Narrative Teaching: An Organic Methodology

by Mary Elizabeth Moore

Mary Elizabeth Moore is Professor of Christian Education and Theology at the School Theology at Claremont, 1325 N. College Avenue, Claremont, CA 91711. She is the author of Education for Continuity and Change: A Traditional Model and is currently working on a book of dialogue between process theology and educational methodologies to be entitled View from the Bridge: A Traditional Model and is currently working on a book of dialogue between process theology and educational methodologies to be entitled View from the Bridge: Theology and Educational Method.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.248-261, Vol. 17, Number 4, Winter 1988. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author writes about the power of the story in history and in imaginative construction of future possibility, and points out that narrative does not now occupy a central place in the school curriculum. She suggests the kind of narrative methodology that is needed in order to teach organically.

An organic philosophy calls forth an organic approach to teaching. Teaching organically certainly would require more than one educational methodology, simply to draw from the fullness of human inventiveness. The focus here, however, will be on one particular form of organic teaching that is unusually full in itself -- narrative teaching.

Teaching narratively calls forth images of storytelling, simulation gaming, dramatization and ritual reenactments. But teaching narratively is more than a set of techniques that can be thrown into an eclectic bag of tricks. Narrative is a significant mode of human communication, a bearer of culture, and a potentially profound and far-reaching educational methodology.

In Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis portrays the simple character of Zorba -- a man who is simply complex, a man of rich experience whose life is so full of stories that his crude philosophy is full of wisdom. In his wisdom, Zorba constantly shames his well-read, intellectual companion who works as his boss and narrates his story.

Zorba’s life is a bundle of narratives, and he himself communicates primarily through narrative. His story-telling is so organic and involving that he does not even need words to tell a story. In one scene Zorba tells his boss of his days in Russia. He tells of meeting a Russian man in the tavern where he spent every evening after working the copper mines by day. Together Zorba and the Russian drank vodka and began to talk. Zorba’s Russian vocabulary was limited to five or six words, but he and his new-found friend wanted to share their stories. Zorba explains how they managed:

We had come to an arrangement as well as we could by gestures. He was to speak first. As soon as I couldn’t follow him, I was to shout: Stop!’ Then he’d get up and dance. D’you get me, boss? He danced what he wanted to tell me. And I did the same. Anything we couldn’t say with our mouths we said with our feet, our hands, our belly or with wild cries: Hi! Hi! Hopla! Ho-heigh! (ZG 73)

Zorba narrates his friend’s story of the Russian revolution, and then he proceeds with his own:

And then, after that, it was my turn. I only managed to get out a few words -- perhaps he was a bit dense and his brain didn’t work properly -- the Russian shouted: ‘Stop!’ That’s all I was waiting for. I leapt up, pushed the chairs and tables away and began dancing. Ah, my poor friend, men have sunk very low, the devil take them! They’ve let their bodies become mute and they only speak with their mouths. But what d’you expect a mouth to say? What can it tell you? If only you could have seen how the Russian listened to me from head to foot, and how he followed everything! I danced my misfortunes; my travels; how many times I’d been married; the trades I’d learned -- quarrier, miner, pedlar, potter, comitadji , santuri-player, passa-tempo hawker, blacksmith, smuggler -- how I’d been shoved into prison; how I escaped; how I arrived in Russia. . . .

Even he, dense as he was, could understand everything, everything. My feet and my hands spoke, so did my hair and my clothes . . . . When I had finished, the great blockhead hugged me in his arms . . . . (ZG 73-74)

Such is narrative! It can cross cultures, speak through the whole body, and bind people together in a depth of understanding. The response of the Russian to Zorba’s story was a hug; the response of Zorba’s boss later that night was a feeling of shame that his own life was not so rich:

I was a long time getting to sleep. My life is wasted, I thought. If only I could take a cloth and wipe out all I have learnt, all I have seen and heard, and go to Zorba’s school and start the great, the real alphabet! What a different road I would choose. I should keep my five senses perfectly trained, and my whole body, too, so that it would enjoy and understand. I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two eternal antagonists. (ZG 74)

In fact, the two eternal antagonists of soul and flesh are reconciled in story. Story, whether told in words or in dance, is embodied communication. A good story is richly textured: the characters are full and embodied; their lives are interwoven, and their ideas and actions are interwoven. Of course, stories are told for various reasons, and some are designed primarily to convey certain ideas or morals. What is recognized here, however, is that stories are more aesthetically rewarding if they are more richly textured.

