What Role Do Stories Have in the Future of Learning?

Question: What do you get when you take a Stanford student, passionate about the power of storytelling and invite him to get creative in rural South Africa?

Answer: A whole lot of interesting ideas and thoughts about the future of education and storytelling’s crucial role in shaping (or misshaping) societies.

Read Sawyer Altman’s full article below:

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“For sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”

The room is silent. I give them a moment, to let the words sink in. Some children are studying the patterns of their hands or scanning the room for inspiration, one fumbles and chews a pen, one buries his head in the palms of his loosely-clenched fists, and others sit pensively, staring off into space.

Hemingway called this his best story. I’m using it to demonstrate the power of a few words in any particular order, and to make the point that we construct reality in our imaginations, stuffing in the gaps and margins of information given – in between, before, and after – propelled by an inherent cognitive motivation to project meaning onto symbols and surfaces, to deduce patterns and relationships between different bits of observed experience, to scan through words to extract the building blocks of stories, to arrive at a beginning, a middle, and an end. Language itself, like their freshly minted tablets waiting on the tables outside, is a medium for translating information, I remind them. There is no inherent meaning.

I’ve asked these seventh-graders whether or not this six-word story follows what we’ve called, the “format.” The “format” is a simple heuristic now part of the children’s toolkit for grasping the essence of any story. We deduced it together—actually, it was all them—all I did was pitch a few questions their way (opening broadly, What are stories? and refining, What makes a good story? and so on) and they took the wheel, discussed the prompts among themselves, negotiated, and arrived at the “format” on their own.

Their heads vacillate back and forth in hushed deliberation. Who is going to say it?

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Sawyer Altman with a class of learners at Hazyview Digital Learning Campus in Mpumalanga.

Someone shyly musters, “No.” No, it does not fit the “format.”

“Are you sure,” I prod, “you don’t see any characters with desires or motives?” They hesitate. One of them quietly smiles.

“Are you sure,” I nag further, “you don’t feel any conflict? Nobody is struggling?” The smile catches on.

“Are you sure,” I repeat, to drive the point home, to tease out of them a more fluid definition, “there is no conclusion, no resolution? Everything is the same after as it is before?”

“How sure are we,” I press some more, pressing very hard, the smile spreading now to my own face, ready for someone to excitedly shout out his or her epiphany. The children are all giggling or smiling sweetly, a few covering their mouths on the verge of answering.

“Anyone?”

No takers. Granted, there was a language barrier, but that’s not the whole explanation. I heard the children playing outside of class, and I know that they were comfortable enough in English. And even though the answer was made so obvious, as I recall this moment, I am still moved by their profound resistance to contradict themselves. Nobody said a word.

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I had been invited to teach workshops on creativity and storytelling by the Good Work Foundation, a digital learning non-profit preparing students of various South African communities for the modern economy and their everyday lives post-school, in an afterschool enrichment program. I was visiting the province of Mpumalanga, splitting my time between the towns of Justicia and Hazyview for a week, teaching storytelling to fourth and seventh-graders, and holding workshops on incorporating creativity into lesson plans for the young-adult facilitators at those learning centers.

I arrived with certain preconceptions. I was already convinced when I touched down that creative education, in the United States and in developing economies, is vital to prepare students for the “information economy”, to expand access to higher-skilled jobs, to combat the oversupply of underprepared and undereducated laborers and the subsequent cheapness of labor that reinforces the pay gap and general inequality. “In a developing economy like South Africa, teaching children to perform menial tasks easily made redundant by machines will only exacerbate its labor problems,” I preached, “it is our duty as educators to teach children to defy the algorithm, to connect one and two together in an unpredictable way, to understand and communicate in ways that machines will never be able to, no matter how smart.” I highlighted studies that show that teachers prefer students who exhibit conformist, docile behaviors.

I was not entirely naïve. I had anticipated meeting the obstacle of “truth-paralysis”, we might call it. For my workshop with the facilitators, I had prepared an admittedly dense explanation of the Western school system and its Enlightenment heritage (for which I’m later told, I earn the title of Guy who uses long words): its fetish for the scientific method, for facts and figures, for truth.

