Story-telling in higher education

This Section is written by Paula Connaughton, a Youth and Community Work lecturer

Why use story-telling in higher education courses?  

IDYW story-telling workshops start from the premise that collaborative inquiry using Socratic Dialogue and facilitation techniques (see Story-telling with experienced youth workers) can support students in their exploration of ‘what is youth work’ and contribute in significant ways to their understanding and articulation of the key process dimensions of their work. The story-telling process can provide potential for fostering high levels of student engagement in the classroom, enabling them to explore the complexities of youth work through an examination of the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.

Students have expressed that they are better able to articulate the process of youth work

Where story-telling has been tested in university classrooms, students have been enabled to articulate the key components of youth work: skills, knowledge, values and ethics, and process which together form its distinctness as a practice. They have also expressed that they have been better able to articulate the process of youth work within a multidisciplinary team or integrated agency where there is a lack of understanding of what distinguishes it as a professional practice.

The story-telling method also provides learners, along with their peers, with the opportunity to reflect on practice and managerialism in action, bringing with it the potential to challenge the implementation of policies in youth services. Indeed, as Button’s work shows,1 methods of story-telling have a long history in community and youth work, where oral histories have been used as qualitative evidence that captures the spirit, essence and less tangible aspects of the work. It also allows participants to become teachers as their own experiences form an essential part of the learning, with the facilitation of workshops thus potentially creating a different balance between the role of ‘university teacher’ and that of ‘student’. In these ways story-telling helps students explore how they might work within tensions and contradictions in ways which enable them to develop independent, critical educational thinking and, through this, learn how to become better decision-makers.

Framing Questions in Socratic Dialogue

What follows includes an extract from a story-telling workshop that took place in a university setting where the interrogation of a student’s experience of open-access provision provided co-students with evidence, beyond anecdote, of important practice experiences. What emerged was a first-hand account of opportunities for young people to share their concerns and interests, as the youth worker (story-teller) demonstrated the importance of conversation and open dialogue embedded in an appreciation of the importance of context. Similar to Button’s concern for student learning, this workshop came about because of the tutor’s observation that, though students were receiving inputs of knowledge, ideas and theoretical concepts, these were not always being internalised, giving rise to a concern that attitudes and ways of working were not being affected.

The story: background information

  • The story-teller was a student on a university youth and community work course who had worked with a local youth group for a significant number of years.
  • The story focused on an experience of a residential as part of an open-access youth club event.
  • The story-teller described how the young people often sat and chatted with the youth workers around a campfire during such events.
  • Though ‘Joe’ had been coming to the group for a number of years, it was during one night at the residential that the youth worker was to learn much more about his concerns.

The story: the focus; unpicking of the narrative

As part of an ongoing conversation with the youth worker (storyteller), when nobody else was around, Joe told her about domestic abuse he was experiencing at home.

_MG_7032Story-teller: Residentials are good because we can build strong relationships, there’s opportunity for discussion – informal ones – whatever young people want to talk about. On one occasion, a young man, ‘Joe’, told me about domestic abuse and how once it ruined Christmas in their house.

Member of the workshop 1: What difference does a residential bring to the relationship between youth workers and young people that any other setting would not, which meant Joe wanted to share his concerns with you?

Story-teller: I don’t know, it’s just different – we planned for a campfire at the end of each night – it’s an opportunity to talk to each other; I think that’s really important for getting to know the people you are with, and building on bonds started in the club.

Member of the workshop 1: What do you think helped Joe to open up to you when he had never done this before?

Story-teller: It’s the space, it’s the environment, it’s relaxing, pleasant… [pause] I think it’s this that provides young people with a sense of escape, to offload in a relaxed space with people they trust, as Joe did.

Facilitator: But why do you think Joe specifically chose to tell you? What is it that your practice brings that assured him he could open up to you?

Story-teller: I have known him since he started coming to the club a few years ago. I recently helped him with his application for university when he said that he thought it was pointless putting in for it when he wouldn’t be accepted. He didn’t have the belief in himself but over a few weeks I encouraged him and reassured him of his abilities. Sometimes I just sat with him while he sat at the office computer looking at courses on the web. And, in the end, Joe made the decision himself to go to university.

Member of the workshop 2: How did you encourage and reassure him besides sitting with him?

