Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Creativity, edu: Learning as Storytelling


In Chapter 11 of Creativity, Inc, titled “The Unmade Future”, Ed Catmull talks about the mental models that storytellers use to approach their work. He says, “…there is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens: the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.” He then explains how several people do this using different mental models for understanding their work. From riding an elevator to sailing a boat to an archeological dig, Catmull says that the important thing about mental models is that they help us understand our work so that we can move forward in searching out our “unseen destination,” that future that we know is out there and that we’re working toward, but aren’t sure about just yet. In my mind, this idea of the unmade future is vital for those in higher education to grasp right now. We really are in a new world, where things are not as they have always been.

As we think about the ways that we can approach higher education from a creative perspective, one of the things that I keep coming back to is the idea that learning can be conceptualized as storytelling. With this mental model, we’ll think about storytelling from three perspectives. First, the student learns to understand and share her own story. Second, the student learns to listen to and appreciate the stories of others. Third, the student learns to discover the story of the world around them.

When a student enters the realm of higher education, she is a hero on a journey, stepping out onto a pathway, and she doesn’t know exactly where it leads. The student’s journey will be one of challenge, growth, and joy as he grows in knowledge and skill, and learns more about himself, others, and the world around him.

Think about learning in relation to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I won’t use every nuance of the model, but when we consider the Inner Journey, it sounds a lot like the inner journey of learning! Let’s start at the beginning, when our learner, who is the hero of our story, knows very little about the problem of understanding they’ll face as they grow and learn. No matter what our subject matter is, our learners start at a place that is very different from where we want them to end up. I think of this in developmental terms. So, as the teacher, it’s my job to think about where the learners are beginning, where they need to be at the end of our time together, and what steps they need to take to get there.

In her book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, Nancy Duarte introduces the idea of using story to help learners connect to information. She suggests that in order to help our audience learn something, we must connect with them. Duarte says, “…shift your mindset from solely transferring information to creating an experience.” So, I want you to imagine yourself, the teacher, as the mentor or guide, and your learners as the heroes of this story. The story is the journey of learning, and it is our job to prepare the learner to move forward toward mastery of skill or knowledge.

This vision of learning as the hero’s journey makes it crucial that the mentor or guide knows where the student needs to end up. If we don’t know the goal of the learning, then it’s impossible for us to prepare the way for them to get there.

So, here are the questions that the mentor must ask before she meets the learner and begins the quest:

  • Are there essential skills that learners need to build in this course that they will carry with them into subsequent courses?
  • What are the essential elements of knowledge that the learner must have by the end of our time together?
  • How will I know if the learner has mastered this knowledge or skill?

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As we approach the creation of a course or program, we need to think about them as building blocks for knowledge and skill for our heroes. In The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda was teaching Luke Skywalker how to be a Jedi, he knew what the endgame was, and what skills and knowledge Luke needed to be able to defeat the dark side. As mentors and guides, teachers are like Yoda, preparing our heroes to approach the unknown, move through fear and uncertainty, lingering between the known and unknown (as Catmull puts it) without panicking, and eventually moving into mastery.


Catmull (2014). Pg. 224

Catmull (2014). Pg. 232

Nancy Duarte (2010). Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons. pg. 27


One comment on “Creativity, edu: Learning as Storytelling

  1. Pingback: Part 2: Curiosity, Courage and Creativity as the Future of Higher Ed | Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

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