What storytelling and its fluidity had always signified to me are a bastion of meaning in a world that is rapidly rationalizing, in which myth grows forever more unfashionable, and in which noise barrages us from all directions, consuming our finite attention and limiting our desire and capacities to care. Stories enable us not to know, but to feel how others see the world. As such, they are instruments for exploring the other possibilities of life, and the mutability of our own. But beyond my economistic arguments, just how vital this temperament is, I was to learn during my trip. I experienced first-hand just what happens when we insulate ourselves in singular truths.

On my shuttle ride from Johannesburg to Nelspruit I enjoyed the company of two talkative Shangaan women. Strapped into my borrowed backpack carrying storytelling materials and supplies, just having landed, and this being my first time in sub-Saharan Africa, I still had little idea what to expect on the journey ahead, and I was already passing the apparent blight of a highway flanked by trash and communes of rusted shacks, enshrouded from the combined smoke of nearby coal mines and the contributions of local inhabitants, all effusing the pungent odor of burning rubber or plastics. Sundried wanderers on either side of the highway were stepping over the trash, into the arid, drought-suffered, and smoke-blanketed fields of former maize potentiates reduced to the appearance of woodchips. Where to? I wondered. Where from?

“These poor communities live and work in these conditions everyday,” one of the women, shaking her head softly in dismay, told me over a muffled Everybody Hurts on the radio. “The locals complain of lung disease, but have no way of changing their lives. Nobody will listen.” Behind her, outside the window, was the product of a government housing project that built two-inhabitant houses in which multiple families now frequently cohabitate. In the distant background towered a colossal refinery, spewing out thick brown smoke from its stacks, spitting fire. As the construction company and industrialists lick their fingers, the locals demand expanded housing, and are blamed in turn for their unemployment, their dependence. We passed a man prostrated facedown on a couch with destroyed upholstery, baking in the middle of an empty field. I wrote to myself in my notebook: Who fights for the people when they can’t afford to fight?

While the other woman began to read Cosmopolitan, this one changed tone. “Don’t worry,” she flapped her hand to signal turning pages, “Where you’re going, you will see none of this.” She spoke to me of this romantic life eastwards, untouched by concerns of droughts, of the alienation of modern industrialism, of a loss of heritage and identity. The other paused and gabled the magazine over her lap, “In Hazyview, the village feels like a community,” she agreed. As they told me of the artisan craft of Maputo bread, I noticed that through the distant haze, the Earth seemed to curve upwards to reveal the faint silhouettes of lavender hills.

Witness Mnisi, or “Witty” for short, or “Om” for shorter (This third nickname I uncovered after inquiring about what Om meant, given that he and his interlocutors used it interchangeably, to which he explained that he would often use it to greet others, to my confusion; for instance, Aye Om, and in response, Oh, aye Om, Howzit, as if I were to greet someone else with, Hey, Sawyer), who would pick me up in Nelpsruit, just an hour short of Hazyview, and who would be my guide, point-man, and quickly friend, over the next week, would show me the unfathomable beauty of the Lowveld (The Three Rondawels and the Blyde River Canyon, God’s Window, Berlin and Lisbon Falls, among others), offer me the fuzzy and sticky sensation of butter-marinated cows-leg to be mercifully washed down with “pap,” ride with me through Kruger National Park, in which we giddily clapped as we encountered one by one each majestic number of the big five in one single morning, and share with me intimate stories of his childhood growing up with a rich appreciation for nature (the elephants, like “One Eye”, who would pass by his house, at which he would, he now admits with remorse, throw stones in attempt to hear it blow its snout) and in a culture built on a mysterious relationship between humankind and the material world.

I heard over my trip many tales of old traditions that demonstrate this curious relationship, so alien from Western rationality, I thought, and for that reason, so full of life, so enchanted. For instance, I listened, mesmerized by an explanation of a Zulu coming-of-age ritual for women who turn twenty-one, who would wear cow intestine as a shawl and dance in celebration, for the purpose of proving their virginity to the village by the fact that the shawl does not fall off. Or, another, that if a baby cries too frequently, it is because the spirit of the child beckons for a traditional name, to be chosen from the names of its ancestors. I heard of spiritual figures who still use bones to read fortunes, who are regarded with reverence to this day.

These myths and stories that the local inhabitants often used to organize their society, I felt, ensured a lasting sense of enchantment in the world.

I had meant to go to the learning center in Justicia mid-week, but was warned by Witty that getting there would be a challenge. “There is a protest in the road,” he told me. “Some locals from the village have thrown trash and rocks into the road so that the people cannot pass.” This civil unrest was owed to the recent killing of three fishermen on the river delineating the border between Hazyview and Kruger National Park, apparently in line with the “Shoot to Kill” policy of Kruger, in which the army is employed to deter rhino poachers. I had heard about dwindling rhino populations before through media, but this was the first time I was directly affected by its wake. Some locals from the community apparently accept exorbitant sums of cash for the bounty of rhino horn, which is smuggled to China by corrupt border officials who accept a small cut of the prize. Witty, who told me stories of his childhood growing up among the elephants before the lines to the park were drawn, explained to me the destitution and economic futility that may propel one to ignore the “Shoot to Kill” policy. It’s unclear who is to blame – the ignorance of the fishermen, the trigger-happy anti-poachers, the poachers themselves or the economic futility that they face, or the brutish deterrence policy. In the car on our way out of Hazyview, we passed the under-construction shopping mall featuring a Pick N’ Pay, soon to be the third mall with which, Witty told me, local businessmen have continuously been outcompeted and which, I presume, cause local income (and therefore, cash for investment in the community) to be exported to Joburg. As Witty and I clamored to evade the boulders, garbage, and downed trees blocking the crumbling cement road, I wondered: How could a society with such a rich tradition of storytelling become so numb to their natural heritage?

In one of my workshops with facilitators in Justicia, I brought up a quote by Elie Wiesel, to which a leader at the learning center responded by prompting a discussion of the Holocaust. “Hold on,“ she paused us, “Does anybody here know what the Holocaust is,” she asked the crowd. The Holocaust? What kind of question is that? They don’t know the Holocaust? I had always assumed that there were countries in which this event, however tragic, was simply irrelevant, but not that I was standing in one, especially one conscious of its history of state oppression. I realized that I had taken this story for granted, treated it as obvious since a young age, assumed that with education came an education of all catastrophic events, and in doing so allowed it to escape retelling altogether. She embarked on a condensed history lesson for the facilitators, starting from the beginning.

And at this moment, I thought to myself, Wow, how different it is here. How they must have grown up with exposure to such different media, such different values.

“You see, I didn’t know anything about the Holocaust until I watched Oprah,” she continued. Oprah? “No seriously, I didn’t even care about learning history until I learned about this event. We come from a society in which it is discouraged to ask questions.”

She offers an example: “Don’t go into the baby’s room because if you do—” she motions with her hand, as if the others should clue in automatically; another finishes for her, but really, for the dumbfounded foreigner “—you will kill it.”

“But why, you ask? Because I said so. And if you don’t listen, they just tell you to shut up, and if you continue, you get a smack.”

And at this moment, I thought to myself: And yet, how similar. Every society has truths that are so widely accepted that they escape examination.

So, I was not surprised when later, after asking fourth-graders to write independent and original short stories in an exercise, with a confused scramble of glances back and forth, they cooperatively regurgitated to me a story that, I discovered later, they had recently all read in class. The story revolved around a girl named Mapute, whose brother burned down her room in the house after tinkering with a stove, burning her backpack, bed, and doll. She is reluctant to participate in class the next day because of the traumatic fire and the despair over her lost doll. When Mapute tells the teacher that she does not wish to read today, the teacher exclaims, “Mapute, stop worrying about that stupid doll!”