These qualities of story naturally attract an organic philosopher, who naturally cares about the relation between soul and flesh, between one person and another, between one culture and another, and between ideas and actions. When one begins theorizing about education from an organic, web-like view of the world, one begins with assumptions that the world is thoroughly interconnected, and one naturally seeks modes of communication which are themselves organic and web-like. When one begins theorizing about education from an organic view of time, one begins with assumptions that the present is intimately related with the past and future, and one naturally seeks modes of communication in which the dynamic process of life can be viewed through time. Narrative communication is a natural, and it invites a closer look.

Narrative Methodology in Modern Education

In surveying the horizon for contemporary educational reflections on narrative methodology, one is first struck by the relative absence of such reflections. In surveys of teaching and learning theories, the absence is striking.

Narrative methods are mentioned with some more frequency in surveys of teaching strategies. One example would be Aimee Dorr Leifer’s essay entitled "Teaching with Television and Film," (TTF) published in N. L. Gage’s The Psychology of Teaching Methods, a widely read Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education.1 Even in this essay, however, Leifer reviews what has been learned from various psychological studies of television and film narratives, and the limited range of the studies limits the vision of narrative teaching that she puts forth. Particular attention is given to the kinds of content that is communicated through such narratives (cognitive, social and emotional, information processing skills, implicit messages, and modes of learning), and to the processes and potential of learning from television and film. Though Leifer casts her net broadly, she focuses particularly on television and film, and she functions within the constraints of the psychological research, which itself deals largely with cause and effect questions and with carefully selected variables, one or two at a time. Her review is suggestive of broader possibilities for narrative, but those broader possibilities are not the intent of her essay, nor of the volume and others like it. In fact, another widely used volume on teaching methods, written by Bruce Joyce and Marsha Weil and now in its third edition, does not even mention narrative as a methodology (Mod T).

One notable exception to this vast generalization is Mildred McClosky’s Teaching Strategies and Classroom Realities (TS). In this edited volume, McClosky has included a vast number of case studies written by teachers of their experiences using drama, simulation techniques, filmmaking, literature related to social values and ethnic issues, and so forth. Again, this volume points to extensive possibilities in narrative teaching, but its purpose is to deal with particular strategies rather than a methodology.

Two possible conclusions might be drawn from the scarcity of attention to narrative as an educational methodology. One is that most teaching and learning theories are based on the research and theory of modern psychology, which has not been focused primarily on complex forms of communication and reception. Another conclusion is that technique and strategy are often separated from methodology, which is a more comprehensive term. Methodology refers to wisdom about method and to interweaving the theory and practice of method. The ease of separating technique from methodology has made it easy to deal with narrative as a helpful technique or strategy, without considering the large possibilities in a narrative methodology. Narrative strategies have been clearly demonstrated as effective, but the reflection on narrative methodology has not been done -- at least not elaborately done.

Glimpses of Narrative Methodology in Modern Educational Theory

Having made a case for the dearth of narrative methodology in modern education, one must recognize the ways in which such a methodology does appear. In fact, a few persistent themes appear in the broad literature of educational theory, philosophy and theology. Some general attention will be given to these various areas of inquiry in order to identify some important themes.

First, imagination is being revalued as an important ingredient in education. Beginning with the idea of imagination itself, we note that Elliot Eisner, writing in general education, and Maria Harris, writing in religious education, are calling particular attention to the role of imagination in the educative process. Eisner has offered a persistent critique of the over-dependence of education on science, modem technology, and narrowly defined learning processes and content. He has spoken to the importance of artistry in teaching, and the importance of educational Imagination throughout the entire system of schooling (see especially EI 183-186, 354-380). Of artistry in teaching, he says:

Artistry is important because teachers who function artistically in the classroom not only provide children with important sources of artistic experience, they also provide a climate that welcomes exploration and risk-taking and cultivates the disposition to play. To be able to play with ideas is to feel free to throw them into new combinations, to experiment, and even to ‘fail.’ It is to be able to deliteralize perception so that fantasy, metaphor, and constructive foolishness may emerge. (El 183)

Similar themes are struck by Maria Harris, who sees imagination at the very heart of religious education (TRI).

A second theme is that narratives are a very important source of imagination. This theme has been developed by persons like Bruno Bettelheim, who has demonstrated the healing value of fantasies for young people with emotional and other disorders (UE, TL). The theme has also been emphasized by Northrup Frye, who explicitly describes the value of fairy tales in inspiring imagination. Such tales restore the primitive perspective of myth which relates the human and natural worlds (Ed Im). William Bausch is one of many religious educators who specifically identifies the role of story in linking theology and imagination (SIF; see also SS, OG. GS). In the area of story and imagination, religious educators have perhaps been more attentive than general educators because of the consciousness that religious traditions are carried largely by story.

