proof" was a wonderful read, and I highly recommend it (would be a great #pypchat book club book, or something to read as a staff). I reminisced about why I love fiction so much, and why stories are so important to me. Kendall Haven goes through the literature from the worlds of neurological science, evolutionary theory, educational research (among many more) to conclude that humans think and experience the world in terms of story. It is not just something we enjoy, it is built into our way of thinking and experiencing the world.

(Note: It is not a perfect book, it gets very repetitive at times, stating the same facts and quotes and repeating the same lines over and over again. I wonder if this was part of the storytellers pastiche for this book as a story. Also, for a book about stories, I felt that it itself was not as aware of the narrative architecture it was espousing. It lacked Characters. Yes, there are stories and anecdotes, but not enough. At times it feels like a list of research studies regurgitated back to you. Once I got past this, I was able to enjoy the book in much more detail, pausing and filling in my own stories into those blank holes.)

Start with the brain and the neurological predisposition to telling stories. This is more than likely as a result of the oral storytelling tradition. Ancient man needed a way to pass on its knowledge, and in a world without Wikipedia, printed books, or even literacy (when you think about it that is a pretty new idea in terms of the span of human evolution), and this was done primarily through stories, fables, parables, and folklore.

I like to imagine a group of cave dwelling humans who, instead of telling stories, told each other factual tales like we read in modern day academic journals, devoid of character and environmental details. That form of communicating may not have been adopted as natural selection chose a more robust method. Story. Haven even posits that storytelling pre-dates language, and the reason that language evolved was to tell stories.

From the brain we go to the output, the mind. There are many structures in our minds, mental tools, that help us connect with stories. Assumptions, expectations, metaphor, inference, pattern matching, prior knowledge, blending, syntax, emotions, and details (to name a few). Our mind uses these tools, and they use them by thinking in stories.

This all manifests itself in memory, which Haven argues is the goal of communication, to have your message remembered. This could be a good or a bad thing, of course, depending on what message you are spreading. Stories can be dangerous as well.

The research points to one conclusive finding; we remember and are able to apply what we remember more effectively through the medium of story. This reminds me of all the times I have used story in the classroom. I wish now that I had been paying more attention and doing some action research, because I would have surely found that this was the case. Also, I don't think it applies simply to a content based curriculum. Concepts are more easily recalled and applied when they are based on story. I recall doing Euler's law with my students, and I set it by telling them a story about Euler, basic stuff about his character, upbringing, and how his mind worked. When we set to our task to finish his story (concluding with them discovering Euler's law on their own), they kids seemed to be channelling his spirit in their work. Total engagement and focus.

Another anecdote; at the beginning of one of my school years I read the book The Librarian Who Measured the Earth as a way to look at what it meant to be an inquirer. Throughout the rest of they year, this story was revisited by students as they made connections from their inquiries to the inquiries of Eratosthenes. It lived in the ecosystem we shared.

I was also very impressed how the author used the research of brain, mind, and memory to give us a working definition of what a story is. When you think about it, anything could be a story, but Haven is very conscious of what he considers to be a story and not a story. His list of required elements of a story are:

- INTENT (motives and goals)

Haven's definition of story:

Story: n.: A detailed, character based narration of a character's struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal.

All forms of communication are derivative of story, and there is no reason why we cannot use these elements in any kind of writing, be it working with kindergarten students, teaching high school biology, writing for NASA, or publishing in an academic journal. It is just good practice, and good writing, with many benefits. These benefits include; memory (already mentioned), comprehension and application, logical thinking (across subjects (transdisciplinary), community building, engagement, and language mastery (among others).

Learning through stories help us make sense of and wade through the complexity of the world. I do not believe that they simply the world, as stories are not simplifications. They point to a more open way of being, and a more dynamic way of understanding content, concepts, and the world around us.

Ideas for Practice

This book challenged me to reconsider some ideas that education seems to occasionally take for granted. I wonder how these ideas will manifest themselves in the classroom, and I will reflect on them.

All writing is story writing
There is no such thing, argues Haven, as persuasive, comparative, informative, creative, narrative or expository writing (insert your own category if I missed it). All writing is communicating, and all communicating is storytelling. Of course, our curriculum documents are often written in the language of these categories, but Haven argues that by focusing on story, educators will improve all types of writing. This is a powerful idea, one that I am still getting my head around, and wondering how the upcoming Exhibition will be focused on stories, both of content, and of their own learning. Stories within stories.

Oral storytelling is more effective than being read to
I read my kids a lot of books, and that will never stop. However, often when I create stories to aid the lessons, or chose a myth or fable, I will read the story to the class. Perhaps, I should spend the time to learn the art of presentation and tell the story instead. Or, I can have them tell stories in oral form, rather than writing hem down. I could easily record these on my phone or tablet and have them stand in as artefacts and assessment.

For comprehension, don't focus on plot, but on characters motivation and goals
If you understand the characters motives and goals, how they feel, why they are acting the way they are, chances are you will get the plot and be immersed in the story. How many times have I instead asked questions that relate to the plot (and its neat little diagram with the rise and fall) instead of focusing on the people involved? If we focus on the people, perhaps they will make their own writing more character driven, and more engaging and detailed. This applies to both fiction and non-fiction. I recall when doing my M.Ed, I had to write a term paper that summed up a major theme of the course. Instead of writing a traditional academic essay, I wrote a conversation between two insects, talking about perspective and understanding. I got a 98% on that paper. I think academia is open to story as much as kindergarten is, we just have to focus our stories on the people involved.

Break myths about stories
Continuing that last thought, we are struck with a common myth. Non-fiction is the equal to truth. Fiction is made up. This is a common idea about stories that many people have, I have always hated this. Stories are alive and rich, and can be just as informative as non-fiction, perhaps more. When writing and reading stories we are doing so much more that just playing with stories, and we should value the form of story as much as we value the form of non-fiction writing. If I were allowed to write stories in high school instead of essays, I would have loved school. I believe the common non-fiction essay structure we all learn to be quite damaging to the thinking capacities of the students who are forced to learn it, and have written about it here, but will revisit this thought later, as I don't want to go on for too much longer (my tea is almost empty).

 "Too often we are told that essays are about ideas. They are discussed in terms of logic, argument, theory, and delivery. Yes, essays are about ideas, but the writer is telling the story of that idea and stories are told through characters."

The best non-fiction books I have ever read are heavily invested in the stories of the people and the ideas. I think of "Kon-tiki", and learning so much about the ocean and human migration. I think of "The Edge of Order and Chaos" and the truly fascinating people who were involved in that scientific movement, and how their stories led them to where they ended up. And, it goes both ways. In "fictional" tales, like Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver" (or anything else by him), I learned so much about European history and the formation of Calculus. It was in "A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines" that I finally understood Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. In "Touching Spirit Bear", I was moved and inspired by First Nations practices of restorative justice. Yukio Mishima taught me so much about the beauty of Japanese aesthetics in "Spring Snow" and "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion".

So many more.

I carry these stories with me, and I think that is the point that Haven is trying to make. Stories stay with us, and we remember them. More than that, they impact our lives. Read "The Book Thief" and tell me it won't stay with you forever, or that it didn't effect you on some level.

He convinced me of something that on some level, I already knew. Now, I need to try and figure out how to organize the conditions for story to flourish in my classroom.

Or, is it already?

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for a story, I'm off to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane.