Saturday, 20 December 2008

Why stories are important

The importance of stories in education usually isn’t well explained. It's just this:

Stories give us practice in creating imagined worlds from words.

By ‘imagined’ I don’t necessarily mean fantastic. Imagining includes simply entertaining in consciousness scenes, situations, states of affairs, people, things etc. that aren’t immediately present to our senses in the surroundings we’re in at the moment. Bringing these ideas into consciousness is a creative mental activity, though not a deliberate one.

We don’t have to try to learn to do this; it comes with language. Once language has developed to a certain point, words arranged in narrative – stories – make imagined worlds appear to us without our having to try. So, presumably, what regular and developing experience of stories does is teach us to get meaning from, first, less familiar linguistic elements (language different from that we experience in everyday speech, in vocabulary and syntactical structures, for instance); second, differences of register and style (to ‘place’ one style you need to know many) and, third, more complex narrative structures.

In this respect – getting good at using words as instigators, props and organisers of imaginative work -- it’s equally beneficial to be read to as to read for oneself, or indeed to listen to oral stories.

(One of the inadequacies of educational theory – at least at the level it’s usually taught at – is the failure to distinguish what we get by virtue of simply being human (which we are by virtue of a particular biology and living in human society) from what can develop in us as a result of particular sorts of cultivation. For example: everyone (almost) can talk; it seems good in school to provide for the plentiful exercise of this capability; but what can school specifically add, by attentive and directed regimes of experience and activity, to the talk we can all do anyway?)

The essential is to develop the capability that we gain with language itself to have language induce imaginative work.

What this in turn depends on – the prior step, as the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky explained in the 1920s and 30s -- is an ability to attach our other-world-making to ‘signs’ in general. It’s our ability to find meaning in signs that enables us to find meaning in one sort of sign, words. Signs, in this special semiotic sense, are simply things outside us that we treat as signs – the smoke, for instance, that we see not just as smoke but as meaning the presence of fire. Signs are things that are there (in the real world outside us) that we use to bring into existence in the mind things that aren’t there, such as the idea of fire. Meaning is that relation between the thing outside that acts as sign and an idea inside us. The thing outside us can be a visual or auditory thing, such as the sound of a spoken word or the appearance of a written one.

Sign-use (‘symbolic activity') may start in play, as Vygotsky suggests, when a stick becomes a sign that supports the holding in consciousness of the meaning ‘horse’; or, more obviously in our society, with television images and picture books. Such signs are crucially different from the smoke/fire one in that their ‘outside’ or material component is made, not found (a distinction that St Augustine had already formulated).

For Lucy at age 1 a picture of a lion was more than one more item in the visual environment; it already had a meaning and provoked imaginative activity, giving rise to the meaning ‘lion’, which must have comprised primarily some sort of mental image. Already the picture was functioning as a sign, inducing her to imagine a lion – indeed to create the concept of a lion, since she had not seen one in a zoo and probably had no other basis to go on than the image.

Hence the importance of picture books in developing children’s capacity to use signs, whether visual or verbal, as instigators and organisers of mental activity – of imagining and thinking.

And later on stories – in words -- teach us not just to enter into more and more sophisticated narratives but, more fundamentally, to live in the sorts of world that are made possible when we know how to exploit the meanings that words can get us into. (In education we surely just have to trust that they just in general do this; it's nonsense to specify a 'learning outcome' for a single experience of a story.)

Comic strips, of course, are a terrific in-between form, though not just that. They provide a medium for the transition from pictures to words at the same time as teaching us to follow narrative structure. But they're also capable of creating worlds and realities that are particular to them and continue to exercise a special power even on adult readers.

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