Yet another theme in the educational literature is that narrative is a source of human consciousness and social critique. On the subject of human consciousness, Jerome Bruner calls attention to the distinctive role of narrative. The two natural modes of human thought, according to Bruner, are paradigmatic thought (logico-scientific thinking that rests on description, explanation and verification) and narrative thought that weaves together action and consciousness (NPM)3 Consciousness is the thinking, feeling and willing of the human person. To focus entirely on paradigmatic modes of thought is to pull away from attending to consciousness, and therefore, to the human act of sense-making. Unfortunately, according to Bruner, the tendency in psychology has been to ignore the narrative mode of thought. He says:

For some reason, the nature and the growth of thought that are necessary for the elaboration of great stones, great histories, great myths -- or even ordinary ones -- have not seemed very attractive or challenging to most of us. So we have left the job to the literary scholars and linguists, to the folklorists and anthropologists. And they have studied not the process, but the product, the tales rather than the tellers. (NPM 103)

We are left then, with very little understanding of consciousness in the learning process and very little attention to it in the educational process.

We should not wonder, then, that the accent on narrative and consciousness is being most clearly sounded in educational theory today by Maxine Greene, who is herself both a literary scholar and an educator. She draws extensively on literature, both in teaching and in writing, and she has been particularly active in advocating the importance of education that fosters human consciousness. Meaningful learning, for Greene, involves "‘going beyond’ what has been" (CC 302). This can involve imagination and subjectivity, but is not limited to these modes of thought. Consciousness basically involves an awareness of the world and one’s own experience of the world, and also an effort to make sense of the world (CC 299-317). Greene draws a relation between the dawn of consciousness and social critique. In the process of arousing consciousness and stirring imagination, narratives raise persons’ awareness of the social situation and of new social possibilities. This theme recurs in Maxine Greene’s writing, as she points to the inherent link between the individual’s consciousness and the social reality, a link that is fostered by narrative teaching.

The fourth theme in the literature comes from philosophy and theology rather than from education. This is the idea that story is a form of indirect communication that conveys truths which cannot be communicated directly. The idea of indirect communication was especially developed by Søren Kierkegaard, who was a philosopher, theologian and literary figure. He, in fact, communicated through story in his own work, interpreting at length the story of Abraham and Isaac, and creating parabolic stories to convey his insights into the human condition. He also sought to develop a theory of humor, always searching for the comic dimension in the human contradiction.

In his Stages on Life’s Way (SLW), Kierkegaard speaks of irony as the means by which persons make the transition between aesthetic and ethical awareness, and humor as the means for making the transition between ethical and religious awareness. Through irony persons realize that they cannot settle the tension between possibility and necessity, but must live with the tension. Humor offers a means for responding to contradiction and suffering with it. An example of Kierkegaard’s humor of contradiction is the story of the shipmates who frenetically try to make their ship orderly, all the while their ship is sinking. For Kierkegaard, humor is an important avenue for human growth, precisely because it is able to communicate something of the human condition that cannot be communicated adequately in other ways.

For similar reasons, storytelling is an essential method in philosophical discourse. Kierkegaard often employs story to carry some of his major philosophical themes, such as the contrast between experiential and theoretical knowledge. He tells the story of a conversation between a troubled man and a parson who was trying to give the man some consolation about everything working together for the good. The parson quoted from a book to prove his point, citing that, after all, God is love. The troubled man finally confessed that he was the author of that book. (CD 206-207).

Another prominent theme in Kierkegaard’ s work is the human failure to be self-aware. In Sickness Unto Death, he tells the story of a peasant who sought to put on a new self and new clothes. He became inebriated and lay down in the road to sleep. When he saw an approaching wagon, he told the driver to drive over his legs because they were not his anyway; he didn’t recognize them with his new shoes (FTSD 187). With such stories Kierkegaard is able to convey truth that is elusive in direct communication.

Kierkegaard’s approach to truth through story has been influential in a very direct way on Fred Craddock, who has developed a theory of indirect communication within the context of the Christian church. He sees indirect communication as the way to preach and teach the Gospel to those who have already heard (00).

Within Christian theology the attention to story as truth-communicator is also emerging with great power among Asian theologians. Minjung theologians in Korea communicate largely through stories of the minjung, or the people. They tell biblical stories of Jesus responding to the common people, and contemporary stories of the people in Korea, especially those who are oppressed or suffering. Another Asian theologian, C. S. Song, usually begins his writings with story, followed by interpretation (TLM, TU). He does not use the stories to illustrate the commentary, but the commentary elaborates and interprets the stories.

One last theme in narrative methodology emerges from the theological literature. This is the idea that stories have the power to form and transform the world. Different kinds of stories function in different ways, but stories do function to form or transform persons in their world views and lifestyles. Dominic Crossan particularly has developed this point of view; he describes myth as the form of story that functions primarily to form world, and parable as the form of story that upsets and transforms world (DI). Recognizing the different social functions of different kinds of stories offers a route into a more nuanced educational theory of the narrative method.

