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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 10|June|2000


What is the Story

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author

Our stories can help shape who we are and where we are going. But in all too many cases, there is no shared, intended story to inspire a school to make good use of new technologies. In many cases, stories are more like rumors than effective elements in a planned change initiative.

The best stories are rooted in soulful human realities, the soil and the loam of dreams.

School Story One

This school takes children far. We're like a family here. We expect every child to learn and grow - to reach out for some kind of personal truth and some kind of personal victory.

We don't care whether they are doctors' kids or homeless. They are all God's children . . . gifted, talented and remarkable in some way. It is our job to help each one bloom and flourish, to walk through life with head held high.

We're fond of sandboxes and play. Sometimes we use pails and shovels. Sometimes we visit other countries with e-mail.

Story creating and telling should be a basic tool of any group trying to build good new futures. Some call this activity scenario building. Others call it myth building. Still others call it visioning.

But there is some danger that story creating and telling might wander too far from its agrarian roots and take on a gray flannel aspect that might steer the story into quicksand. The best stories are rooted in soulful human realities, the soil and the loam of dreams. They are personal, compelling and quite concrete in their details and examples.

Good stories can make you smell, touch and taste what is about to happen.

of Effective
The story tells
  • Who we are
  • What we care about
  • Where we are going
  • Why we are going there
  • How we are going
  • What choices are available
  • What we will do if trouble strikes
  • How we will learn as we go
  • How we will keep open minded
  • How we will know we have arrived
  • How we will celebrate

"The Emperor's New Clothes" serves as a warning of story telling gone awry. Threadbare realities and naked truths abound.

Important Definitions
"Story" and associated words such as "legend" and "myth," have an assortment of traditional and modern meanings that can almost contradict each other at times. In general, the traditional meanings of these words tend to be more pure and innocent than the modern meanings. The comments below attempt to draw attention to these differences.

In these days of spin, the natural tendency of story tellers to enhance or exaggerate has been taken to new levels of distortion and misinformation.
















In its pure, traditional meaning, a story is a rather factual account of something that happened.

But even from the earliest of times, story tellers have seen the audience impact of exaggeration and dramatization, so the original events may take on extra shine in the words of the story teller.

Then there are stories and plays that are fiction from the beginning, accounts that are make-believe, like Hamlet or Macbeth or Jack and the Bean Stalk.

Given the potential of stories to sway the hearts and minds of listeners, they have always held promise for those who would like to control and influence others, so they have been favorite tools of propagandists, demagogues and marketing gurus. They have used stories to generate spin and stir up the emotions of whatever group is worth inspiring (today, tomorrow or next week).

At its worst, the word "story" has come to mean "lie."

"He made up a story to cover his tracks."

"Likely story!"

We have even seen a shift in the meaning of a "news story" as facts have become an increasingly less important aspect of reporting while entertainment and tabloid values have shifted coverage and ethics both.












Legends were somewhat fanciful stories meant to help explain the past or to transmit important beliefs. They were usually thought to be possibly or partially historical, as in the legend of the Trojan Horse or the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail.

During modern times, legends have come into a different kind of use, as the cult of celebrities raises baseball players and actors and corporate leaders into legendary status.

"He was a legend in his own time."

The Original Roget's Thesaurus of English Words associates "legend" with an interesting list of other words, each of which has proven useful to those who wish to influence the thinking and actions of others:

metaphor: fable, legend, parable, teaching































In the beginning, myths were stories that helped to explain the beginning of the earth and the meaning of life, among other things. They usually involved a cast of characters ranging from major gods and goddesses down through ranks of lesser deities to mere humans and monsters of various kinds, starting with heroes like Hercules and monsters like Scylla and Charybdis.

Myths could transmit the most important values of the culture and help to define what it meant to be heroic. In some cases they helped to explain the inexplicable.

The poets were not alone in sanctioning myths, for long before the poets the states and the lawmakers had sanctioned them as a useful expedient. . . . They needed to control the people by superstitious fears, and these cannot be aroused without myths and marvels.


But myths have taken on new meanings in contemporary times, moving as with stories into more questionable terrain, as myths frequently refer to false versions of reality or the twisted beliefs of some ideology.

The enemy of the truth is very often not the lie- deliberate, contrived and dishonest- but the myth- persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.

John F. Kennedy

In some cases, myths become part of a marketing strategy. Eager to sell laptop computers to schools, for example, many companies paint rosy pictures of the mostly unsubstantiated benefits of buying notebook computers for every student. (See the September issue of FNO, "The Laptop Fallacy."

It is not the purchase of the machine that works wonders so much as the wondrous activities launched by teachers when they have been supported in learning best practice. Those who trumpet the miracles of the machine subtly undermine the case for spending money on good teaching.

