As Grahamstown prepares for the Puku Story Festival, storytelling is the highlight of most conversations, but is storytelling an every day priority in South African schools?  Are we doing enough to instill a love for literacy in African children?

Storytelling may be as old as the hills but it remains one of the most effective tools for teaching and learning. A good story can make a child (or adult) prick up their ears and settle back into their seat to listen and learn.

But despite the power a great story can have, storytelling has an endangered status in the classroom – partly due to a huge emphasis on “active learning” in education. This is the idea that pupils learn best when they are doing something – or often, “seen to be doing” something.

Any lesson in which a teacher talks for 15 or more uninterrupted minutes would be regarded today as placing pupils in too passive a role. Indeed, even in English lessons teachers now very rarely read a whole poem or book chapter to pupils, something which now worries even OFSTED.

Bringing history to life

By contrast, teaching, particularly in the humanities, before the 1960s was heavily dependent on storytelling by teachers. A teacher would give a class, say, an account of the English Civil War, based on her own knowledge, reading and imagination.

The teacher would try to bring the febrile context, the battling causes, and the battles themselves to life. She might add an anecdote of her own visit to a village in which Charles I was said to have hidden out. The pupils would then write their own individual accounts of the history – the story – they had just heard, perhaps “from the perspective of a common footsoldier”.


Clearly, this approach has many limitations. There was often very little scope for critical discussion and pupils were over-reliant on their teachers’ view of events. But we mustn’t lose sight of the value of what was happening in that history classroom.

Pupils had the chance to become deeply absorbed in a context that was utterly alien to them – and their life experience was extended. Their imaginations were able to stitch this exotic secondhand experience to their library of personal experiences. In their retellings, they were never “just” copying, but making sense and interpreting.

Layered learning

Influential educational thinkers such as Jerome Bruner have recognised the deep, contextually embedded, multi-layered learning that a story enables as a form of knowledge in its own right. My colleague Matthew Reason and I have called this “storyknowing”.

And in this way, the storytelling of teachers and the storytelling of pupils can nourish each other – as I found in my long-term collaboration with secondary humanities teacher Sally Durham.

A story from me about my German mother-in-law’s World War Two experiences would…

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