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Living and learning inside the story: How storytelling can shape curriculum design

Written by: Alex Beauchamp
7 min read
Alex Beauchamp, Assistant Headteacher and Lead Practitioner, Hunter’s Bar Junior School, UK; CPD Expert Adviser, Teacher Development Trust, UK

Stories provide a powerful tool for creating meaning in our lives and contexts and, consequently, organising information in our long-term memories. The reason why stories are so effective is that we are predisposed to being ‘swept away’ by how they are told and the sentiment behind them (Green and Brock, 2002, p. 714). But why is this the case? What can psychology reveal about why stories have such powerful advantages?

The cognitive advantages of stories

In their paper ‘Knowledge and memory: The real story’ (1995), Schank and Abelson claim that people are wired to be sensitive to information received in a narrative format, and argue that stories about personal experience are the key components of human memory and knowledge. Stories are easy to understand, easy to remember and are of interest to the audience – their predictable, causal structure, and invitation to readers to make inferences, support thinking and develop schema construction in long-term memory (Willingham, 2010). Stories provide us with solvable puzzles, endings that are likely to produce new insights and ‘a web of interconnecting and causally related parts’, making the story easy to store in memory (Tharby, 2018, p. 120).

Willingham (2010) refers to the four Cs of narrative: causality, conflict, complication and characters. I believe that these components of effective storytelling can be leveraged to enhance overarching curriculum design. By using tried and tested narrative structures and formulae, often found in films and novels, school curriculum designers can take full advantage of the cognitive and psychological effects of storytelling. This not only brings solitary tales to life in the classroom but also, at a strategic level, can help the overall learning journey of any topic, theme or subject become memorable for all students.

The six shapes of narrative

Andrew J Reagan et al. (2016) provide six basic shapes that influence the emotional arcs of narrative. Curriculum designers can use these as a template to map the experience that they wish their students to receive within a topic. A broad array of topics in Key Stage 2, such as the impact of deforestation, the transatlantic slave trade in Britain or the impact of global warming, can be mapped out as a journey, with slowly revealed plot points to be experienced by students. Here are the six shapes from Reagan et al. that students could experience within a topic:

  • shape 1: rags to riches – rise
  • shape 2: tragedy – fall
  • shape 3: man in the hole – fall to rise
  • shape 4: Icarus – rise to fall
  • shape 5: Cinderella – rise to fall to rise
  • shape 6: Oedipus – fall to rise to fall.

Using these shapes when planning and implementing a unit can allow students to live the experiences of a protagonist from inside the subject.

 An example in practice: Hunter’s Bar Junior School, Sheffield, UK

Figure 1 is titled "Hunter's Bar Junior School's story-based curriculum design" and shows a graphic of six labelled boxes connected by arrows in sequential order. The boxes are labelled from left to right: "Setting the scene", "Building knowledge", "Empathy through enrichment", "Immersive story writing", "A call to action", and "Student showcase".

Setting the scene

At Hunter’s Bar Junior School (HBJS) in Sheffield, Year 5 curriculum design is guided using the above planning pathway model (Figure 1). Each new multidisciplinary topic starts with an authentic introduction to provoke students’ curiosity and put them at the centre of the forthcoming unit. In Year 5’s topic on the international refugee crisis, designed by Pete Bainbridge, students began by analysing their geographical heritage and comparing it to the rest of the class, to Sheffield and to data depicting the rest of the UK. Following this, the students engaged in a Philosophy for Children session, where ideas about ethnicity and identity were discussed in a community of enquiry.

Building knowledge using story features

Each session was delivered in the form of a chapter within an unfolding story, starting each time with the class piecing together the plot points experienced so far. This process aimed to strengthen and organise the schema of knowledge developed by the students. A visual timeline of plot points was used to build anticipation for the students.

Teachers carefully taught the core knowledge about refugees and asylum seekers using direct instruction, generative learning tools and formative assessment strategies. Frequent retrieval practice was used to secure knowledge systematically throughout the unit. Most lessons featured students analysing the real-life stories and journeys of refugees from around the world. Combining authentic narrative and core knowledge, students developed empathy and understanding. Stories are built on anticipation and curiosity. Taking advantage of these features, each chapter in the unit ended with a cliffhanger moment that compelled students to wonder about and engage with the next instalment of the story.

