Narrative Into Knowledge

There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. ~Ursula K. LeGuin


Narrative is the form by which human experience is made meaningful (Madej, 2003; Pink, 2004). If you stop to think about it, you are likely to realize that everything you communicate is a story; a narrative (Collins, 1997). The prominence of story in human culture is clearly visible in the elevated status storytellers have had in history; Navajo shaman, troubadours of Europe, ollahms of Ireland and griots in Africa all held and/or continue to hold, positions of honor within their communities. Storytellers continue to be an appreciated resource, yet with the changes new technologies are manifesting in our lives, the faces of our storytellers are changing. The more interactive and collaborative, user-generated content that is placed in the public domain, the more individuals become storytellers. It is no longer a select few who generate and maintain a society’s stories, it is everyone.

As society continues to expand and greater numbers enter the workforce, our stories – and how we tell them – become our distinguishing feature (Pink, 2004), the skill that makes us unique. With the shift from hard skill to knowledge and information sharing that is taking place in today’s workforce, it is imperative that prospective contributors have the tools necessary to share their story and their knowledge with the community. The new tools enabling this transition include everything from simple email messages to direct author publishing, video creation and much more. Many of today’s technologies – Facebook, YouTube, Blogs and even Twitter – allow individuals to publish their own ‘story’ or narrative. And, while the users of these technologies are gaining the skills they will need to engage in productive activity, they are also gaining a new, digital literacy. These “new literacies are not just add-ons, nice to have but dispensable; they are at the very center of those forms and practices of communication and representation that are crucial in our new times.” (Hull, 2003, p. 233) Accompanying competency in the use of these technologies is the growing expectation that these new literacies be acquired earlier and earlier in life.

But how do young students gain competency in these skills? One speculation leads back to the importance of narrative. By engaging young users through narrative content, early learners can be provided with helpful direction in gaining digital literacy skills. The goal of the following review is to look at three aspects of narrative content with regard to early learning. First, a brief review of children’s literature, where it started and what it is being molded into. Second, a look at how story and storytelling are used in teaching and engaging students. And, finally, a review of three current Web environments for young learners and how these spaces utilize narrative to attract participation.

Once Upon a Time…
Stories are used in teaching, oral history, healing, sacred rites and have been a primary form of entertainment, likely since humans were capable of communication. The tradition of oral storytelling and teaching was first augmented with printed texts during the middle ages when wealthy patrons would commission illuminated texts for teaching children by rote. The next great shift occurred during the 1400s with the invention of the Gutenberg press. The first mass produced texts for children were generally serious, straightforward and pertaining to a specific topic. These first books treated children as though they were ‘little adults’ with no particular thought to either narrative or engagement (Madej, 2003). The 1500s saw similar publications of instruction but with the important addition of illustrations, while the next 100 years saw the slow integration of teaching philosophy, including methods of engagement such as narrative, into materials. This led to the prevalent attitude of the 1700s; namely that learning should be enjoyable. By the 1800s an entire industry had emerged to design, publish and delight readers with materials that were both engaging and educational (Madej, 2003).

The early 1900s saw the beginning of a dramatic change in the speed with which children’s books are published and the degree to which learning philosophies are incorporated in attempts to engage learners. Hastening these transitions were the widespread adoptions of movies, radio and television. While it could be argued that these other forms of media relate with a greater degree to oral storytelling traditions, their adoption has strongly contributed to “a blurring of lines between the different media” (Madej, 2003, p. 8). These mediums along with interactive storybooks began to create a more rounded, interactive experience with narrative. “Narrative took on more and more the role of meaning-maker, helping shape children’s experiences by reflecting how they fit into the society and guiding them in their socialization” (Madej, 2003, p. 14).

The next great jump in children’s literature arrived with the personal computer. “The immersible and compelling qualities of the computer offer[ed] real opportunities for reshaping children’s narratives” (Madej, 2003, p. 2). It is with these changes that a significant shift is beginning to occur, the definition of narrative is being reshaped by new tools. Storytelling is no longer limited to the pages of a book. Instead, stories are becoming interactive, conversive and increasingly engaging. Children are no longer entertained solely by text and illustration but also by the physical activity of making things happen (Madej, 2003; Jenkins, 2005). Just as the computer is changing the definition of narrative so too is literacy no longer just the ability to read and understand. “A familiarity with the full range of communicative tools, modes, and media, plus an awareness of and a sensitivity to the power and importance of representation of self and others, along with the space and support to communicate critically, aesthetically, lovingly and agentively – these are paramount for literacy now” (Hull, 2003, p. 230).