Near the end of my trip, Witty confided in me that when he was younger, he hated white people. He lived alongside a main road that led directly into Kruger, through which many tourists would visit, he explained. Often, cars would stop to interact with him and his siblings, and white people would emerge, give them treats, say hello, do the things that heartfelt people do, etc. Occasionally, however, after the car would stop and the passengers would emerge, the children, lured to the cars, would be beaten by the passengers. For a while, this was confusing, as the foreigners all spoke what seemed like the same unfamiliar language. It wasn’t until much later did Witty come to understand that the color of skin did not necessitate this behavior.

If Western society is flooded with information that confuses our grasp on reality, myth, too can eliminate meaning and block inquiry. The religious-grounding of historic South Africa produced an education system that punished poor achievement with corporal punishment (lashes, hand smacks over a table), and the mythic traditions of locals ensured, for instance, that only men could be chiefs, and that one does not bother questioning this fact else they hear the circular reasoning that “it is the way it is,” simply, “because it is.”

Those are oppressive outcomes built on stories. Stories have the power to reinforce myths of identity so as to allow ignorance to reign unchallenged. Ironically, when we do tell stories, they are often of events caused by an inability to empathize, to feel the experience of another due to being blinded by the strength of one’s own narratives. One must carry a very strong self-identifying myth to dehumanize an entire group of others. Therefore, whether we tell stories or not is not enough. We must use stories to activate in us a nonconformist ability: by imagining what’s different, inhabiting other perspectives, and empathizing.

We have been tooled to be energy-efficient by evolution. As a result, we think on the path of least resistance. It is safer to reduce than to weigh the complex grayness of life. We are wired to favor absolute and rigid truths over ambiguity.

When we fail to tell stories at all, we let others tell our stories and define our narratives for ourselves. This can lead to violence. But moreover, when we block alternative stories with our own monolithic myths, we, ultimately, enable violence. It is when we don’t tell stories of cooperation that hate prevails.

South Africa is alike to nearly every school system around the world in that self-contradiction is unaccepted, not merely unfashionable, but actively punished. We suppress in children the possibility for vagueness. We reduce. Yes, or no. Their willingness to agree with the teacher, to learn for the test, to qualify with a higher authority and evade the open-ended questions, is what they inherit from an education system that formalizes knowledge conveniently and muffles alternative voices.

We should remember that children are a regenerative force. Every generation is a new chance. What the Good Work Foundation is doing with these children is cultivating within them a love for life-long learning, and the critical mindset and fluid sensibility necessary for keeping an open mind. It is a bulwark against the unquestioning mind; a combatant against absolutism in any form.

During my time at the Good Work Foundation, every single person I met was ready to adapt. They joined me in challenging these students not to be so afraid of allowing right and wrong to coexist. It is ironic that the best education in South Africa must be found outside of the educational institution proper.

At the end of my seventh-grade workshops, hours after answering my original question, and after photographing the stories they wrote as our final deliverable, in their excitement, the students rushed me out of the building into the golden southern African evening to sandwich me in a group selfie, in which, as I look now, I appear in the middle, but only after scanning for a patch of light brown hair bobbing in a sea of smiles.

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Sawyer at Justicia Digital Learning Campus.

This chapter opened at the Good Work Foundation is one of many to come, but I won’t be the one writing the rest. I instructed the students to take their stories home and show them proudly to their families and friends. I encouraged them to remain aware of the role of stories in their everyday lives and to cultivate the skills to mine them, refine them, and share them. I asked them to view storytelling as a form of empowerment — a means to take control of the narratives that they and others use to define and make meaning of their lives.

And the beautiful thing about stories is that we pass them on.

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Kate Groch, Sawyer Altman and Zodwa Buthelezi in the Open Learning Academy at Hazyview Digital Learning Campus.

About 1001 Stories

In collaboration with Stanford University, Professor Paul Kim, and Seeds of Empowerment, Stanford student, Sawyer Altman, recently spent a week at Good Work Foundation’s Mpumalanga campuses running the 1001 Stories campaign. This is a programme run by Stanford student volunteers in which students are taught the power and talent of storytelling, enabling them to write their own personal stories, and to share with their peers, and the world, taking their skills and accomplishment to on whatever career or life-path they choose.

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