What has been offered above in terms of dominant themes in modern educational theory is not intended to be comprehensive and complete, but to point to some very important work that is evidenced in the educational, philosophical and theological literature. The work is being done without much collaboration and cross-fertilization, and no comprehensive educational methodology of narrative has been developed. What is available are some very fruitful insights that could be formative elements in such a methodology.

Assumptions About Learning:

Inside these glimpses of narrative methodology are some assumptions about learning that we can bring to attention for the sake of theory development. These assumptions are implicit and explicit in the works reviewed above.

One foundational assumption is that human beings are imaginative creatures -- capable of imagination and in need of it. Imagination is important to mental health, human growth, cross-cultural understanding, and social critique. Imagination opens the way for persons to gain perspective on their own lives, to perceive the world of another person or culture, and to envision alternate possibilities for life on the earth.

A second assumption about learning is that persons learn through stories. Story is a stimulus to imagination, as well as to greater self- and social-awareness. Story stirs imagination, and it also points to realities that are not easily communicated in conceptual forms.

A third assumption about learning is that social learning takes place through stories, so that cultural beliefs and values and patterns of action are actually formed and transformed through storytelling. Story is, therefore, an important factor in social stability and change.

Organic Perspectives on Narrative Methodology

The organic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead offers potential for valuing and re-forming narrative methodology. Unlike Søren Kierkegaard or C. S. Song, Whitehead himself did not employ a narrative methodology. He did, however, emphasize the educative value of reflecting on ideas within an historical matrix, and his philosophy has fostered accents on interconnectedness and historical process that are highly compatible with narrative methodology. Here we will probe some major accents in Whitehead’s cosmology that may reinforce and illuminate narrative teaching.

Even the use of the word cosmology is illuminating. Whitehead describes his work in Process and Reality as an essay in cosmology (PR xiv/ x), and cosmology is itself a theory, or story, of the universe. Whitehead’s use of the term cosmology undoubtedly leans more toward the connotation of theory than of story, but his attempt to put forth a wholistic picture is undeniable. He wanted to move beyond a philosophy that was simply a "criticism of detached questions" and work toward constructive thought (PR xiv/x). He believed that "the true method of philosophical construction is to frame a scheme of ideas, the best that one can, and unflinchingly to explore the interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme" (PR xiv/x). Further, he believed that all constructive thought is guided by such a scheme, whether or not that scheme is acknowledged; the role of philosophy is "to make such schemes explicit, and thereby capable of criticism and improvement (PR xiv/x)3 Insofar as a scheme of ideas, or a theory of the universe, can be understood as a story, Whitehead was himself engaged in a story of the universe. We will attempt here, at least, to make explicit his scheme of ideas in relation to narrativity. We will review some themes in organic philosophy that are particularly relevant to narrative methodology.

One compelling theme in Whitehead’ s philosophy is the idea that aesthetics is important to all human activity. This is the theme Whitehead chooses to close Science in the Modern World. He turns in the last chapter of that book to education, regretting the ways in which modern education is compartmentalized and focused on analysis and abstraction. He expresses his regret that professional training is one-sided, and his hope that education might stimulate aesthetic growth (SMW 199). He says,

What is wanted is an appreciation of the infinite variety of vivid values achieved by an organism in its proper environment. When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality. (SMW 199)

In response to the need for vivid values and concrete perceptions, Whitehead finds possibilities in art. He believes that aesthetic education is needed to "draw out habits of aesthetic apprehension" (SMW 199). Art in the more specialized sense is a special kind of aesthetic education, but art in the general sense is a habit of apprehending an organism in fullness, or "the habit of enjoying vivid values" (SMW 200). Art, then, is necessary to human life. It provides "fertilization of the soul" by arranging the environment "to provide for the soul vivid but transient values" (SMW 202). Though the values are transient, they contribute to the permanent richness of the soul, which flourishes in the experience of newness (SMW 202). The art represents the interaction between nature and human creativity, thus heightening a sense of humanity, contributing to intense feeling and serving the curative function of revealing truth about the nature of things (AI 270-272).

This accent on aesthetics was not new for Whitehead in his later years. In 1917 he presented an address as part of a prize distribution at the Borough Polytechnic Institute in Southwark. In his address, "A Polytechnic in Wartime," he spoke to the aesthetic dimension of education. He encouraged aesthetics not just in conventional forms, but also in carving and modeling, dance, music, literature, decorative arts, bookbinding, dress making and so forth. He said, "This list, incomplete as it is, tells us two great truths -- you cannot separate art and recreation, and you cannot separate art and business (OT 65).4 In other words, aesthetics is apart of everything.