This shift in literacy is of particular importance due to the ways in which it is changing communication. “Symbol-rich, language-saturated, and technology-enhanced practices” (Hull, 2003, p. 232) are coming to define increasing amounts of our communication. This is particularly important in situations of learning. “Students in traditional, teacher led classes have little control over what they learn, are passive recipients of material chosen by teachers, must conform to the pace and ability level of the group … and are given shallow, imprecise, normative feedback on their work.” While “problem-based learning environments, case based reasoning, learning through participation in communities of practice … or inquiry-based learning all place learners in active roles, pursuing goals meaningful to them” (Squire, 2003). The interactive technology available through a computer is altering motivation, engagement and methodology in the ‘classroom.’

The Moral of the Story -Teaching Through Storytelling
“Narrative knowledge … is the best means available for students to organize their experiences and make meaning for themselves” (Collins, 1997, p. 4). Stories hold a significant amount of power in their ability to communicate. Because experiencing a story is often an emotional experience, the memories and associations generated by them are often recalled long after the details of the story have faded. “Stories are easy to remember – because in many ways, stories are how we remember” (Pink, 2004, p. 99). They also provide indirect instruction that often leads to richer understanding for the student (Collins, 1997). Storytelling creates conversation, prompting questions that add to understanding, increasing participation and student knowledge. Part of the power of stories is that they are fun; thus making learning enjoyable, and often much more intrinsically motivated, when done through narrative.

One of the reasons stories and storytelling play such a vital role in learning is because they create what Collins (1997) terms ‘memory graphics.’ To create a memory graphic, learners must interpret what they are learning using both sides of the brain. The left side breaks down the story into linear parts including the informational aspects. It sees the distinctions between different elements of the story. The right side of the brain, on the other hand, uses imagistic thinking. The right side sees the big picture, the emotional nuances and the connections between story elements. (Collins, 1997, p. 51) The mind then connects these two and creates a ‘map’ of the story. As Pink (2004) says “storytelling doesn’t replace left brain thinking – it just enables us to imagine new perspectives” (p. 106). This rounded way of thinking provides a remarkable number of benefits.

The benefit and value found in narrative, can be divided into three rough categories. The first consists of elements internal to the learner. Through both experiencing and telling stories, students can enhance their imaginative and visualization skills as well as their critical and creative thinking abilities. This is particularly true for stories that have riddles or problems for the end reader/viewer to solve. Stories that don’t ‘fill in all the details’ require readers/viewers to stretch their imagination to both fill in details and seek answers in their own mind. “The ability to visualize, to create images in the mind, is at the very heart of storytelling, not just for the listener’s mind, but also for the storyteller” (Collins, 1997, p. 11). Additionally, stories can nourish intuition, they can validate feelings that are neglected as part of traditional curriculum.

The second category of benefit involves scholastic skills. Teaching and learning through stories helps increase vocabulary, develop language appreciation, and enhance reading and writing abilities. One of the reasons stories can be extremely powerful learning tools is because they can provide in-context examples. For example, students may not initially know the meaning of a word they read or hear but they can learn through the context of the story. Stories also help provide a range of language components to students; Unfamiliar words, archaic expressions, puns, words and phrases, may all be used to make stories more enjoyable, and they often end up providing a wealth of language knowledge in the process. For those students who chose to participate by creating stories, especially in written format, there is frequently significant skill developed in clear, expressive communication, while enjoying a story can help students develop a passion for reading as well as build skills to analyze and evaluate the media they are participating in.

The third category of benefits consists of interpersonal communication enhancement. Narrative can help increase listening skills, provide a mirror for interpreting human experience and help students “understand their own and others’ cultural heritage” (Collins, 1997, p. 17). Students who listen and participate in storytelling are more likely to learn to listen effectively to spoken messages, critically evaluate those messages and provide effective and appropriate feedback (Collins, 1997). These same skills help students interpret human motives and understand the values and conflicts around them; oftentimes bettering their ability to empathize and engage with others. In turn, this helps them understand their own culture and the culture of others through the stories or folklore they consume from the world around them.

