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Why learners should change their stories - and how to inspire new stories

Why Imagination ...

Creating a Tale Worth Telling

"To create a life story which is credible, which allows development as well as continuity, which tells a tale worth telling - this is the task that, as human beings, we must all attempt... we must approach our experience, and that of others, with the greatest possible imagination."

Phillida Salmon in 'Living in Time: A New Look at Personal Development' 1985: 147

The Danger of a Single Story

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. In this video, Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single StoryTEDGlobal, 2009

Why Change the Story ...

Having Power Over the Story

"Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives -- the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change -- truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts."

Salman Rushdie: One Thousand Days in a Balloon

Everyone's an Author

The making and telling of stories is often seen as something that other people do. In this way of thinking, stories might be for 'reading', 'hearing' or 'watching', but as for 'creating' or 'telling' stories, these are things that other 'more talented' people do. Such an attitude leads to people getting used to being bit players in other people's stories, and they become the victims of a reality that others impose. Personal growth remains at a low ebb until people are able to appreciate that alternative versions of reality are possible, and that they themselves can create credible stories and can be the co-authors of reality. This exchanging and adjusting of perspectives is central to a healthy and developmental reviewing process. Only through taking part in the authoring (or co-authoring) of stories about experience does learning become authentic.

Roger Greenaway: Story Making and Telling

Becoming the Author

Authorship over one's life is what integrity is all about, but it only comes when we claim and win the naming rights to our own life. Stories that do not grow out of the inner authority of our experience or carry the weight of our reflection do not rightly belong to us. Yet, how easily we allow other people's stories to colonize our experience and claim our voice... When we become aware of how telling our everyday word-choices are in the narratives we weave, we begin to understand how our language creates our relational reality. By gaining a deeper insight into how meaning is woven out of words, we can learn how to weave new meanings.

The Center for Narrative Studies at

Learning by Doing and Storytelling

Article by Menno van Dijk and Laurie Kemp

Why Involve Others ...

Changing our story jointly with others

"To change the story of our lives must, in fact, always involve changes for other people. Because our stories must have an audience, because their themes encompass other lives besides our own, because our characters are intimately, inextricably interlinked - we cannot, as single individuals, take the story just wherever we might choose. Arbitrarily to introduce a radical new departure in your personal story is to interrupt the dance, to court the protest, or the disbelief, of others. Changes that are convincing, that can be personally lived out, can only be made jointly with others."

Phillida Salmon in 'Living in Time: A New Look at Personal Development' 1985: 146

Each story influences all the others

"Like these old pocket watches, Systems Thinking helps people combine stories (the gears) into a comprehensive model. Each story influences all the others. Each story, if changed, alters the others. Most importantly, from the person's perspective that is telling it, each story is sane. Systems Thinking provides a blameless picture of the whole problem so that it can be solved as a whole."

Lou Russell

"All ... are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny ... I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Learning Conversations

"As much as we may exert our own individuality and even claim the victory of having achieved it, the fully independent self will always remain one step ahead of us, for contrary to our perceptions our individuality is very much shaped in relationships with others. Paradoxically, the awakening of our own individuality or the affirmation of who we are grounded in our own experiences is achieved by entering into conversation with others who in turn reinforce and acknowledge our freedom and existence as individuals. As participants ventured into the new realm of learning experience holding the tension between individuality and relationality, inside out and outside in, the learning space continued to evolve and expand."

Alice Y. Kolb, in Baker, Jensen & Kolb (2202).Conversational learning: An experiential approach to knowledge creation. Greenwood Press,forthcoming. Chapter 5. [See for more of this chapter.]

Why Tell New Stories ...

The need to tell new stories (about self) are greatest during adolescence. That is the focus of the next extract, but the need to tell new stories can occur throughout life - whenever we respond to change or make a change.

Telling New Stories

New experiences will be more valuable if there are also good opportunities to tell new stories.

Many of our experiences tend to get squeezed into ready-made storylines which don't do justice to the experience. People whose "stories" have got into the papers know all too well how their own personal experience can get distorted to fit what the newspaper wants to tell its readers.

The new world that activities can open up would be lost or trivialised in a similar way if we rush to squeeze new experiences into cliched storylines.

Stories are more likely to fit new experiences if they are original and home-grown. They must CONNECT...

The value of activities in working with young people does not just depend on what is experienced during an activity. It also depends on the kinds of the connections that are made with other experiences.

We continually come to know ourselves and our world by making connections between past, present and future. Threads and themes help us to draw separate experiences together into stories about ourselves and who we are.

This process stops once people come to depend too much on stories which have served them well in the past, or which have helped them to survive. When this happens, people have effectively made up their minds about themselves and their world: they have stopped learning from experience.

Young people's development is also held back if people around them are not letting them change or grow up: they may have liked them too much as they used to be, or they may have written them off, perhaps labelling them as 'trouble-maker', 'slow learner' or 'failure'.

Young people may be unlucky enough to live in a world of ready-made connections in which whatever they do gets explained by themselves or by others in terms of outdated stories or labels from the past.