If this is true, what do we need to do in education? Certainly we need to be more like Zorba, absorbing and giving through all of our senses. Certainly we need fullness of experience. We need arts and crafts in public schools, not as fluff but as fundamentals. And we need arts and crafts in religious communities, not to fill time but to contribute to full spiritual growth.

A second theme in Whitehead’s thought is that the world is a world of concreteness. This theme runs contrary to world views based in abstractions. In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead argues strongly against the value of pure abstraction because it leads to thinking that is detached from concrete reality and it leads to narrow specialization. He articulates the ways in which this focus on abstraction and specialization often dominate professional education and the work that professionals do. He speaks eloquently to the dangers in this kind of specialization.

It produces minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. Now to be mentally in a groove is to live in contemplating a given set of abstractions. The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is paid. But there is no groove of abstractions which is adequate for the comprehension of human life. Thus in the modern world, the celibacy of the medieval learned class has been replaced by a celibacy of the intellect which is divorced from the concrete contemplation of the complete facts. (SMW 197)

Whitehead makes his educational critique very specific. He points to the inadequacies in educational methods that focus on intellectual analysis and acquiring "formularized information"; he believes that educators who use these methods, "neglect to strengthen habits of concrete appreciation of the individual facts in their full interplay of emergent values" (SMW 198). Whitehead hopes instead for a more balanced development, one that leads to wisdom. Such a balanced development does include analysis and abstractions, but it also includes much opportunity for students to do things and to experience concrete apprehensions. Whitehead says, "In the Garden of Eden Adam saw the animals before he named them: in the traditional system children named the animals before they saw them" (SMW 198).

As one ponders narrative methodology, one can see ways in which narrative itself may introduce concreteness and value. Even in fairy tales, the presence of talking stones and larger-than-life animals call attention to the powers and interactions of the concrete world. Such stories can enhance persons’ apprehension of the world as it is. This may sound absurd since most people do not hear stones talk, but in an organic world view, everything is understood to be living to some degree. Talking stones, therefore, reflect the world more adequately than inert, silent ones. This idea is not developed at all by Whitehead, but his metaphysic seems to call forth a blending of concreteness and value, which is possible in story.

Whitehead himself makes indirect associations between narratives and concreteness when he writes on education. For example, he believes that history is important to our perception of movements in civilization, and even technology needs to be seen within an historical matrix (SMW 198). The story of history requires a large picture of the flow of epochs as well as some concrete particularities (AE 72-75).5

Literature is itself a concrete reflection of a particular civilization. Whitehead’s proposal regarding classical literature is very compatible with narrative methodology:

The treatment of the history of the past must not start with generalized statements, but with concrete examples exhibiting the slow succession of period to period, and of mode of life to mode of life, and of race to race. The same concreteness of treatment must apply when we come to the literary civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. When you come to think of it, the whole claim for the importance of classics rests on the basis that there is no substitute for first-hand knowledge. (AE 74)

Stories, then, can be seen as reflections of concrete reality, or they can be seen as concrete realities in themselves, parts of a particular civilization. In either case, they are important to the development of human beings.

What does this mean for education? It means that stories themselves are concrete, and the characters of story become part of our concrete reality. One person’s story inspires others to tell their’s. As we hear more and more stories, we also become more conscious of the concrete details in our own stories. The experience of reading a book and seeing one’s own life more vividly through the book is common. The experience of laughing or crying in a movie is an experience of laughing or crying about ourselves. We can see more concretely and more vividly in a story-filled world.

A third Whiteheadian theme provides considerable support for a narrative methodology, namely the idea that a society is bound by a stream of meaning that gives it order. Whitehead’s educational theory is grounded in his philosophy of organism, or an organic understanding of how every part fits with the whole. Whitehead identifies the way in which some parts adhere with particular closeness, forming a nexus or group of actual occasions bound together. When the binding is ordered over time, the nexus is called a society. When a society of societies are bound together by a common element, the result is a corpuscular society, or personal order. A human person is an example of such a personal order, and one could extend this image to include larger and more complex corpuscular societies, such as ethnic groups, geographical communities, or subcultures. Nathaniel Lawrence sees this interconnected social fabric of Whitehead’ s philosophy of organism as forming the base for his beliefs about education (NES). The educable self is a reflection of these natural social relationships.

Whitehead actually defines nexus and society in terms of mutual immanence, in which two or more occasions are interwoven (AI 201-202). In the case of the society, the relationship is genetic because actual occasions contribute to the shaping of future occasions, thus providing a continuity and order (AI 203-206). For Whitehead these relationships are seen as expressions of value: "The Universe achieves its values by reason of its coordination into societies of societies, and in societies of societies of societies" (AI 206). The question that naturally arises is: What can education do to enhance the relationships and the process of order and value?