Today, a frequent place to find narrative knowledge and the benefits of narrative learning, is in games. In this era of digital literacy, it is often computer games that embody many of the powerful traits found in narrative learning. “Video games are increasing in complexity, incorporating story, character development, and collaboration in the game design” (Squire, 2003) These games allow users to view phenomena from new perspectives, pose hypotheses, and visualize and compare situations in order to improve understanding. Video games have the ability to bring players to a ‘flow’ state where learning and understanding can take place with ease and that can help increase intrinsic motivation. Some scholars refer to these highly involved games as enacted narratives. The game space in these instances has become a memory ‘palace’ where contents must be deciphered and the plot constructed. These spaces are rich with narrative potential and enable story-constructing activities for players (Squire, 2003). “Interactive digital storytelling should [continue to] emerge as a legitimate art form in the upcoming years” (Squire, 2003).

What Makes a Story
In order to discuss current narrative spaces, it is necessary to define the elements that create a narrative or story. There are six primary components or building blocks to a narrative: Setting, plot, conflict, character, point of view and theme.

Setting – Setting is simply the place, time and conditions in which the story takes place. In traditional narrative, this includes elements such as physical location, date, time of day, weather conditions, as well as social conditions, mood, and atmosphere. When translated to a computer, these elements may still exist, via images, stories, games etc., but setting is more generally related to the physical design of a program or Web page layout. This can include items such as the design of banners and buttons, colors, physical location of elements on the screen, etc. One important difference between a traditional narrative setting and that found on a computer is the possibility for utilizing motion, sound and interactivity, often in combination, to help create the setting.

Plot – Plot equates to the sequence of events that make up a story. Although the dynamics of a plot may take different forms, the plot generally consists of an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. (Ohler, 2006) While there are some computer games that involve a plot, plot can also be associated with a program or Web page’s navigation structure. Users create a sequence of events when they click buttons or otherwise navigate through a program or Web space.

Conflict – Integral to the plot, conflict is what allows a story to move forward. It consists of the obstacle that must be overcome or addressed and is the reason the events of the plot take place. The conflict can be either internal or external to the characters in a story and takes one of four forms: person vs. person, person vs. circumstances, person vs. society or person vs. self. The most prominent place conflict can be found in the computer world is in games. Here it takes on the same importance to the narrative as it would in more traditional or classic literature. Popular video games frequently include a particular quest or challenge that players are trying to complete. This could be in the form of competing against a clock, a goal or quest story element, or high score attainment.

Character – Character consists of not only the people or other notable roles in a story but the aggregate of features and traits that articulate the individual nature of that person or thing. This includes items such as physical appearance, patterns and sounds of speech, thoughts, feelings, dreams, aspirations, actions and reactions both by and to the character. Online and in computer programs, character can come in several different forms. A Website for instance, may have an overall character as well as portray a more traditional character in the form of a logo, static cartoon character or video/animated character.

Point of View – The angle from which the story is told. Classically, point of view takes one of the following forms: Innocent eye (child whose judgment differs from that of an adult), stream of consciousness (media consumer is ‘inside’ the head of the characters), first person (story is told by the character using pronouns such as I, me and we), or omniscient (the narration can move from character to character, event to event). When interacting with a computer, users are generally either in a first person position where their actions are part of the narrative or an omniscient position where they are interacting on behalf of the narrative.

Theme – Theme, whether in a classic narrative or new digital narrative, doesn’t change much. It consists of the controlling or central idea/insight being conveyed. Frequently used themes consist of ideas such as the importance of friendship, things are not always as they appear to be, being smart can ‘win the day’, etc. Theme is often emphasized through various figures of speech such as: symbol, allusion, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, or irony.

Story Spaces – PBS Kids, CBeeBies, Disney
Given the potential benefit of using story and narrative as a teaching platform, it is no wonder that so many learning tools aim to teach through a good tale. The great number of child oriented Websites that have sprung up since the mid 1990s are no exception to this. Young learners are gaining digital proficiency through their own motivation in mastering a Web/computer environment in order to participate in the presented narrative. Children’s Websites – which importantly offer frequent opportunity to play games – provide challenge, fantasy and curiosity, three components integral to having fun (Squire, 2003) and subsequently, to enjoying the learning process. The following review presents some of the ways in which three popular sites for preschool aged children (roughly 3-5 years of age) utilize elements of narrative to create intriguing spaces for young learners.

PBSkids’ Sid the Science Kid (, BBC’s CBeeBies (, and Disney Preschool’s – Mickey Mouse Clubhouse ( are three Websites designed for a potential audience with an average age of less than 5 years. Traffic statistic generator rates these sites as the 1,431st most popular site (PBSkids), the 44th most popular site (BBC), and 45th most popular (Disney) in the world with 91 thousand, 109 million and 3.3 million viewers per day respectively. While these statistics are for the parent sites of these three spaces (e.g. the 3.3 million viewers of bounds all subpages including those meant for teenagers), it is likely a safe assumption that the three listed subsites are receiving ample traffic. They are therefore some of the most popular sites for young children in the world.

