Story-telling with experienced youth workers

This Section draws on the collective experience of IDYW facilitators of story-telling workshops 

The origins

The first IDYW story-telling workshop, held in October 2010, was devised and co-facilitated by Professor Sarah Banks of Durham University. She developed its programme and process from the ‘Socratic Dialogue’ approach to rigorous group exploration of a ‘well-formed philosophical question’ which, with others, she had been using for some years within the social, youth and community work fields.1

The task

In transforming this approach into a workshop programme for youth work story-telling (see Story-telling workshop flyer and Story-telling workshop programme: a template), the Socratic Dialogue’s ‘well-formed question’ was reframed as an invitation to participants to:

Describe an example of your practice which represents you practising as a youth worker in your current setting.

Agreeing a story

Guided by a facilitator’s prompt sheet, the facilitator – where necessary in quite proactive ways – invites group members to offer a headline of a story from their practice which they see as relevant to the task. Examples from past workshops have included:

  • Working with a ‘Positive Activities’ cooking group._MG_2044 (2)
  • As part of a project for looked-after young people, working in a club setting with a young man who had recently been moved to foster parents in the area.   
  • Supporting a group of young men and young women to set up and run an overnight sleep-in in a youth club.
  • Working on the streets with a group of Asian young people identified for targeting by youth work managers and the police who were funding the work.   
  • Bringing together and then working with a group of club members with a view to setting up an area youth council.
  • Working with a young man who, through the Common Assessment Procedure for children at risk, had been identified as needing ‘anger management training’ and so referred by his school to the youth worker.
  • Developing a project for addressing the everyday racist attitudes and comments of a group of white young men.  

When all offers have been received and the headlines noted on a flip chart sheet, participants are asked to share their views on which one of the outlined stories they see as most likely to address the group task. In deciding how proactive to be during this discussion, the facilitator may need to take into account the depth and range of youth work experience of group members and what factors they are taking into account in making their choice. It may be helpful to the subsequent process, for example, to at some stage:

  • refocus group members on the task – in particular its emphasis on the story-teller practising as a youth worker – as the key criterion for judging which of suggested story will be most relevant;
  • remind them that a key aim of the detailed unpicking of the chosen story which will follow will be to clarify what makes youth work distinctive as a practice with young people;
  • explain that, however valuable this piece of practice may have been its own right, a question for the group to address may therefore be: ‘So, when tested against its defining features of the practice, how was this youth work – and how was it not?’.

Though a consensus may emerge from these exchanges, a time limit may need to be set (10 -15 minutes), with resolution perhaps only eventually being achieved by majority vote.

Narrating the chosen story

The person whose story is chosen is then invited, in 10 minutes maximum, to narrate it in detail, providing both essential descriptive and contextual information and any explanations or interpretations they judge necessary for group members to understand what happened and how. In asking the story-teller to do this, the facilitator might consider again highlighting the importance for this workshop of the inter-personal dimensions and processes of the work as well as those related to the activity or activities.

‘Unpicking’ the story

The story-teller may have treated much that was key to both the process and its outcomes as ‘just what we do as youth workers’

Once the story has been narrated and the essential descriptive material presented, the group focus increasingly turns to analysis – in particular to ‘unpicking’ these key interactive processes. An important starting assumption here often needs to be that, given the inherent informality of so much youth work and the apparent ‘everyday’ and ‘ordinary’ nature of many of its relationships and exchanges, the story-teller may have treated much that was key to both the process and its outcomes as ‘just what we do as youth workers’ and so as not needing explication or explanation. In confronting these gaps in the narrative, an important if somewhat paradoxical outcome of the workshops may therefore be that the story-teller becomes more conscious of what they already know and understand.

In ‘drilling down’ into the material presented, the facilitator and the group members might therefore:

  • ask for some additional factual information where this is essential for understanding what happened, how and why;
  • probe statements in the narrative which may have left key moments or elements of the process un- or under-explained;
  • seek more detail on actions which the story-teller has in effect treated as trivial and marginal ;
  • ask about any unstated – again perhaps taken-for-granted – dilemmas and uncertainties within the practice and how these were (or were not) negotiated;

Specific aspects of the practice which may need such probing in order to make the implicit more explicit and search out any possible embedded non-verbal meanings and consequences of what was done might include:

  • _MG_6141The nature of the power balances and dynamics embedded in the young person-to-young person and, perhaps especially, the young person-to-adult exchanges.
  • Why the worker(s) and/or the young people acted as they did – or indeed not act – and with what result(s).
  • What ‘on the wing’ judgements, decisions and choices the worker(s) made, including, perhaps, ones which only become clear(er) through the narration and analysis
  • How the practice ebbed and flowed – steps back, steps forward – including the obstacles encountered, the efforts made to negotiate these and how successful these were.
  • Whether any wider policy, funding and management influences and pressures impinged on the practice and if so how and with what consequences.
  • What outcomes were (or could perhaps now) be identified – both in relation to process and task; and how far these were ‘unfinished’ if not actually ‘unsuccessful’ in relation to what was hoped for or intended by the young people and/or the worker(s).

