I am certain that you cannot teach via test and that all people are teachers, not just Teachers. But I am constantly refining this thinking by asking myself, “Why don’t tests work? Why is the practice of teachers and schools inherently limiting?”
I think I’ve found the answer in the idea of stories.
1. Math is best learned through stories. Math in a vacuum is all theoretical and very few people need or want to think this way. What we really need is a sense of numeracy which means being able to ask mathematical questions to understand our world better. This is not learning rules for geometry. This is learning to incorporate math into the stories we tell ourselves of the world around us. Beyond Numeracy by John Allen Paulos, helps us ask questions that can be answered with stories (what happens to the number infinity?) rather than equations.
2. Writing is best learned through stories. Why teach a kid to write a paragraph about something that is not important to them? No writer ever wrote well about something they are not passionate about. So why expect kids to do that? Everyone has a story. Newton’s story was of gravity—something drops but why and then what happens? Eric Foner’s story was about slavery—American history is the story of the ripple effect of slavery on national identity. The best writing teachers don’t teach writing—they teach students how to find the story that matters to them.
3. Spelling is best learned through stories. I learned this fascinating analysis from the article by literacy expert Misty Adinou titled Why Some Kids Can’t Spell. She writes, “Only about 12% of words in English are spelt the way they sound. But that doesn’t mean that spelling is inexplicable, and therefore only learned by rote. It means that teaching spelling becomes a fascinating exploration of the remarkable history of the language—etymology. Some may think that etymology is the sole province of older and experienced learners, but it’s not. Young children are incredibly responsive to stories about words, and these understandings about words are key to building their spelling skills, but also building their vocabulary. Yet poor spellers and young spellers are rarely given these additional tools to understand how words work and too often poor spellers are relegated to simply doing more phonics work.”
4. Adult success is contingent on our ability to tell stories. You get hired based on your ability to tell a cohesive, engaging story of your career. (The world is complicated, but you made a path for yourself.) You create resilience by telling yourself stories about how you got to where you are and what you did to get yourself there. (The world is difficult but you have control over things that matter to you.) Stories are how we control our sense of wellbeing, so learning through stories as a child gives us the life skills we need as adults.
5. National curriculum doesn’t work because stories work best when we are ready for them. I convinced my parents to take us to a bunch of R-rated movies when I was a kid. I remember that the only thing I understood in the movies was the sex (yep, there it is) and the violence (hey! that killed another person!). What I didn’t understand was the story. Because it was too unconnected to my own experience to make sense to me. We can learn about new things with stories that bridge the world we know and the new world we are exploring. But with no appropriate bridge there is no learning.
Kids need individualized learning because we tell stories in a way that is particular to us. We look at the audience’s reaction and adjust accordingly. A baby does this, which is why learning social skills is innate. A kid with a good sense of humor does this, which is why good comedians have been telling jokes since they were five. The gift of a writer is that there is an internalized audience that allows the writer to do both sides of that give and take.
Telling a story is personal and all about connection.
Nobu Aozaki did an art piece about how differently each person gives directions. The art becomes a visual argument for the idea that each person learns through stories differently. We don’t even tell the story of how to get from one place to another in a standard way. Which is why standard eduction through stories doesn’t work.
You cannot teach through stories with a 9:1 teacher student ratio. Each kid needs a personal story to learn what they want to learn when they are ready. And each kid needs to learn to tell stories in their own style, but there is no grading system for that, so, of course it doesn’t work in school.