Learning through Storytelling with the PPCLI

Via Luis Suarez is this story on CNEWS [dead link: see comment below] about a cultural anthropologist, Anne Irwin, who has been studying soldiers in the field and how they learn and bond through storytelling. The soldiers of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry battle group are in Afghanistan and Prof. Irwin is there to watch and understand:

When they are out in the field and return from a patrol, the exhausted soldiers relax together in small, tightly-knit groups – Irwin calls them “nesting circles” – and recount the events of the day or the mission.

Each soldier contributes a story, an anecdote or even a joke, adding stock and spice into what becomes a collective stew of experiences, she said. They also playfully insult each other.

The storytelling not only helps forge the individual identity of each soldier, it builds interpersonal relationships that can have a bearing on how well the unit performs on the battlefield.

Having served in the same regiment and having been active in training and learning for many years now, I can say that this is the perfect example of the importance of informal learning. It’s a fact that these soldiers have all been formally trained in the skills of the infantry. However, the unit is not an effective fighting force until individuals have worked together. Informal learning is the glue that helps keep them together during the tough times. Support for these “nesting circles” and other ways to facilitate group learning is essential.

Let’s take a similar, but much less dangerous situation. Imagine a company that has a project team that has had a difficult client with tight deadlines and then managed to pull it off. Immediately after the last deliverable, the team is redistributed across the organisation to get to the next project, because “time is money”. There has been no time to talk or to swap stories or to find out what Bob was doing while Mary was dealing with a certain crisis. There are no “nesting circles” here to develop the group’s learning.

Civilian organisations might not be able to devote down time to informal learning, but they can ease the way for other kinds of communication that may help informal learning. Storytelling through blogs is possible for those who want to write. Sharing pictures on the Intranet can evoke memories and encourage people to revisit an event and learn from it. The key is to create environments that support these types of communication and learning; just as a dozen soldiers in a tent are going to tell stories, bond and learn.

10 Responses to “Learning through Storytelling with the PPCLI”

  1. Joan Vinall-Cox

    Are you familiar with Narrative Inquiry as a research approach? I used narrative inquiry in both my M.Ed paper and my Ph.D. thesis and it turbocharged my ongoing learning

    Reply
  2. Harold

    Yes, I’ve heard about it, but haven’t really dug into it. Can you recommend any good references, Joan?

    Reply
  3. Kevin Kelly

    Hi,

    Here is the bibliography from my Master’s degree work on using stories and metaphors to make technology accessible to adult learners. Some may not be applicable, but I found some really good articles and other resources.

    Anziano, Michael C., and Terminello, Verna (February 1993). Navajo Head Start: Teacher training and adult literacy in a local context. Journal of Reading, 36(5), 372-378.

    Cage, Mary Crystal (24 March 1995). Mixing the Outrageous With the Educational. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 41(28), A19 & A22.

    Colon-Vila, Lillian (February 1997). Storytelling in an ESL Classroom. Teaching PreK-8, 27(5), 58-59.

    Egan, Kieran (February 1989). Memory, Imagination and Learning: Connected by the Story. Phi Delta Kappan, 70(6), 455-459.

    Egan, Kieran (1989). Teaching as Storytelling, The University of Chicago Press.

    Goodwin, Stephen C., PhD, and Jenkins, Andrew P., PhD (August 1997). Teaching Through Stories. Journal of School Health, 67(6), 242-244.

    Green, Thomas F. (1979). Learning without Metaphor. In Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (462-473). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Holland, Thomas P., and Kilpatrick, Allie C. (Fall 1993). Using Narrative Techniques to Enhance Multicultural Practice. Journal of Social Work Education, 29(3), 302-308.

    Kalfus, Jane, and Van der Schyff, Laurel (September 1996). Storytelling. Teaching PreK-8, 27(1), 72-73.

    Keeler, Carolyn M., and Anson, Robert (1995). An Assessment of Cooperative Learning Used for Basic Computer Skills Instruction in the College Classroom. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 12(4), 379-393.

    Knox, John A. (May 1997). Reform of the College Science Lecture through Storytelling. Journal of College Science Teaching, 26(6), 388-392.

    Lensch, John E. (February 1997). A High-Tech Magnet for Seniors. Educational Leadership, 54(5), 64-66.

    McCabe, Allyssa (1997). Cultural Background and Storytelling: A Review and Implications for Schooling. The Elementary School Journal, 97(5), 453-473.

    Mertz, Gayle (Winter 1996). Quotations, Core Values, and Storytelling. Update on Law-Related Education, 20(1), 33-34.

    O’Brien, Jean P., PhD, & Kroggel Jr., Lawrence P. (01 August 1989). Technology: Training, not Trauma. Personnel Journal, 68(8), 32-41.

    Petrie, Hugh G. (1979). Metaphor and Learning. In Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (438-461). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Polk, Gerald W. (June 1996). Computer Tutoring as a Method of Teaching Computer Skills to Human Service Professionals. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 23(2), 98-105.