The three sites utilize some of the same design and content components but there are also a number of marked differences between the three. This is clearly notable when looking at the setting or design of the pages. All three sites use bright colors, big/notable buttons for clicking, rollover animation, and sound to create a scintillating atmosphere that invites exploration. Of these three sites, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is the most static. The site pages consist of a single background image and side and header navigation that do not change. Color is utilized to clearly differentiate different activities while the Disney character images across the header let users know what part of the site they are currently visiting or may chose to visit. Only the center area of the page changes as users navigate through the site, though the main design elements such as bright colors, etc. remain consistent on all pages. Sid the Science Kid’s page is somewhat less fixed. Each page of the site represents a different place from the television show, e.g. the classroom, playground, grandma’s house, etc. The least constant setting is that used by CBeeBies. Although the navigation elements on the CBeeBies pages remain the same (excepting some game layouts that are full screen), the background changes throughout the day. Children who visit the site at mid day will see a background depicting a bright sunny sky, while evening users will see dark colors and stars.

One of the key setting components on all three sites is the use of sound. When a user first lands on Sid’s page, they will hear Sid’s voice as he gives some helpful hints about what to do and encourages exploration of the site. Additionally, clickable elements create some sort of noise when the mouse is rolled over them. Similarly, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and CBeeBies use sound as part of their navigation structure. Various clickable elements on their pages have a rollover sound that provides non-readers with navigation information. Many of these same rollovers also produce some sort of animation. Overall, the setting and design of each site encourages exploration and play by creating interest in various page elements through visual cues, helpful sounds, and attractive animation.

The same items that help create the setting and general appearance of each site, are closely tied to navigation and layout or plot structure of each site. More traditional plot frameworks can be found in the game features on all three sites, but the general navigation also offers plot-like features. The most prominent navigation is arguably that of Sid’s voice. When users first land on Sid’s page, they are greeted with Sid saying “You’re here! Let’s play. There’s something new to add to your collection jar, walk around to find it.” encouraging them to explore the site. As users explore, they find more and more things to do. Voiceover also helps participants play the available games. Sid or one of his companion characters provide a narrative introduction to each activity and then guide players as they make choices or move the mouse. Eventually they will cheerfully congratulate the player at the completion of the activity. Games on both the Disney and CBeeBies sites also utilize voice navigation/suggestion during game play to help players complete activities. However, their navigation structures rely more on individual exploration than prompts for activity. An additional plot-like structure found on Sid’s site as well as some of the sub areas of the CBeeBies site are cumulative activities. As site visitors complete various activities they are awarded with a ‘prize’ of some sort that encourages them to explore more areas of the site to accumulate more ‘prizes’. In the case of Sid the Science Kid, these are items that can be added to the collection jar that can be played with outside of the primary activities.

The process of collecting items for Sid’s collection jar or coconuts for the CBeeBies’ Zingzilla’s Big Coconut Adventure are purposely game-like and create a driving force for activity. They provide a conflict or challenge for users to solve. Additional challenges are generally found through each site’s games. For instance, in Goofy’s Shoe Roundup, a game found on the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse site, players are asked to complete a matching puzzle before the sun makes it across the sky (effectively a timed game). As each set of matches is completed, a more complex set is presented. While players are not penalized for incorrect answers, they do receive a total score once the sun has gone down, and they are presented with the chance to try again for a better score. The Sid the Science Kid site offers challenges that require critical thinking (getting the right answer through deduction), memory skill and word association. Players work to receive a ‘Good job!’ or ‘That was a tough one, but you did it!’ from Sid and his companions. Similar competitions are found in the CBeeBies games. Zingzilla’s Big Coconut Adventure consists of a series of challenges players must complete such as filling a jar with smashed fruit for a smoothie and matching musical tones to help hummingbirds find their mates. Other games such as Mr. Tumbles Star Game provided physical challenge as players had to navigate a character through a maze while not hitting any obstacles that would send them back to the beginning.