Introducing new activities into this kind of world does not automatically lead to more hopeful and open-ended stories: young people may need some help to learn from these experiences and to make connections. And others in their world may need some encouragement to change their past prejudices and allow young people to change and grow.

Extract from More Than Activities

Not just any alternative stories

"Narrative therapists, when initially faced with seemingly overwhelming thin conclusions and problem stories, are interested in conversations that seek out alternative stories – not just any alternative stories, but stories that are identified by the person seeking counselling as stories by which they would like to live their lives. The therapist is interested to seek out, and create in conversations, stories of identity that will assist people to break from the influence of the problems they are facing.

"Just as various thin descriptions and conclusions can support and sustain problems, alternative stories can reduce the influence of problems and create new possibilities for living."

Extract from Chapter 2 in What is narrative therapy? by Alice Morgan

You had to dream up new stories

"You see, I was told stories, we were all told stories as kids in Nigeria. We had to tell stories that would keep one another interested, and you weren't allowed to tell stories that everybody else knew. You had to dream up new ones." Ben Okri

Read more from Ben Okri at

A story that is rarely told and rarely heard.

Martina's Story

The forum on disability was for all ages. I found that my interests and concerns weren't getting much of a voice. And when you're young, you feel a bit intimidated. That's why we started the youth forum - to be able to help each other and pool information, and to campaign for a better lifestyle for disabled people - from shopping to dancing, getting a job, and education.

People put barriers up, and you have to knock them down. Every day you've got to get up and do things, and be seen in the community. One time I queued for the pictures for ages and when I got to the front they said I was a "fire hazard" and wouldn't let me in.

When I was sixteen I was interested in judo. I gave them a shock because I just turned up. I didn't make any arrangements to turn up. I was the first disabled person to turn up at the club. I used to go twice a week. I had to learn different techniques and kneel down. But I'd found out I was free to go where I wanted. I'd love to go places without all this rigmarole beforehand!

I've done dry slope skiing. I had ten lessons. It was interesting. No - absolutely terrifying! It was like a canoe with a ski on the bottom and belts across it. You had to learn how to balance and how to operate it. I enjoyed it because it was fast.

I started riding horses when I was eight. I found I could go fast on it - that's what got me hooked. And you were getting involved with the animal. Different horses have different temperaments - their own personality. And I can compete with able-bodied people. It's the same in swimming - once I'm in the water. You get a great kick out of it. You can do it as well as anyone else.

When people say "But what about your condition?", I feel like a pregnant woman all the time! If someone says that to me now, I'll tell them I want to have a bash. Once you're taking part, and they get rid of the fear - like in judo - it's your personality that counts.

What's different about my world is that everybody thinks I live in a different world. I live in the same world as everybody else.

Extract from More Than Activities

This manager found strength, vision and purpose from getting back in touch with neglected parts of himself during a management development course. He was getting back in touch
  • with PASSION - "passionate involvement"
  • with CREATIVITY - "giving fairly free rein to creativity"
  • with PHYSICAL things - "stretched my body in a way that I haven't done for quite a while"
  • with THINKING -"getting into a mode of thinking - about me and how I operate and how I wanted to operate".

A Manager's Story

"The bonus for me was the pleasure and exhilaration of putting myself back in touch with things I hadn't really done for a long time, or hadn't done in an intensive way.

I think it came together for me quite well at the end - the hand painting. It demonstrated how we were feeling at the time and what we got from the course. And that put me in touch with a bit of myself that I think was there but I hadn't been conscious of for a while - of creativity - doing things that were generated from within me, and that I gave fairly free rein to. And it made me think workwise that I'm not someone who's short of ideas, and I need to give myself space to let those operate at times. And things slotted together quite well. And that's why I mentioned life, work and family - getting those things to relate to each other.

I just dipped my hands in a load of paint and was splashing about making things that were 3D, that were textural and that flowed. I made a conscious decision to cut my square piece of paper into an oval shape, because I wanted to give a feeling that things flowed - weren't angular. There was an overlap and one thing ran into another. I was mixing paints up and mixing mediums up and didn't put any straight lines in this thing at all which was symbolic to me about how I'd like to be really. I'd like things to flow around and for there to be peaks and troughs. I don't particularly want to work on an even plane, nor do I want to compartmentalise things in straight lines. I would like to think there's some purpose to everything I do that relates to something else.

I wasn't conscious of anyone around me or anything. I just got into the exercise and let my thoughts run free. I couldn't have done that unless I was pretty totally relaxed. I couldn't have done it unless I'd had a build up in terms of time and opportunity to think about me and how I operated and how I wanted to operate. Having a week was useful.

It would have been difficult in any other environment to have stopped to think about it or had the experiences that would make me think about it - that I had realised that I'd changed."

Extract from Powerful Learning Experiences where you can now find 8 more interviews with OMD participants.

The power of stories

The Power of Stories

"Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger." Ben Okri

"The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell." Ben Okri

Read more from Ben Okri at

“Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or lose its orientations. even in silence we are living our stories” Ben Okri

Read more from Ben Okri at:

HOW can we inspire developmental stories?

You may also wish to visit the 'Dialogue and Conversations' section of Roger's Active Learning Bookshop.

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