Authentic provocation to build empathy

After three weeks of building core knowledge, three asylum seekers supported by the Sheffield charity Assist visited the Year 5 students. Because of the students’ prior knowledge and growing empathy, the students immersed themselves in the authentic and emotive stories. In previous iterations of this storytelling curriculum model, similar visits were used to launch a unit. We discovered that two months later students were able to recall the episodic encounters with greater clarity than the desired knowledge that was taught after it. By building a strong, highly retrievable knowledge base before the enrichment visit, we hypothesised that students were able to apply their understanding with greater precision and add to their existing schemas.

Immersive story writing

Taking further advantage of storytelling in curriculum design, the Year 5 teachers designed a narrative writing unit based on the book The Journey by Francesca Sanna (2016), utilising the principles of Jane Considine’s ‘Write Stuff’ approach (2016). This put the students centre stage in a first-person narrative, experiencing the turmoil and hope often associated with Reagan’s (2016) Cinderella story shape. Students saw the refugee topic from inside another story and used their knowledge to write engaging and emotive narratives embedded with recently acquired knowledge. Narrative transportation theory (Green and Brock, 2002) posits that when people lose themselves in a narrative, their attitudes and intentions change to reflect that story. This theory may explain how the Year 5 students transformed and deepened their thinking around the topic through writing their own immersive stories.

A call to action

A memorable story requires a significant and engaging problem to be solved. In the Year 5 unit, students learned how the Assist charity had to rely heavily on public funding to help finance the housing of refugees in Sheffield. Students subsequently learned about fundraising as a means to address this problem and proceeded to plan and carry out a sponsored walk in their local area. The intention was for students to feel like characters in their own story, solving a problem to create a resolution.

Student showcase

Following the denouement, when all pieces of the puzzle fused and the story shape had found its natural conclusion, students were asked to reflect on how their thinking and knowledge had changed since the start of the refugee crisis topic. Students were taught specific oracy and writing skills to help them present their unique, newly formed opinions about the learning with which they had engaged throughout the topic. In the Trivium model, as detailed by Martin Robinson (2013), this point is referred to as the ‘rhetoric stage’. Students wrote a reflective essay and delivered a speech to communicate how their thinking and worldview had shifted because of their learning.

Development and limitations

The approach described in this article is the latest iteration of a model based on two years of previous exploration in Year 4. We experimented with the positioning of the story features and the timing and intensity of enrichment experiences, and used current thinking from Daniel Willingham (2010), Martin Robinson (2013) and Oliver Caviglioli (2019) to influence and inform our decision-making.

As expected, limitations and further considerations emerged as we implemented the Year 5 unit. We discovered that some students became too emotionally affected by the content; retrieval quizzing was not as effective as expected for students with SEND; and some students with English as an additional language required a substantial amount of additional time for pre-teaching the vocabulary prior to each lesson chapter.

We used teacher surveys, pupil voice, retrieval knowledge quizzes and end-of-unit showcases to measure the impact of the unit. Pete Bainbridge, designer of the unit, spoke about the impact of this approach in the year group. He stated:

A narrative structure of lessons meant the children invested in the topic, drawing parallels to their own lives. This emotional connection helped them retain the key knowledge of the unit.

With some promising indicators that this approach could be applied to other areas of the Key Stage 2 curriculum, the next step is to share the model with another year group to see whether the findings can be replicated.

Final note

By carefully deploying the core principles of storytelling when designing and sequencing curriculum planning, I believe it is possible that curriculum designers in schools can support students in becoming knowledge-rich, empathetic learners who appreciate the value of living the stories of the subjects they love.

With special thanks to Pete Bainbridge, Maria Cunningham, Michelle Barker and the Year 5 students at Hunter’s Bar Junior School, Sheffield.

    • Caviglioli O (2109) Memory and meaning – researchED event Haninge 2019. YouTube. Available at: (accessed 18 November 2021).
    • Considine J (2016) The Write Stuff. The Training Space Ltd.
    • Green MC and Brock TC (2002) In the mind’s eye: Transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion. In: Green MC, Strange JJ and Brock TC (eds) Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 315–341.
    • Green MC and Brock TC (2000) The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives. In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2000, Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 701-721
    • Reagan J, Mitchell L, Kiley D et al. (2016) The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes. EPJ Data Science 5: article 31.
    • Robinson M (2013) Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press.
    • Sanna F (2016) The Journey. London: Flying Eye Books.
    • Schank RC and Abelson RP (1995) Knowledge and memory: The real story. In: Wyer Jr RS (ed) Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 1–85.
    • Tharby A (2018) How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone: The Art and Science of Teacher Explanation. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.
    • Willingham D (2010) Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
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