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Narratives in TEFL

Anthropologists claim that the story form is a cultural universal: it reflects a fundamental

structure of our minds and is therefore one of the earliest and most basic and powerful forms in which we organize knowledge and make sense of the world (Lévi-Strauss, 1966). Cognitive psychologists Schank and Abelson (1995) talk about the power of narratives in framing experience, and claim that "all human knowledge is based on stories constructed around past experiences" as "new experiences are interpreted in terms of old stories" (p. 1). Therefore, stories function as schemata on the basis of which we organize the world and make sense of

it. This means that if we expose children to stories we provide them with more opportunities to interpret new information and gradually develop "disembedded," more abstract ways of thinking. In Margaret Donaldson's (1987) view, this is the prime function of education.


Bettelheim (1991) argues for the importance of fairy tales in the emotional development

of children because they help children make sense of life and cope with their anxieties. However, it is important to realize that it is not simply the fairy tale genre that contributes to the development of personhood, but narrative thinking in general. Bruner (1986, 1996) talks about the role of "narrative as a mode of thought" in framing self-identity and cultural identity in the sense that a sufficient story about oneself on the one hand, and awareness of myths and histories of one's own culture on the other, will help individuals in their effort after meaning. It is only in the narrative mode, claims Bruner (1996), that one can construct an identity.

Studies of life narratives (Horsdal, 2005, 2006) show that telling their stories helps people view past events as part of a coherent and meaningful unity, out of which they gain a more profound understanding of themselves and their decisions. In other words, meaning emerges through narrative patterns (Ricoeur, 1981, 1984).

The personal stories lived and told are understood as parts of specific cultures which have their own stories. In the case of teaching, shared cultural assumptions about teaching and learning are part of what Bruner (1996) calls "folk psychology," and are among the basic stories of the local educational culture. However, these shared psychological and pedagogical beliefs and the set of practices they inspire, often go unexamined as part of the "habitus" (Bourdieu, 1990) of school life, while the original underlying theories and social and political imperatives behind them get lost (Millard, 1997). Teachers' awareness of the culturally constructed assumptions about teaching and learning is crucial in understanding practices which now appear to them as "natural" behaviour, and in shaping their identities as teachers.