Authentic narrative in cross-curricular planning – or Selling the Curriculum

I’m really taken with this idea.  I have realised that I used to teach themes or topics as bricks in a wall, that they should be sold to children as journeys through a landscape.  Learning isn’t random bricks inserted in a wall of understanding, nor is it confining ladders or spirals.  It is a glorious meandering journey where each event relates to its forerunner.

Story telling is the most ancient tool of the teacher.  Their impact has been charted in many cultures through out history.  There seems to be  particular text that is referred to regularly:

Hardy,B (1977) Narrative as a primary act of mind.  This work is cited by many seeking to assert that narrative is a tool for learning, including Daniels (1996).

I have been conscious of this notion since becoming aware of Pat Sykes & Ken Gale’s work on Narrative approaches to education research. (2006) They begin this with the following statement:

“Human beings are storying creatures. We make sense of the world and the things that happen to us by constructing narratives to explain and interpret events both to ourselves and to other people.”  Sykes & Gale (2006)

This notion crosses cultures and is well summed up in the guidance on digital storytelling by Gail Matthews (2008) Digital Storytelling – Tips and Resources, which has an extensive set of links to storytelling in many cultures.

Wikipedia provides the bridge to the thinking I have been undertaking in this area.  The storytelling entry begins with the cultural history of story telling, and goes on to explore the impact of storytelling in business and marketing: The key work seems to be Jameson’s (2001)

article on Narrative discourse in Management.

“…narrative discourse helped resolve conflict, influence corporate decisions, and unify the group. By collectively constructing stories, managers made sense of the past, coped with the present, and planned for the future.”

This is extended by Jones cited in Huang (2009) who suggests there are 4 steps to selling to people using story:

Stories should be drill able. (Activate the public’s curiosity, enough to sleuth out more depth and detail on their own)

Each piece of the story should be enriching, but not vital to the understanding of the story (so that a customer can still have a clear idea of the bigger picture even though he has missed a part of it)

Involve the fans in the creation process.

Build a world in which your story can evolve.

People this is dynamite!!!!!!!

When planning your themed unit of work apply these principle and those contained in this blog by Kevin Moloney on Transmedia Journalism.

What is outlined above is the logic behind a simple and beautiful concept.  A themed unit of work is not enough.  We must apply theories of advertising and journalism, with roots in ancient teaching.

Don’t teach the Amazon as a theme, sell the children a relationship with a person, Eduardo, who lives in Brazil and is on a  journey through the Amazon for a reason rooted in current affairs.  Give children a narrative, or a map of the journey, they can contextualise it and build meaning around the journey.  This is the real meaning of cross curricular.  This is valid for any idea; Great fire of london becomes the story of a child living in Pudding Lane; World War II becomes the story of a family and evacuation.

I have wondered for a long time what impact sales strategies can have in the classroom.  Is one of the reasons we have de motivated children, that we lack the skills to make them want to ‘buy’ what we are selling? There’s more on this to come in future blogs.



Daniels, D (1996) Are You Telling Stories?  Early Child Development and Care   Vol. 116, Iss. 1, 1996

Hardy, Barbara (1977) Narrative as a primary act of mind. in M. Meek, A. Warlow and G. Barton (Eds.) The Cool Web; The pattern of children’s reading. London: Bodley Head

Huang, Christine(2009). Advertising Age, Volume 80, Issue 40, p. 13

Matthews (2008) Digital Storytelling – Tips and Resources. Simmons College Boston. [online] Available at: ( Accessed 10th February 2012)

Sykes & Gale (2006) Narrative approaches to education research. Plymouth. Available at: (Accessed 10th February 2012)

Jameson, Daphne A. (2001). Narrative Discourse and Management Action. Journal of Business Communication, 38 (4), p. 476-511

10 thoughts on “Authentic narrative in cross-curricular planning – or Selling the Curriculum

  1. Very interesting posts Pete. I was bracing myself though 😉

    If the pupils only see us as selling I don’t think they fully commit to buying from my experience. If hey see me lead by example and buy into it first, they follow confidently and willing to take risks because I was the kings food taster and survived.

    I totally agree in what you are saying and like they way you are referring back to your own experience too. It’s all about ‘R’ words for me…


    No matter if it’s a topic, spellings, story writing, letter writing etc if a teacher ensures these three ‘r’s and buy into it first, it will succeed. Giving the children a relationship, a map, a journey or a narrative like you say, ensures the hook is presented in front of them and the opportunities for deeper learning will be taken

    Great post!

  2. I love the idea of a teacher as seller and learners as buyers yet in a classroom many would not even contemplate it. Teaching is fickle and many teachers will never consider such an approach.
    But there are many of us that would and probably are doing so already. I use narrative to bring learning alive, to sell the learning to my class. If that involves me acting, using effects and sounds to capture that buying audience I will do so. Leading up to last Christmas and with the online help of many educators I wove together a cross curricular story involving Santa Claus been lost in the Pacific and needing the help of my class to get home in time for Christmas. The use of this narrative engaged the class for 2 weeks in literacy, numeracy, science, geography, history, music, art, pshe and RE. Parts of the story changed because the learners led that change and I think if we want to effectively sell these ideas to learners we need to adapt them as we go.
    I’ll look forward to reading more about this approach.

  3. Really enjoyed your post Pete.

    The model you describe is more or less how my school does ‘themes’.

    We call it ‘hooks & highlights’-very much based on storytelling & experienced based learning.

    For example I just did the theme ‘Things that go bump in the night.’ The ‘Hook’ was a half-eaten apple in my classroom & some animal paw prints on the floor. I used the props to hook the kids into the theme-my apple had been left the day before untouched what could have got into the class at night & eaten it.

    This hook stimulated lots of questions & eventually led us to researching nocturnal animals & the Funny Bones book.

    Other year groups have recieved letters from Garden centres, videos from University scientist & discovered bones on archeological digs of school grounds.

    All these ‘Hooks’ are stories that suck the kids into an imaginary world where anything is possible.

    It’s the same ‘stealth learning’ approach that I mentioned at LWF.

  4. I love this idea of using story to link curricular areas to make it more relevant for children. Direct links to their experiences are not always possible so by introducing the story with vibrant characters that they can relate to is brilliant. Of course the test comes when the youngsters have to ‘re-tell’ the story to show their full understanding. How wonderful if they can move the story to a different context / time / place.Looking forward to the next post Pete!

  5. This idea fits very well with what I have seen in IB schools.
    Instead of a “Topic” you start with a question. Think of the kind of titles you get in a General Studies ‘A’ level exam. Except take the “Discuss” part out cos it should be implicit.
    So in Year 6 instead of studying WWII they had a question around human nature in conflict. The children are then able to meander with the teacher through their own interests and research linked to the question but which has the freedom to follow its own path.
    In the Year 6 I saw they had actually chosen to only touch lightly on WWII – they knew where to find plentiful research on this topic should they wish to – but asked instead to explore their own home countries and their conflicts of the present day – how are their families in Somalia doing right now? And Iran?

    These discussions and evolutions linked as you say to a narrative and relevance provoke deeper learning and understanding and a longing to explore.
    May more schools follow this advice!

  6. I teach certain topics in a similar way. During a year 7 creative writing scheme I made them all create pirate characters and we developed and told stories about those characters. It made for some excellent pieces of work and they created some very interesting tales. I made the whole room immersive, they were encouraged to make props and bring them in and talk in a pirate voice.

    What that facade allowed me to do was maintain their interest throughout the technical aspects of the english language. I’d find it incredibly hard to do with a bottom set year 11 class.

    I wish all years were more like year 7. Fantastic post and great blog.

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