by Steve Saville
At the very end of last year [Christmas Eve to be exact] we launched our Engaging Learning Voices initiative. The website and resources available there have been recently augmented with the publication of our book ‘Which Voice’.
One of the unique features that we have consistently employed is the use of scenarios to introduce and contextualize the tools that we have developed. In fact, we created a fictional school [Werewere School] and the scenarios all involve members of that school community.
We have even allowed them to develop their own jargon because we know how educators just love Edu speak and jargon words [not].
The question is, why use scenarios?
We believe there is a very good reason why the use of scenarios is a particularly effective way to engage teachers and empower them to embrace and own the change process.
In the very broadest sense, expanding things out to the universal, our species, in large part, owes its survival to our ability to develop culture with the associated narratives and stories that go with the development of a culture. We are not the fastest species on the planet - far from it. We are not the strongest - far from it. We don't live in harmony with our environment like dolphins, we are not as agile as cats, dogs have a better sense of smell etc. etc. in fact left to our own individual devices we probably wouldn't even exist. In all likelihood we would have become a convenient snack food for lions and tigers.
What gave us the edge was our ability to group together in communities and work collectively - this in turn enabled us to hunt and kill bigger, stronger animals like the mammoth. Individually impossible; collectively we were able to access a rich source of food and clothing.
What then often gave these communities a sense of collective purpose is the ability to use language and in particular metaphorical language and narratives.
So, storytelling has always been an important part of our collective sense of who and what we are. Myths, literature, religion etc. are all unique to us as a species, or at least to the best of our knowledge they are unique.
To bring it down from this to the more specific.
We always like to start our workshops/presentations with a whakatauki. The one below being a particular favourite.
Te ara o tukutuku pūngawerewere
The Pathway of the Spider
By providing a metaphorical perspective on the topic that we are discussing we allow for the introduction of symbolism, metaphor and a parallel narrative. It is important that the whakataukī is not a literal translation but a perspective; a parallel interpretation which throws light on and highlights the topic in question through symbol and metaphor.
When I was at University, I was an avid reader of Brecht and became particularly interested in the concept of epic theatre that he pioneered.
One of the techniques he used in his dramas was to distance the audience from the action by setting his plays in locations other than contemporary Germany [Setzuan for example], the theory being that audiences could identify with the issues easier if they were distanced from the action and setting. Brecht was often making direct comments pertaining to contemporary Germany and wanted a focus to be placed on these issues.
This initial distancing gave his audience the emotional space to hear his messages and then contextualize.
For all these reasons we have found that by creating the ‘fictional school of Werewere' and populating it with a growing community of characters, we can introduce the context for a specific tool's use without making it too personal, too quickly. The scenarios give teachers time to think about the issue before they contextualize it. What we have noticed is that teachers seem to get quite engrossed with the scenarios and enjoy reading them out, they then automatically draw and make connections with their reality.
This serves as a nice lead into the specific purpose and use of the tool. The scenarios give space.
In the same way we make use of made-up whimsical words to describe behaviours and situations that exist in most schools. It is a way of approaching an issue or topic without making it immediately personal - if it raises a smile on the way, all the better.
By the way, teachers seem to be very quick to identify the people who exhibit these whimsical words in their staff rooms.
Sloth Block - that fuzzy teacher feeling when you can’t remember what you are doing and the hands of the clock are indicating that home-time is fast approaching, therefore you take things slowly and anticipate that time will solve your problems in the end.
So, scenarios and, in this case, 'Werewere School' allow for a respectful transition from a concept being introduced to that concept and associated tool being contextualized. They are a path by which we can move from one to the other.
When I am working on a scenario, I am always reminded of the words of a 14-year-old I taught many years ago. She was a voracious reader from a disadvantaged background and was, in fact, quite vulnerable. I thought that I was being helpful by feeding her a diet of literature by indigenous New Zealand writers. A world populated by characters that I thought she could recognise and identify with.
One day she took me aside after class and explained to me, slowly and carefully, that sometimes constantly being reminded of her situation was not always helpful, sometimes she just wanted to escape that world and sometimes she learnt more about herself because of that distance.
Although far less traumatic scenarios often give teachers the space to absorb, reflect, consider and then apply.
And that is what we use them.