Myths retain the power to do good and to inspire good works when they are tied to authentic possibilities, when they "ring true." But myths become blather when they herald a new age of wonders and marvels that are supposed to accompany the purchase of various products.

Time spent on the Net is not passive time, it's active time. It's reading time. It's investigation time. It's skill development and problem-solving time. It's time analyzing, evaluating. It's composing your thoughts time. It's writing time.

Don Tapscott
Growing Up Digital

To claim that wired schools automatically improve the learning of students is one of the great modern myths. Wiring and equipping are an insufficient recipe for success. Without a well funded, substantial and strategic commitment to ongoing professional development and technical support, schools are likely to end up with the screensaver's disease, not a surge in student performance.

"Preparing Teachers For the Digital Age," by Andrew Trotter writing for Technology Counts ’99, a report issued each year by Education Week, comments as follows:

"And a new Education Week survey has found that the typical teacher still mostly dabbles in digital content, using it as an optional ingredient to the meat and potatoes of instruction."

"Almost two-thirds of teachers say they rely on software or Web sites for instruction "to a minimal extent" or "not at all."


School Story Two

We have the latest equipment, the fastest network and every technological advantage imaginable. Every student has a notebook computer, a Web page and an electronic portfolio. We prepare them for a digital future by making school into something like a digital stadium.

We expect them to do digital high jumps, broad jumps and sprints. We present them with a digital decathlon that will challenge the best of them.

Net generation? You betcha!

There is no risk here of a digital divide. Our students are fully accomplished digerati even before reaching high school. They know their way around the digital landscape and will graduate with plenty of digital capital as well as intellectual capital.

Students leave here with the digital equivalent of stock options.

Sometimes the real story is embedded as subtext - lines of truth running like footnotes under the official version.

Planning for robust, integrated use of new technologies in regular classrooms is distinct from planning their installation. Plugging in, it turns out, is much easier than playing!

Much network planning for schools ignores the most important (human) aspects and fails to address either the learning or the program issues that should precede the introduction of hardware and cables.

School Story Three

This is about keeping up with the school district next door. They networked before we did, so now we race to do it bigger and better.

The superintendent is off presenting at some national technology conference announcing all kinds of amazing achievements - students learning anywhere and anytime.

When you walk down the hallways, there's lots of equipment, but not much is being used. School looks like it did last year . . . and the year before that.

Did they invest in professional development? hire lots of technicians to support the network? spend money on electronic subscriptions?

Not likely. We were playing catch up. The main thing was being networked. Fast!

Sometimes the real story circulates in the staff rooms or out at the front of the school where parents and teachers swap stories.

Healthy planning for change starts with a clear focus on purpose and then proceeds to identify the key elements and steps required to bring about meaningful adaptation of daily practice.

The creation of shared stories can be an especially powerful way to provide a clear focus on purpose. Oftentimes, shared stories emerge from extended dialogue and group exploration over time. The dialogue may focus on particular metaphors that invite repeated visits and consideration.

A metaphor (like porch sitting) may help to translate complexities and abstractions into much more compelling images that are more likely to inspire commitment, engagement and belief.

In this district, porch sitting became an effective way to focus attention on the methods that people use to think (collectively) about the most challenging questions of life.

Click above to see the issues raised by the porch metaphor.

School Story Four

The West Linn-Wilsonville School District in Oregon provides a vivid example of this planning process and story creating, as the school community first agreed upon major belief statements - bold stroke values - that should guide the thinking of all making plans for the future learning of students in the district.

By clarifying their aspirations, the contributing stakeholders and the School Directors were setting in motion a steering mechanism that would help groups attend to essential matters.

Go to district Web site for example.

Several years after the adoption of these belief statements, a committee met over many months to plan program changes to match the renovation of one of the district's two high schools.

"Porches" and "porch sitting" became central metaphors for the new building and the kinds of thinking and learning the district hopes to inspire.

Pondering takes time and fares poorly at hyperspeeds.

Note the article on "a Child's Need for Reflection" in the April issue of FNO.


Creating Good Stories on Purpose

Good stories should not happen entirely by accident, although some serendipity is often welcome and desirable.

The purpose of this article was to heighten awareness of how good stories might prove powerful tools for planning and steering.

Creating group stories requires a cluster of skills beyond the scope of this article, but some excellent sources to support the development of these skills are listed below.


The Art of the Long View: Planning for the future in an uncertain world. 1991. Peter Schwartz. 258 p.

Anticipating the Future
swes 450 -- a course at Arizona University on methods and approaches for studying the future, taught by Professor Roger L. Caldwell - Soil, Water and Environmental Science.

Corporate Legends and Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool. 1993. Peg C. Neuhauser

Reviews of Futures Oriented Books
A reading list accompanying the above course.

Vision 2010: Universities in the 21st Century
A scenario rich planning center at the University of Michigan.




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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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