Charles C. James, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, Director of Service Learning
“My instinct tells me that my brain is an organ for burrowing,”
Henry David Thoreau
For years, the floor of my study at home was a changing city of Legos that I navigated on tiptoe… with varying degrees of success. Any afternoon or evening, my wife or I could eavesdrop as my son and daughter created imaginary or representative places, people and stories. Sometimes that story was a Disney one. Sometimes the place was a “real” one. The characters all had rich dialogue that was transported from the pages of Harry Potter or an afternoon outing. It turns out that what I witnessed (and tripped over) for years was an essential opportunity that all children should experience- the ability to design their understanding of past, present and the predicated future. Research shows that storytelling and narrative development are crucial parts of the design process.
Throughout the school years, play allows internal storytelling to exist. Play with Legos and other manipulatives allows changing narratives to develop. Endings alternate, reality is suspended and before the story ends, youngsters have practiced the important skill of developing innovative ideas within contexts of their own design. Researcher, Michael Whitehead writes about this unique time; “ Narratives may be a crucial element in the human evolution and intelligent adaptability, enabling the species to predict or make up stories about likely outcomes as well as remote possibilities.” Whitehead believes that creative ideas can first develop in the brain as language and later be translated into tangible form. It is no wonder that the power of narrative and storytelling are central to the design process.
The field of science offers some of the most imaginative narratives that help explain the world. While the science narratives change over time as knowledge increases, the greatest scientists happen also to be among the best storytellers. Albert Einstein, Stephen Gould, Stephen Hawking, and Issac Newton all contributed notable story lines to both history and science. These stories allow youngsters to make links between vast amounts of information. It is those connections can then be expressed in the designerly moments of childhood.
Teachers can offer moments that expand on this interplay between science, and design by using narratives and stories as starting points for design challenges. Just as Harry Potter became the reason for my children to build Hogwarts (before the Lego pre-designed kits), the story of the Three Pigs becomes a way for youngster to design strong houses or a narrative about space travel might produce prototype parachutes for returning rockets. Stories of the ocean might inspire a youngster to engineer a model submarine just as the story of Benjamin Franklin inventing the armonica (for which Mozart and Beethoven both composed music) might result in the development of an instrument made from household materials.
Some of the most playful narratives in high school may occur in improvisation class where students build on a basic idea presented by fellow actors. In a recent visit to a DC School, I witnessed how an improvisation exercise spawned inventive thinking. Students were acting out a Monty Python style skit in a medieval village. One student (lost in the catacombs of a castle) pulled out their i-Phone to check their castle tour app. After the skit I asked the student whether the idea was based on reality or imagination. The student replied, “This is what the moment needed and I just thought of it, but you know, it is a good idea.”
Designers carry out their craft in many ways: collecting data, sketching ideas, conducting interviews, and, it turns out, playing and storytelling. Our creating, playing and burrowing mind creates unique pathways. All the separate strands of design must ultimately be woven into the fabric of a coherent story. One day we may fully understand how and why the brain uses story narratives in the creative process. As teachers, our job is to get designerly thinking into our classrooms and translated into the great stories we teach.