One thing that all the games, from all three sites, have in common is that they are character oriented. Each site is part of a multimedia brand that includes television shows, books, CDs, etc. as well as the Web component. Children who use these sites are likely to have seen and know the included characters from multiple sources. As such, the characters depicted adhere to both the physical and personal traits presented across all mediums. For example, Sid’s voice and 3D animated character are the same both on television and the Web. He asks similar questions and uses the same jokes in both mediums. The Disney site relies on its tried and true characters as well as those from its popular animated films. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is the section of the site where users will find the classic cartoon characters of Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald Duck, etc. Here again, voices, actions, movement, etc. remain similar in both mediums. CBeeBies is the only site that really differs in this regard, and it only does so in a minimal way. Like Disney and Sid, CBeeBies uses many of the same characters, however they have also animated a number of characters that are live or puppets in the television show version of their product.

The characters used on these Websites are generally static; they don’t particularly develop new traits or habits, or change over time. This is part of the nature of characters created to meet the needs of specific age groups (Sid would not be much use for teaching preschoolers if he ever graduated from kindergarten…). The one difference in these characters when presented on the Web rather than in a book or on television is that they are interactive, site users have some control over what is happening with the character. How the online characters interact with the user therefore places the user at a particular point of view. During the online adventures of Sid and his classmates, interactive users are addressed and included as though they are part of the class. In Mickey’s Clubhouse, site viewers are treated as though they are a member of the gang. Different areas of the CBeeBies site place users in different positions; Mr. Tumbles Star Game for instance places users in a first person position as they navigate Mr. Tumbles through a maze while the Zingzilla’s Big Coconut Adventure places the user in the position of an ‘outsider’ sent to help the characters complete a goal, a more omniscient point of view.

A reason for these varying points of view is likely the differences in the goals each site/activity is seeking to accomplish. Sid the Science Kid is advocating that asking questions is good and helps viewers develop critical thinking skills. Users are consequently included in a first person role where they are encouraged to do some of the question asking. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse presents stories and activities all about friendship and helping friends. Like Sid the Science Kid, users are included in a first person role so that they can be a friend to the Disney gang. CBeeBies covers a number of topics by section; The Zingzilla section of the site is dedicated to teaching music basics. By placing users in a more omniscient role, Zingzilla’s allows them to explore music without actually having to play an instrument. Critical thinking development, friendship and music appreciation are all the central goal of their respective websites. They take on the role of theme for these sites.

It should be noted that all three sites also offer, along with the story elements discussed, very traditional narrative in the form of videos available for on demand viewing. CBeeBies takes this one step further by providing videos of storybooks being read. All three sites also present creative exploration or ‘on your own’ activities that allow learners to become storytellers rather than just consumers of stories. On offer are printable coloring and activity pages, online tools for drawing pictures, online spaces to explore that are not goal or game oriented, and even, in the case of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a printable paper doll collection so that viewers can create their own narratives with the Disney characters. Although minimal on the Disney site, parents and teachers are additionally presented with guides for providing further learning and encouragement to students.

Happily Ever After
In the past, “stories have developed a ‘bad rap’. They amuse, divert and cover where facts illuminate, reveal and are ‘real’. This idea is counter to how our minds actually work” (Pink, 2004, p. 100). Reflection on former teaching methods has shown that utilizing narrative provides a captivating environment in which learning can take place. It engages students, helping them develop visualization skills, critical and creative thinking, vocabulary, reading and writing, intuition and better understanding of human culture and motivation. By utilizing narrative in learning spaces such as on and offline games and interactive spaces such as the Web, students are increasingly able to direct their own learning and advance their intrinsically motivated attainment.

This positive outlook is not intended to downplay the very real problems associated with online and computer based learning. It is recognized that computers and games have limits and are capable of having a negative effect that must be taken into consideration. And, there is no arguing that there is truth in the old adage that everything should be enjoyed in moderation. The increased necessity of digital literacy is also widening the gap, both educationally and socially, between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of the world. However, as the digital economy continues to grow and digital literacy becomes increasingly important, stories hold incredible potential as a teaching tool for digital literacy. Under the right circumstances, perhaps they can even be used to offset some of these imbalances.

Very young children gain knowledge through instinctual learning techniques and are motivated by intrinsic factors. Creating instinctual learning environments helps promote their natural curiosity and makes learning fun. By utilizing narrative, engagement can happen naturally and with exceptional results. Further study into narrative and new, digital, environment design seems like a natural step forward given our understanding of how it has affected teaching in the past. Incorporation of narrative throughout materials developed for learners of all ages is a learning technique that should be explored much further – who knows what learning we may discover ourselves capable of.

It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story. ~Native American saying

The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in. ~Harold Goddard

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