David Coleman, Common Core, and Storytelling

There has been a lot of chatter on the intertubes in the last six months about how the Common Core will or will not cause the removal, reduction or shift of the place of fiction in the Language Arts curriculum. That isn’t what with post is about. I think that is an important topic. But I am not going to talk about it.

Instead I am going to explore a quote, widely attributed to David Coleman, who is generally considered to be both the architect of, and the chief advocate for, the new Common Core standards, which are rapidly becoming the law of the land educationally speaking.

The comment is as follows:

“It is rare in a working environment,” he’s [Coleman] argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

This iteration of the comment came from a NY Times blog post, but I have seen it reproduced widely with only minor variation. And having searched for any disavowal, found none. So I am going to take the sentiment as given above. It is just the sort of glib, off-the-cuff comment that teachers are used to hearing from those who aren’t teachers, usually for the purposes of denigrating something teachers are doing. Which is exactly the purpose here.

As is often the case though, the comment itself displays are colossal lack of understanding of education and humans in general. Were it merely another thing I heard at a cocktail party or found attributed to the CEO of some business concern, I would probably shrug it off. However, attributed to someone with as much influence over education as Mr. Coleman, I think it presents a serous problem.

And even worse, the comment completely refutes itself.

Humans are fundamentally narrative creating machines. It is how we grapple with the world around us, our experiences, that which we generally call reality, pretty much everything. We process the world in the form of stories. Stories that we make up to make sense of our own lives, stories we make up to make sense of other’s lives, stories we make up to share our ideas. To the extent that a particular human gets good at the skill of constructing narrative he or she gets good at operating in community with other humans. And becomes good at dealing with him or herself.

So narrative isn’t just a cool thing to do- it’s life or death. Telling stories well is power. As we see in every election, every bit of advertising, and every six year old lobbying for a later bedtime or to skip bath (you can tell what my life is like). To get really good at narrative, and to understand it, ourselves and our culture (and the culture of others), we study narratives. Fiction, epic poetry, history, great science, mathematics. All learning is most powerful when couched in terms of narrative. It is why our most profound texts are in the form of stories (In the beginning…) not in the form of action memos from God. It is why the major art forms revolve around narrative, not data sets.

Just being exposed to narrative is accessing one of the most powerful learning modes we have. It’s why people believe movies that have no basis in fact, and it’s why advertising is effective. But really understanding how narrative works, and having some skill one’s self is life changing. It also vaccinates the individual against bullshit. If you know how stories work, you know how to judge the story you are being told. You know how to ask critical probing questions about what a story really means. You notice what it doesn’t say and wonder why the storyteller left things out. You can tell the difference between an honest story and crap.

Which brings us back to ‘Johnson,’ who is being asked to write a memo. If Johnson has been educated about storytelling, though he is at the moment in a business context, he will be able to use those tools in his memo. The memo that crafts a compelling story will get read. Attention will be paid to it. It will make its point more effectively than the memo written by ‘Rogers’ who perhaps read less narrative and was asked to write in the narrative form less often. So in the most immediate sense, I believe Johnson will be the better employee- he will be more useful to his boss, the company, the industry. And so more successful for himself.

But if Johnson has really been grounded in serious study of narratives, and the moral education that is inherent to that study (if you don’t know what I’m talking about read Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice), then Johnson will also be really useful to society as a whole, and not just commercial and self interest. He might stop and ask why he is being asked to write a memo advocating financial shenanigans (Enron), shortchanging safety in oil drilling  (Deepwater Horizon), or supporting torture as legal and necessary  (I’m thinking of you John Woo). The engaging of narrative is about the expanding of consciousness, awareness, moral insight, and self knowledge. When Johnson is presented with compelling narratives in support of these otherwise unsupportable things, he will be more able to ask the penetrating questions that expose the problems of those narratives.

So while Coleman is right, no one is going to ask ‘Johnson’ to write a personal narrative, the skills Johnson learned while writing and reading narrative are pretty damned important.

But Coleman’s comment in itself reveals the flaw in its thinking. When asked to make a point about the role of narrative in the world, what did David Coleman do?

He gave us a narrative! A story, about an imaginary worker, in a fictitious situation, facing a challenge. Coleman is even a good enough storyteller to give us a ‘negative narrative,’ one that makes its point by stating the opposite. In technical terms that is called ‘satire.’ It is exactly David Coleman’s skill with narrative that allowed him to get off  his point so clearly and effectively WITHOUT a long explanation.

Now, his ‘story’ is shallow and stupid, evidence of only the most elementary thinking about education, humans and storytelling, but what can you expect from someone who tried to make a point about how useless stroytelling is by telling a story?

This entry was posted in 21st century teaching and learning, CCSS, cultivating real learning, DUH, education, literacy, stories, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to David Coleman, Common Core, and Storytelling

  1. Linda says:

    Another possible interpretation of the quotation, and one that I see as more plausible in view of the Common Core’s insistence that students learn to write narratives, is that the author believes writing about one’s personal experiences is not a prerequisite to writing the kinds of narratives required in business.

  2. Pingback: I Knew It! Or, Why Stories are Awesome « Gone Digital

  3. Brian says:

    I teach Senior English and inevitably, my students come to me with their college essays. They would like me to proofread them and give them feedback. In my 15 YEARS of experience, I have read hundreds of college essays. Though the questions themselves differ, there is still one common theme amongst all of them: That theme is: “What do you have to say?” Now that colleges are ignoring SAT and ACT scores again, they are looking to what coursework and grades within those courses students are getting. Their college essays most likely hold more weight than many believe. But the interesting thing is that all of these colleges and universities want to know what our kids have to say.

    • Mr. S says:

      Thanks Brian,
      Our experience is similar. Not only do colleges want to know what students have to say, I think it’s important to help students cultivate the idea that they SHOULD have something to say. Their thoughts and ideas matter- they are the raw material of our future.

  4. Actually quants tend to be pretty poor at narrative. Have you read any technical reports lately? Or just pick up a book on how to learn a programming language. The only one on a popular programming language that comes close to a narrative format is “Head First Java” by Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates. It is written with a lot of humor. But, it is not going into a second edition. Too bad. It is very readable, but probably too “wordy” for most programming types.

    We don’t all make personal decisions based on our personal narratives . More often than not, many of us rely on spreadsheets. And when you state that “All learning is most powerful when couched in terms of narrative. It is why our most profound texts are in the form of stories…,” you would have a hard time justifying this statement to both poets and mathematicians (as well as scientists, engineers) – the practitioners of which do pretty much the same thing: condense narrative into its essence using symbols that can be quite abstract.

    But, as you can see on my website – garrettahughes.com – you will find my use of narrative quite extensive, especially in arguments about education reform. I am as opposed to the CCC as vehemently as I am opposed to the KKK.

    I think most people relate better to narratives – I know my students enjoyed it when I would branch off the subject of physics or computer science and tell a story about my exploits in far-away places (Antarctica, for example). Narrative has a very important role to play in making a point or a decision – but it’s not the only tool in your kit. I think C. P. Snow would agree.

    Keep up the great writing,


  5. Mr. S says:

    Thanks for reading Garrett, and thanks for the thoughtful comments.

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