From where does this strand of personal order, or stream of meaning, come, and how does one assess the value of the order? We can assume that all orderings are not equally good, so how can these judgments be made? The ordering comes from the creative advance itself as one actual occasion is prehended and received into a succeeding occasion. When the process of transmission becomes conscious, the possibilities for exercising judgments are enhanced, and this is when narratives can be important.

Narratives can raise our consciousness of how societies are ordered, and they can stir our imagination regarding how societies could be ordered. One function of narratives is to call attention to how societies are ordered and what values shape the order. From this point, judgments can be made regarding the adequacy of the values that are embodied in the order. Naturally, narratives then can introduce new values by introducing new ways of ordering and coordinating the societies. By using this technical Whiteheadian language, the basic idea may seem more complex than it is: in fact, what is being said here was discussed earlier in relation to Dominic Crossan’s idea that stories can either form world (myth) or transform world (parable). The Whiteheadian notion would simply add to Crossan’s basic idea that the formation and transformation of world would be not only a transformation of human perception, but an actual ordering and reordering of the concrete entities of the world. Stories can affect the world directly, as well as through human perception.

Narratives actually function in the world as symbols. When symbols are linked with meanings, persons experience feelings, thoughts and recollections. Symbols, then, become very important for giving access to meanings that are not easily elicited otherwise, such as religious emotions (PR 180-183/274-279). Even a word like forest can be a symbol that gives easy access to recollections of forests, when experiencing an actual forest may not be possible (PR 182-183/277-279). Certainly narratives are themselves evocative symbols that shape and challenge and reshape the world.

Narratives give access to meanings that might be inaccessible otherwise, or very difficult to experience directly. Few of us will have an opportunity to travel with Zorba, but most of us have traveled with Zorba, or with Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or with some other literary figure. These characters and their stories contribute to the stream of meaning that gives order to our world and that poses the possibility of a new, more adequate world.

A fourth theme that conjoins with narrative methodology is the value placed on interest and novelty in contributing to the richness of life. One of Whitehead’s famous epithets is: "But in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. The importance of truth is that it adds interest" (PR 259/395-396). Certainly one of the values of narrative communication is that it is interesting and that its claims to speaking the truth are more metaphorical and approximate than absolute. For this reason, narratives can add considerably to interest. Furthermore, narratives can also add novelty by introducing fresh descriptions of the world, new perspectives or new visions.

On the subject of novelty, Whitehead has been very clear. He believes that novelty is necessary for rhythm and for life. The process of concrescence itself involves uniting the given past with the novelty of the present (PR l79-180/272-273).6 Uniting novelty with what has always been can potentially contribute to the creative advance of the world. In Science and the Modern World Whitehead says, "There are two principles inherent in the very nature of things, . . . the spirit of change, and the spirit of conservation. There can be nothing real without both" (SMW 201).

What is the challenge for us as educators? It means that education should never be dull. We need to learn to discern the novel and the interesting in our midst and to pass it on. And we need to help others discern the novel and interesting as well. Merging the past heritage with the novelty of the present can contribute to emerging wisdom. This is the rhythm of education.

A fifth Whiteheadian theme is relevant to narrative methodology: that is, the complexity and interrelatedness of events in reality. Given that complexity and interrelatedness, narrative becomes a very apt mode of communication. Stories can embrace considerable complexity and weave characters and events together in a way that communicates relationships more fully than most categorical and conceptual language can do. In fact, much conceptual language has promoted a disconnected view of the universe in which every entity is seen in isolation from every other entity. This way of thinking is actually dangerous, according to Whitehead, because it carries people away from the world of values and promotes the privatization of experience and, hence, of morals (SMW 195-196). According to Whitehead, ‘The two evils are: one, the ignoration of the true relation of each organism to its environment; and the other, the habit of ignoring the intrinsic worth of the environment which must be allowed its weight in any consideration of final ends" (SMW 196). These habits of disconnected thinking only feed the problems of specialized training of professionals discussed earlier.

For Whitehead, the nature of interconnectedness is not an obliteration of differences and individuality into vague unity. In fact, every detail is important in relation to the whole. The quality of great Art is that "(t)be very details of its compositions live supremely in their own right" (AI 282). At the same time, great Art serves the harmony of the whole, contributing to the whole and receiving from the aesthetic quality of the whole (AI 282). In relation to narratives, one could say that each character and event is a detail that can reveal some important aspect of reality and touch deep feelings in the hearer or reader. At the same time, each character and event receives and contributes to the whole, and the story is more than the sum of its parts. Certainly, narrative methodology guided by this idea would include narratives vivid in detail but integrated and whole.