Story-teller: Oh, you know, just talking, listening and responding to him – I suppose I reassured him he could come and talk to me anytime he wanted to… [pause] Joe knew that I wouldn’t share his worries with others because we discussed it – he didn’t want his friends or anybody else knowing about his ‘problems’. I had to respect his decision on this, although I did say there might also be other professionals who could help him, too.

Member of the workshop 3: So would you say conversation between you both had been the result of building trust over previous encounters?

Story-teller: Yes, but also, I think it’s the fact that he chooses to come along and isn’t forced – so it’s a different kind of relationship to, say, a teacher or his parents. We just talk and chat about things that young people want to – in Joe’s case, it has been about university and then recently his disclosure about domestic violence.

Facilitator: What approach did you take to having a conversation with Joe that was perhaps different to a teacher’s?

Story-teller: I’m not saying that teachers don’t do good work and support young people, but as a youth worker I’m mindful that young people, once they have your trust, will open up to you. It’s because once they know you they see you as an equal. It’s not about telling them what to do, what to wear, but about conversation and from that change happens within themselves – like Joe did – he’s now at university and he still comes to the club as a volunteer. It might be because it gets him out of the house, but I think it’s because he likes being around other people and getting involved in activities he might not have done otherwise.

Facilitator’s reflections

As Davies defined it in Youth Work: A Manifesto of Our Timeswhat distinguishes youth work from other practices is the process, based on a range of essential features. In particular, the narrative demonstrates insight into the unpredictability of youth work, as the storyteller described an ‘incidental moment’ when Joe disclosed to her his concerns whilst on a residential.  At the start of the story-telling process the youth worker describes how Joe found a place to offload his worries because the campfire created a fun environment that was a safe place for him.  However, as the story was unpicked it became evident that this could have only happened because the youth worker had already built up a strong relationship with Joe and that her practice demonstrated the importance of starting with a conversation. It is through the unpicking of the story that the storyteller was able to recognise that her focus on practice demonstrated the value of her work from Joe’s point of view

It became evident that this could have only happened because the youth worker had already built up a strong relationship

What is evident from the story is the ability to assess Joe’s situation without being judgemental of his home life or telling him what he should do, and whilst she did not share information with other professionals, the focus was on getting Joe to move beyond his present situation by encouraging him to be more outward-looking. In this sense, the storyteller was able to link the importance of association and of fostering supportive relationships in a youth club that provides a space for young people like Joe, to being around other people and getting involved in activities they might not have done otherwise.

Some possible pointers for practice in youth and community work courses

So what does this example tell us about how storytelling might be incorporated into university programmes?

  • Socratic Dialogue can become part of teaching sessions – as exploration of placement experiences, including professional dilemmas in practice.
  • Story-telling can be used as a form of monitoring and evaluation in practice.
  • Story-telling can be used as part of assessment – for example, the placement portfolio could also incorporate a storytelling assessment.
  • Students could explore their experience of working with a group or a young person in a group activity or during a group tutorial.
  • Story-telling could be a tool to aid reflection, as it gives students an opportunity to learn and reflect on questions such as ‘what is youth work?’, and ‘where does it take place?’, using and unpicking their own examples of practice in a shared learning environment.
  • The stories in the IDYW book This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice can provide the balance between teaching and learning as students and university teachers listen together and explore issues in practice that emerge from the stories. As a resource, the book can be used in different modules.

What other alternative spaces for storytelling in university courses can you identify?

Some possible prompts for practice in youth and community work course

What follows are a number of questions that might be considered before planning a story-telling workshop in youth and community work courses.

  • How might the process of Socratic Dialogue enable students to learn from each other to clarify distinctive cornerstones of youth work that many may not have recognised or experienced in their own fieldwork practices?
  • How will the process of story-telling help students learn the importance of conversation that enables young people to take action themselves? (See IDYW Statement 2014)
  • After a process of story-telling, how will you enable students to make a connection between practical competency and theoretical understanding?
  • How can the potential of story-telling be used to enable students to learn skills in ‘problematising’ the context of their work and to relate their practice experience to wider social issues that will help them  ‘philosophise’ on ‘good’ practice.

What other uses of story-telling could aid the particular purposes of your courses?  

1Button, L. (1971) Discovery and Experience: A New Approach to Training, Group Work and Teaching. London. Oxford University Press.

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