    Presno, Caroline (June 1997). Bruner’s Three Forms of Representation Revisited: Actions, Pictures and Words for Effective Computer Instruction. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 24(2), 112-118.

    Spagnoli, Cathy (September/October 1995). Storytelling: A Bridge to Korea. The Social Studies, 86(5), 221-225

    Sticht, Thomas G. (1979). Educational Uses of Metaphor. In Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (474-485). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    West, Charles K.; Farmer, James A. and Wolff, Phillip M. (1991). Instructional Design: Implications from Cognitive Science, Prentice-Hall.

    Zemke, Ron (01 March 1990). Storytelling: Back to a Basic. Training, 27(3), 44-50.

    Reply
  4. Kate Dudding

    Harold,

    I am creating a web site documenting uses of storytelling in the classroom — see http://www.storytellinginschools.org

    I would like to get in touch with the Kevin Kelly who posted the bibliography at http://www.jarche.com/?p=819 . His master’s thesis would be a great addition to my web site. I’ve already included three masters theses from Eastern Tennessee State University:

    http://www.storynet-advocacy.org/edu/research/watts-abstract.shtml
    http://www.storynet-advocacy.org/edu/research/meyers-abstract.shtml
    http://www.storynet-advocacy.org/edu/research/gallets-abstract.shtml

    Please forward this message on to Kevin. I’ve tried finding him online. However, it is a rather common name, so I’m finding lots of people who are not the one I want.

    Thank you for your time.

    Kate Dudding http://www.katedudding.com
    kate@katedudding.com

    Reply
  5. Harold Jarche

    I managed to dig up the text of the article, which is no longer online:

    John Cotter, Canadian Press
    Published: Monday, July 03, 2006
    KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Canadian soldiers on patrol who have been studied by anthropologist Anne Irwin have jokingly described her work as watching “grunts in the mist.”

    The tiny, grey-haired University of Calgary professor has spent years in dangerous places with front line troops less than half her age to observe how they construct their identities as warriors.

    Now Irwin’s research has taken her to Taliban country with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry where she is watching how soldiers bolster their identities by sharing their battlefield experiences through storytelling with their peers.

    “What counts in this context right now is whether you’ve been under fire and how often you’ve been outside the wire,” said Irwin, 51, who wears the same combat uniform and body armour as the troops when she’s in the field.

    “These are tough, hard guys who people think of as being very one-dimensional. I guess what really strikes me is how much they really care for each other. How they can just pick themselves up and keep going.”

    When they are out in the field and return from a patrol, the exhausted soldiers relax together in small, tightly-knit groups – Irwin calls them “nesting circles” – and recount the events of the day or the mission.

    Each soldier contributes a story, an anecdote or even a joke, adding stock and spice into what becomes a collective stew of experiences, she said. They also playfully insult each other.

    The storytelling not only helps forge the individual identity of each soldier, it builds interpersonal relationships that can have a bearing on how well the unit performs on the battlefield.

    “Joking is a big part of it, and teasing,” she said. “It is not abuse. If you have been teased harshly it lets you know that you are part of the group.”

    Being a military Margaret Mead is pretty hot and dangerous work for a middle-aged academic. The bleak terrain of Afghanistan is a long way from Irwin’s home in Sooke on cool, lush, Vancouver Island.

    While Irwin is a marathon runner, she says enduring 55 Celsius temperatures while dealing with menopausal flashes has been quite a challenge. And there been more serious dangers.

    Only a few weeks ago the platoon she was with became embroiled in a firefight with Taliban in which two Canadian soldiers were wounded.

    Afterwards the stories didn’t flow immediately. It took about 24 hours because everyone was exhausted and in shock, she said.

    Then slowly the troops opened up to each other. They recounted watching a medic run forward straight into the line of fire to supervise first aid on their fallen comrades. They spoke about a sergeant who stood up under fire on the ramp of a LAV 3 to get a stretcher.

    The soldiers also remembered how they all jumped back into the fight after recovering the two casualties until the battle was won.
    “That was even tougher because by then they were exhausted,” she said. “That just took character and discipline.”

    Irwin isn’t exactly sure why soldiers, whom she has described as being part of a “hypermasculine culture that values stoicism and physical toughness,” let their guard down in front of her.

    Part of it could be the 16 years she spent in the Canadian Forces reserve.

    Perhaps it’s her academic credentials. Irwin’s doctoral thesis at the University of Manchester was entitled: The social organization of soldiering: a Canadian infantry company in the field.

    Maybe it’s her friendly eyes and easy smile that show she really cares about them.

    Recently the troops paid Irwin the ultimate compliment. They asked her to contribute to their storytelling sessions in the field.

    “It’s the most moving thing I’ve ever experienced. A real strong sense of inclusion,” she said.

    “It is very, very powerful. It gives me an insight into how it must be for the soldiers to be swept up into this family.”

    Reply

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