If reality is organically connected, then narrative can reveal those connections. Narratives have an unusual capacity to link past, present and future so that the connections across time are revealed. If we agree with Whitehead that "the very essence of real actuality" is process (AI 274), then we need forms of communication that reveal the flow of time. History becomes a flowing river, not a dark cave that seems disconnected from everything else, a cave that you enter and fear that you will never leave. We need forms of communication that reveal the spirit of change and the spirit of conservation, both of which are "inherent in the very nature of things" (SMW 201). Elsewhere I have developed the idea that education is a process fostering both continuity and change (ECC). Certainly, narrative education can be particularly fruitful in this regard because of the potential in narratives to re-present the processive flow of reality across time and to heighten awareness of both continuity and change.

A sixth relevant theme in Whitehead is the importance of recognizing that reality transcends our conscious perception of it. Given the largeness of reality and the relative nature of human perception, education needs to point beyond what is empirically measurable and to invoke a sense of awe and wonder. Narratives are important to that process because they do not claim to portray reality in a straightforward way, and also, by stirring imagination, they serve as reminders of the beyond.

If reality reaches beyond what we can see and touch, then story does not have purely descriptive functions. Though narratives are often used to describe reality and to correspond as closely as possible with the reality that is being described, narratives can also serve to point to a new perspective or vision of reality, or they can point beyond the known to the unknown. In any of these cases, the narrative is not corresponding to reality so much as pointing beyond what is immediately evident. In so doing, art performs a valuable psychological function. It points to the larger world beyond consciousness. It releases the soul from static values and offers vivid, though transient, values (SMW 202). The result is vivid experience.

Furthermore, art is artificial and finite, representing the juncture of appearances in reality and human creativity. When these come together in art, the result is a heightened sense both of the conscious appearance of reality and of human creativity. One cannot talk about simple cause and effect relationships in art, nor one-to-one correspondence between art and nature. Whitehead says, (T)he work of art is a message from the Unseen. It unlooses depths of feeling from behind the frontier where precision of consciousness fails" (AI 271). The narrative that is art, then, has this ominous power to reveal conscious reality and also to point beyond it. In so doing, it stirs awe and wonder in the presence of the universe.

One last theme in Whitehead is the possibility of relating to historical communities and cosmic community. Beginning with the more obvious part of that theme, Whitehead is clear that literature has a role in expressing the mentality of a culture. For this reason, literature is a very important avenue for understanding a culture. For Whitehead, the study of literature becomes a way of discerning a particular culture and the broad flow of human affairs (AE 66-71, 74). This is why the study of literature is given value in his educational philosophy, mid why he also takes interest in how that study is done. For example, the scale and pace of the storytelling needs to be tailored to the purpose of storytelling and to the story itself (AE 70-71). Thus, a range of hermeneutical tools is needed in accordance with the nature of the story and the purpose of one’s reading and interpreting the story. Certainly, a narrative educational methodology would need to employ a range of hermeneutical approaches.

Furthermore, the study of history, according to Whitehead, is the study of the sweep of civilizations, a study that helps one to understand the intricacies of a particular civilization and its relation to others. He himself proceeds in this kind of historical framing of intellectual and social questions, such as the influences of Greek thought or the practice of slavery. A narrative educational methodology would also need to include such a historical consciousness.

But Whitehead is not just interested in relating to historical communities; he is also interested in cosmic community. In fact, according to Robert Brumbaugh process philosophy is a reminder that we are part of a cosmic community, and the effort to put forth a cosmology is an effort to put forth a vision of such a community. In fact, the search to express cosmic vision is the origin and inspiration of religions (WPP 122-124). An important function of narrative is to put forth cosmic vision and invite people to participate in cosmic community. For Whitehead, the venture of imagination can help people anticipate the future, and the anticipation of unrealized possibilities can arouse the realization of these possibilities (AI 278-279). Narrative can function to expand the range of our imagination and our courage to act in new directions toward new possibilities.

Narrative Methodology Re-Formed by Organic Philosophy

The question now is what kind of narrative methodology is needed in order to teach organically. Certainly a narrative approach to teaching would be very important from the perspective of organic philosophy, largely because story communicates in ways compatible with how people learn. Story communicates in wholes, rather than in isolated bits. In story, one can discern the flow of time and the interactions among characters and events. If stories are to function in this way, they must be full stories, developed with vivid characters and events woven into a whole. Stories that have one point, or moral lesson, have very limited value in narrative education. The richer the story, the more it can contribute to the narrative approach.

If story functions as a symbol that actually reflects the interrelated world and fosters our relationships with the world, then we need to select stories that reflect many dimensions of the world. We need stories of animals, plants, fantasies, divinities, humans, historical and contemporary cultures, and so forth. We need a wealth of stories in order to reflect the fullness of reality.

