Friday, July 10, 2015

Telling Tales in a Technopoly: Getting Started with Digital Storytelling

I believe that storytelling is central to our humanity. We tell stories all the time, from personal histories, to imaginative bedtime stories, to morality tales, to socio-political narratives...the way we use "story" is a central part of our lives. Even the main way God has revealed Himself--the Bible--is largely comprised of stories, that combine to tell The Big Story of scripture: the Creation, the Fall, the Redemption, and the Consummation. And honestly, I think that part of how we reflect God's image is through our creativity (i.e., He is the Creator, which means we have the capability of being creative as well.)

Stories have a unique pull and an emotional element that "just the facts" cannot provide. Kieran Egan, in his lovely little book Teaching as Storytelling, says, "A good story-teller plays our emotions, as a good violinist plays a violin" (1986, p. 29). And I believe that it is this aspect that makes storytelling an essential teaching methodology, even in our high-tech world; perhaps it is even more important in our high tech world! In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman writes that one of the essential features of a Technopoly (a culture in which technology not only plays a central role, but actually is the dominant worldview-shaper) is "the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity" (1992, p. 61) This rings true for me: we've often heard the old saying "knowledge is power," right? But is "knowing" the information enough? Information in what context? And for what purpose?

In a Technopoly-based society, we are "driven to fill our lives with the quest to 'access' information" (Postman, 1992, p. 61). That certainly seems to describe North American culture today, doesn't it? A world where access is everything? Facts are free...and as a result, we suffer from a real sense of information overload. Any information you could want is just a Google-search away!

Postman argues that the consequence of this information glut is that we can no longer really make sense of anything, or remember, or imagine. He says,
The relationship between information and the mechanisms for its control is fairly simple to describe: Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply of information is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When they supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquillity and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures. (p. 72)
Now, the idea of "defenses" against information might have a totalitarian sound to it--I know it did for me when I first read this argument--but the more I've reflected on this, the more truthful I've found it. This is why we need a curriculum in school, right? To prevent information overload? This is why teachers provide guidance on the kind of books, or websites, or whatever other resources are available for conducting research: so students can learn to discern better and poorer sources of information. And, I think, this is why stories can be so compelling in a Technopoly: they have a way of bringing a sense of humanity back to the information. They provide a narrative thread through the information. Egan agrees with this perspective, stating, "Telling a story is a way of establishing meaning....We want 'cognitive' and 'affective' meaning together. Because the dominant model has tended to emphasize the cognitive at the expense of the affective, drawing on some aspects of the story form...can enable us to achieve better balance" (p. 37).

We must continue to tell stories. Stories connect head and heart, and may begin to provide a defense against information glut for our students once again. We can use a timeless art to combat the otherwise baffling array of information sources. And, recognizing when and where our students are living--understanding the acculturation they have had in this Technopolistic society--we can combine the ancient art form (storytelling) with a contemporary tool set (computer technology.)

Enter digital storytelling.

Image by Darren Kuropatwa [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

The ability to use graphics, video, and audio to enhance your story can help make the story all the more compelling for the audience, and the tools for sharing stories (social media?) provide a convenient venue for the telling. In the words of Michael Blocher, "Digital Storytelling is founded on the same principles of earlier storytelling in that one shares his or her story with others. The difference is that Digital Storytellers do so in a manner that more closely reflects the expectations of today's media savvy world. By utilizing storytellers can create powerful messages that impact the viewer from a variety of senses" (Blocher, 2008, p. 892).

Perhaps you are ready to tell stories to your students using digital tools? Or you want the students to do the telling? (sharing their work?) There are seven elements identified by the Center for Digital Storytelling that are essential for creating compelling digital stories:
  1. Point of View
  2. A Dramatic Question
  3. Emotion
  4. Voice
  5. Soundtrack
  6. Economy
  7. Pacing
You can learn more about these elements by examining some of these resources:



Blocher, M. (2008). Digital storytelling and reflective assessment. Technology and Teacher Education Annual, 2, 892-901.

Egan, K. (1986). Teaching as story telling: An alternative approach to teaching and curriculum in the elementary school. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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