I recently read that for a number of African cultures, there exists no word with a direct translation for teacher; the closest approximation is “storyteller.” This discovery felt like a validation of one of my career-long practices as a teacher: trying to build my lessons, units, semesters, and school years around a narrative structure. I have done this as long as I have taught anything because it is a practice that made sense to me. In the last few years, I have concluded that it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as well.
Jerome Bruner demonstrated through his research with children that our understanding of how things work develops as we seek to get the story right. We use stories we tell ourselves to test out causal relationships and evaluate the intentionality of others. His conclusion makes intuitive sense based on our evolutionary history. As tool users and developers, we are constantly seeking ways to causally have an effect on our environments—we want to be agents of our own success.
Through our repeated use of physical tools, our brain is changed. It is as if the tool has become an assimilated extension of our body, and just as we can envision manipulating objects with our hands, we can envision using the tool in space. It has ceased to be merely a physical tool, but it has become a cognitive tool as well. It has become an “intuition pump” (to use Daniel Dennett’s phrase) and its power grows when it is aligned with our ability to think analogically. This ability, which is shared in a rudimentary form with chimpanzees, imbues us with the ability to think of the world metaphorically and to see similarities in the relationships between objects. We begin to see our environment as filled with an infinite number of small stories, subjects acting upon objects.
The stories we observe in nature become enriched because, as a social, pair-bonding, cooperatively breeding species, we also seek to identify the intent of others. We want there to be not only a cause, but also a reason behind actions. Every interaction between entities has some sort of social implication.
Recently I found myself saying the same thing to my six-year old son and the decking screw I was attempting to drive into my rebuilt porch: “Why won’t you do what I’m asking you to do?” In both cases, I was forced to come up with a way of manipulating them to accede to my wishes. As the evolutionary psychologist David Geary might explain, I was envisioning my ideal future (or at least one where my kids and hardware listen to me) and developing a plan by which I could realize that ideal. In both cases, I was on a quest to achieve a goal, and in both cases, I was enacting strategies—the promise of withholding dessert and the use of a higher rpm setting on my impact driver—that would help me achieve those goals. In my mind, I was becoming the hero of my own internal narrative.
Professionally, I have another set of stories and metaphors that create the lenses through which I analyze my own teaching. As a educator, I see myself as an environmental engineer, crafting a classroom habitat that allows students to thrive but applies enough pressure that they have to grow and change (evolve?). Cast in this role, I am able to create the kind of “calm seas and auspicious gales” that the eminent educational psychologist and philosopher, Lee Shulman (by way of Shakespeare) suggests are key to allowing students to test the veracity of their learning and reflect on their successes and failures. In order for this metaphor to work, I have to see the classroom as an ecosystem, where individual students fill the various niches using the skills and abilities they have developed along the way. Some set-ups will inspire students to cast themselves as the leader with others readily accepting supporting roles; different set-ups will turn the tables, bringing the spotlight onto the strengths exhibited by a student previously operating quietly in the shadows. Every change I make to the environment therefore taxes every individual differently, and to promote maximal growth in every student, I need to ensure that the gales I am producing are in fact auspicious and that I am not accidentally generating perfect storms that confuse my young charges.
The vision I have of myself as an environmental engineer also makes me the creator of the storms and the one with the knowledge to navigate through them. I have effectively positioned myself as the hero. And recently that has made me wonder something: what if the metaphors and stories I use to teach and live are wrong?
I can identify the moment my self-doubt started. Early this academic year I had the opportunity to teach using Stuart Firestein’s excellent book, Ignorance. During his distillation on the power of ignorance to push scientists to greater heights of understanding, Firestein drew attention to George Box’s famous quote, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” The truth implicit in that simple quote became embedded in my psyche, and I began repeating it to anyone who was listening, including my wife, my undergraduate pre-service teachers, and my high school students. When I went up to Powell’s bookstore in Portland for my annual birthday pilgrimage, I subconsciously gravitated toward a collection of essays on the use of metaphors. What ultimately led me to question the veracity of the metaphors and stories I have chosen to live by, however, was an essay published a few weeks ago by Phillip Ball in the online magazine Aeon ominously entitled “The Story Trap.”
