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Children are born with an ability to make sense of the world
through play and storytelling. By creating narratives, they act out
concepts and ideas that confuse them or that they find fascinating.
Examining the world in this way they are able to explore and relate
to the variety of topics and subjects that the world throws at
This power of story to convey concepts and ideas to children has
long been recognised by educationalists. By connecting a topic to
young children through narrative we are truly able to engage their
emotions, and to help them understand the power of the ideas being
explored. Children are pulled in physically as they 'sit on the
edges of their seats' wondering what will happen next and how a
tense drama will be resolved. This is the power of a good
A number of writers about narrative and education have considered
this. One of these is Canadian educationalist Kieran Egan (1989)
who suggests that children will engage with new ideas more readily
if they are presented in the form of stories which have at their
heart dramatic tensions between Binary Opposites, e.g. good and
bad, hope and fear, love and hate. Egan suggests that it is
precisely these Binary Opposites that have the power to engage
children as these are the tools they use in their everyday life.
His account is mainly theoretical although he does offer some story
models through his numerous publications.
grains of rice by matching
Artistic Director Trisha Lee and Arts Education Director Isla
Tompsett from MakeBelieve Arts became interested in Kieran Egan's
work having read "Teaching as Storytelling". They became fascinated
in the idea that you could teach anything in this way, even
mathematics. Something about the use of story and mathematics
excited and scared them. Supposing it was possible to to enrich a
subject that they had approached with trepidation? They enlisted
the help of Jenni Back, the Primary Coordinator of NRICH.
With only a belief in the power of story, MakeBelieve Arts felt
inspired to devise narratives to be used in primary schools that
would present maths to children using this model. They felt that it
was vital to their approach that they took advice from NRICH to
help them present the mathematical ideas and to make suggestions
about the curriculum areas that would lend themselves to this
approach. Trisha, Isla and Malika Booker, a freelance poet and
storyteller began to explore how story could be used to engage
children in mathematics.The project was funded by 'Creating
Success' an Excellence in the City Action Zone and took place in a
primary school in Lewisham, London.
At the start of the project, Jenni Back worked with MakeBelieve
Arts and a small group of teachers drawn from the zone who were
interested in storytelling and mathematics. She worked with the
group on material that is available here on the NRICH website to
illustrate some stories with mathematical content and the group
also looked at stories that have a mathematical component like 'The
Hungry Caterpillar' by Eric Carle. In this story the mathematics is
an 'add on' to the story, in the sense that the numbers are chosen
in order, but they don't need to be there for the purposes of the
narrative. The group looked at some of the stories in The Tangram
problems found on the NRICH website, written by Lyndon Baker, which
is presented as dialogue and involves children talking about
mathematics and its meaning. By examining a variety of the existing
story forms available around mathematics the group became aware of
the lack of Binary Opposites or dramatic urgency in these
The afternoon was then spent in a workshop considering the Binary
Opposites necessary for a good story and following the story model
created by Kieran Egan. They began creating a series of narratives
with mathematical ideas at their core.
In an examination of the topic of standard and non-standard
measurements the group questioned what is at the core of this
lesson. What is fundamentally exciting about the topic? The
conclusion lay in the fact that if you measure with, for example,
your hands, then a person with larger hands would measure larger
quantities than a person with smaller hands. If they were providing
you with cloth for a dress then one person's measurements would be
much smaller than another. The binary opposite of 'fair' and
'unfair' arose out of this exploration and a story about a merchant
who was taken ill and replaced by his daughter and her tiny hands
|Jenni Back left MakeBelieve Arts to develop their stories and
returned a few weeks later to view their progress. She watched them
present their work to a class of Year 1 pupils. This first story in
a series of five was set on the island of Sunobia and was about
counting using base ten. The king needed to count his army to avoid
the threat of invasion but couldn't manage this efficiently until
he had adopted counting in base ten. Before that he had trouble
keeping track of where he was in his counting and ended up with
piles of pebbles that matched his soldiers but with no idea of the
number in the pile. The children were actively engaged in the story
as well as the practical activities.
trying to count grains of rice
The children offered a lot of
positive feedback when asked about the experience three weeks
later. One group remembered that they tried to find out ...
"How many children were in the
class and they tried just counting them, and then the second
counsellor put everyone by a rock and then they made a pile of
pebbles and then had 10 pebbles each and a basket and that way it
The children came up with imaginative ideas about the sort of
stories that they would like to explore ...
"We could do stories where we count
in 10s or 2s or 5s."
"We could have a story where we
collect and count shells."
"I liked putting pebbles in the
baskets and counting was best."
MakeBelieve Arts are continuing to develop this work further in
consultation with Jenni Back and there are plans to expand the work
to cover topics from throughout Key Stage 2 and the Foundation
Stage curriculum. They are happy to send out a termly newsletter to
any setting interested in their approach. Trisha Lee can be reached
at MakeBelieve Arts, 4 Millmark Grove London SE14 6RQ, telephone
020 8692 8886. The e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Egan, K. (1989). Teaching as Storytelling Routledge