Finally, where appropriate, the group might be asked to check the practice example and what has emerged from the analysis of it against the IDYW ‘cornerstones’2 (or any other relevant definition of youth work) in order explicitly to confront the questions: ‘So was this youth work and if so how?’ Depending what issues emerge from this phase of the discussion, it may also be important to explore with the story-teller what, if anything, she or he can or may want to do about them subsequently. (See How are we responding to policy?).

Facilitating the unpicking process

Preparing for and facilitating a story-telling workshop are in many respects no different from facilitating any small group of people who have come together to complete a task, work on a shared problem or explore an issue of common concern.3

However, the broad principles and approaches for realising these aims need some specific interpretation and application for the story-telling exercise and especially for the detailed unpicking of the story which is at the heart of the workshop. This is especially true given the need to challenge story-tellers’ tendency to treat as obvious and ‘given’, and therefore not to describe or explain, much of what they have experienced – in particular perhaps the complexities of the process of their practice.

A key implication for the facilitator is that theirs is not a laisser-faire role

A key implication of this for the facilitator is that theirs is not a laisser-faire role which sees the unpicking process only or even mainly as participant-led. Though participants’ contributions will of course be essential and often critical for the learning achieved, it may take them time to address the group task and the story it has generated directly and consistently – as the very specific focus of the workshop. At least initially they may be too pre-occupied with gathering factual information for its own sake; or anxious to compare this example of practice to one of their own; or wanting to pull out of it lessons for ‘youth work in general’. Or group members may too quickly impose their own interpretations and explanations on the material – as in Case study 2 where students on a health and community care course immediately formulated their questions and comments on the (inappropriate) assumption that the young person at the centre of the story had problems and indeed was ‘a problem’.

At this stage, therefore, through open-ended questioning, the facilitator may need to take on some key tasks:

  • They may need to concentrate the group’s attention on this youth worker and how she/he practised as a youth worker;
  • They may need to suggest that the questioning move beyond fact- and information-gathering into analysis and critical dialogue – where ‘critical’ means not finding fault but searching and questioning;
  • They may interject questions aimed particularly at identifying and filling gaps in how the process of the practice has been presented, including possibly unexplained or under-explained elements of it – by for example asking, and encouraging group members to ask:

How did this or that event happen?
Why?
Who did what?
What were you as the worker thinking at the time?
What was your input? And why?
Were there dilemmas/choices/uncertainties for you?
Was this piece of practice unfinished in some ways; or not a ‘success’? If so, how?

        • Through such an analysis, they may test out whether there are general messages to be drawn from the example so that these may become sufficiently ‘owned’ by participants to influence both their own ‘face-to-face’ work subsequently and their struggles for youth work within the wider contexts in which they are working.
        • In particular here, they may encourage the group to look for ‘hooks’ which can help illustrate, illuminate, articulate and perhaps critically confront the defining and distinguishing features of youth work practice as participants recognise these –as suggested for example by the IDYW ‘cornerstones’ or by other definitions.

‘Unpicking’ the story: facilitation in action

The case studies which follow are intended to illustrate what the ‘unpicking’ process – the ‘drilling down’ – can involve in practice. They are not offered as ‘good’ or even unusual examples either of youth work or of facilitation. Rather, they have been chosen as illustrations of the ‘taken-for-granted’ tendency in story-telling – again, particularly in relation to key ‘process’ elements requiring fuller articulation or explanation – and why therefore facilitation may need to be proactive in its concentration on such gaps in the narration and its ‘unpicking’.

1See Banks, S (2009), ‘What is social justice?’ A Socratic Dialogue, Durham University, 6 May, accessed 13 February 2014; and Banks, S., (2013), Socratic dialogue and co-inquiry: exploring cognitive, affective and embodied ways of knowing, posted on May 19, 2013, accessed 2 October 2013.
2IDYW, 2009, Open letter.
3See for example Smith, Mark K., 2001; 2009) Facilitating learning and change in groups, The Encyclopaedia of informal education.

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