In his long-form piece, Ball uses the research of literary scholars and psychiatrists, musicologists and social scientists to illustrate how no matter what the event—a symphony, a sporting event, or an economic crisis—we naturally seek to turn it into a narrative. The peril behind this practice is the limitation of narratives (or even metaphors) to handle the complexity of reality. As Ball’s title so clearly identified, I too had fallen into “the story trap.”
Whether it was in my classroom or at home, I was constantly producing stories to explain not only what was happening but also why. I was seeking to find causation and ascribing intentionality. Previously, I thought it was an ingenious practice that coopted our natural impulse to tell stories and used it to help my students and me make sense of the world. Now I was beginning to see only the fiction in my apparent fables, replete with oversimplifications, erroneous emphases, and the occasional outright lie. For years I had been quite proud of the analogy I’d developed likening the cellular process of active transport to a Japanese subway at rush hour: cells pumping molecules against the concentration gradient using ATP are just like the subways cramming people from the less crowded platforms into the cars using pushers. Now I wondered if anthropomorphizing the process impeded students’ eventual understanding of the specific—and more complicated—K+/Na+ pump active in nerve cells. The explanation I’d provided myself for how I’d overcome my reluctant deck screw—a higher rpm setting for the impact driver—now made me realize that I’d improperly evaluated the likelihood that I would run into nails from the original structure. The result is that there are a few unnecessary holes and broken screws in my completed porch. And what about my assumption that my son wasn’t listening and needed to be threatened with losing dessert to get him to do so? He could have just been out of earshot when I had made my initial request. Repeated instances of my parental misstep could turn him into the kind of doting worry wart that would never end up having the opportunity to get into the state of flow necessary for him to become the hero of his own narrative.
It is this last pseudo-story that is most troubling to me based on one of my other purchases during that fateful Powell’s trip. In her classic work, The Hero Within, the psychologist Carol Pearson identifies the six major hero archetypes that appear to transcend culture and how we all view our lives through the lens of the hero we envision ourselves being. Both my wife and I were quick to identify that I was a hybrid between the Magician and the Warrior (whereas she was more of the Altruist). Had I come across this book even three months earlier, I would have simply nodded, filed it away as a potential exercise that could be done as a part of an educational psychology course I might someday be lucky enough to teach, and moved on. Instead, I immediately began to wonder, if I am in charge of developing narratives in my classroom, am I creating stories where only Magicians and Warriors feel emboldened enough to become heroes in their quest to achieve a greater understanding of the world? With there being four other hero archetypes, was I really leaving 2/3 of my students behind?
The answer is, I have no idea. But I do see two potential solutions.
The first solution would be to abandon viewing life through the lens of the narrative altogether. Based on my reading of the literature, and Ball’s as well, this seems like a psychological impossibility, since as he states, “We need narrative not because it is a valid epistemological description of the world but because of its cognitive role. It’s how we make sense of things.” It also feels like a road to depression, because it removes the sense of agency we spend our entire lives attempting to express.
The second solution would be to adjust my metaphors and stories. My initial instinct is to say they simply need to get better; however, what I think I need are new versions. In no way am prepared to jettison the models I have spent most of my life developing—rather, it is an admission that while they have been useful, as Box said, they are still wrong. Embedded within each is a margin of error I am no longer comfortable living with. As with any endeavor, the only way for me to shrink my margin of error is to generate more lines of evidence.
Therefore, my New Year’s resolution this year is to develop new metaphors and stories. I need new metaphors because, just as when a carpenter becomes proficient using a tool and can build familiar structures differently, a new metaphor will allow me to generate different understandings of familiar topics. I need new stories so I can inspire new students to become the kind of storytellers that create heroes for their own internal narratives—heroes that look like them.