But description is not the only function of story; we also need stories that point to mystery. We need stories that are chosen because of the largeness of their vision, rather than because of the accuracy of their parts.

We also need stories that represent different perspectives, different forms of consciousness. We need stories from Native American perspective, women’s perspective, South African perspective and Wall Street perspective. We need this variety in order to help people cross over into other forms of consciousness, and to see the world from others’ perspectives. This is important to the self-development that we call education.

Narrative methodology is more than story-telling. A narrative methodology re-formed by organic philosophy would integrate metaphysical and conceptual thinking with narrative and metaphorical thinking. In fact, metaphysics would actually be drawn from narratives as a source, and new narratives would be formed in response to new concepts in metaphysics. Further, each would critique the other. The dialogical relationship would be important if mutual enrichment and correction is expected.

Finally, if we are to take seriously an organic approach to narrative teaching, we will tell stories from different eras of history and different parts of the world, but we will also tell stories that are happening in our midst. We will see ourselves as living in the middle of story, so we will seek to tell, interpret and participate more fully in that living story. We will ask people to tell their stories, to draw stories from their own imaginations, and to make decisions about how they want to script the next chapter of their stories.

Teachers who use a narrative methodology are people who hear stories, gather stories and tell stories. They are alert to what is happening around them; they see and hear and give birth to stories. They bear the heritage of generations and appreciate the stories forming in their midst.



CC -- Maxine Greene. "Curriculum and Consciousness." Curriculum Theorizing: The Reconceptualists. Ed. William Pinar. Berkeley: McCutchan, 1975.

CD -- Søren Kierkegaard. Christian Discourses. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

DI -- John Dominic Crossan. The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story. Niles, IL: Argus Communications, 1975.

ECC -- Mary Elizabeth Moore. Education for Continuity and Change. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983.

EdIm -- Northrup Frye. The Educated Imagination. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1964.

EI -- Elliot W. Eisner. The Educational Imagination On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs. New York: MacMillan, 1985.

FTSD -- Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling and Sickness Unto Death. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

GS -- Ralph Milton. The Gift of Story. Toronto: Wood Lake Press, 1982.

ModT -- Bruce Joyce and Marsha Weil. Models of Teaching. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

NES -- Nathaniel Lawrence. "Nature and the Educable Self in Whitehead." Education Theory 15/3 (July 1965): 205-216.

NPM -- Jerome Bruner. "Narrative and Paradigmatic Modes of Thought." Learning and Teaching the Ways of Knowing. Ed. Elliot Eisner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

OG -- Fred B. Craddock. Overhearing the Gospel. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978.

SIF- -- William I. Bausch. Storytelling: Imagination and Faith. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications. 1984.

SLW -- Søren Kierkegaard. Stages on Life’s Way. New York: Schocken Books, 1967.

SS -- William R. White. Speaking in Stories. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982.

TL -- Bruno Bettelheim. Truants from Life: The Rehabilitation of Emotionally Disturbed Children. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. 1960.

TLM -- C. S. Song. The Tears of Lady Meng. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 1981.

TRI -- Maria Harris. Teaching and Religious Imagination. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986.

TS -- Teaching Strategies and Classroom Realities. Ed. Mildred G. McClosky. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

TTF -- Aimee Dorr Leifer. "Teaching With Television and Film." The Psychology of Teaching Models. Ed. N. L. Gage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

TU -- C. S. Song. Tell Us Our Names: Story Theology from an Asian Perspective. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984.

UE -- Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred F. Knopf, 1976.

WPP -- Robert S. Brumbaugh. Whitehead, Process Philosophy and Education. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1982.

ZG -- Nikos Kazantzakis. Zorba the Greek. Trans. Carl Wildman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.



1 TTF was the Seventy-fifth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, and it has been one of the most broadly used of the yearbooks.

2Learning and Teaching the Ways of Knowing, in which NPM is found, is the Eighty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. The inclusion of this article by Bruner in the Yearbook could signal a growing interest in narrative methodologies of education.

3 Whitehead continued to reflect on existing cosmologies and persist in the effort to put forth a more adequate cosmology. A major section of his last published work was entitled "Cosmological." See AI, 103-172.

4 Robert Brumbaugh highlights Whitehead’s emphases on aesthetics. See especially Brumbaugh’s "Whitehead’s Educational Theory: Two Supplementary Notes to the Aims of Education" (Education Theory [1964]: 210-215).

5The attempt to reflect on thought and movements in an historical flow is common to all of Whitehead’s writing.

6Whitehead discusses this idea in terms of the supplemental phase of presentational immediacy which follows and is united with the responsive phase of causal efficacy.