Storytelling in the Social Studies Classroom


Many teachers tell stories. They take a story, whether their own or another’s, and turn it into the experience of their students. This article showcases four stories from secondary social studies classrooms in Singapore that illustrated how teachers have used stories for various purposes. Stories were observed to be used to teach morals, to inspire empathy and cultural understanding, engage students, and help them acquire thinking skills such as assessing the reliability of sources. Stories, when used effectively, can achieve multiple purposes, many of which are aligned with the kinds of citizenship qualities and skills we want to see developed in learners of all ages. Suggestions on how teachers can incorporate storytelling in their lessons are provided at the end of this paper. Even though the four stories are from the secondary level, the ideas and suggestions in this article can have application in primary social studies classrooms as well.


Many teachers tell stories. They take a story, whether their own or another’s, and turn it into the experience of their listeners (Benjamin, 1968). The story, which relates events that have happened, stands in contrast against other types of telling such as a description, exposition or argument, which are commonly associated with social studies education. Stories are pervasive and powerful. They communicate experiences and information in a manner that entices listeners and encourages responses. In fact, some believe that storytelling is a pan-global phenomenon, unique to all cultures in the human race (White, 1980). It is not surprising that many teachers tell stories in their classrooms, for stories are profound experiences for learners of every level. Stories can be told spontaneously according to a teacher’s gut feelings or in a planned manner such as a premeditated sharing of a story from the textbook. In this article, I will demonstrate how stories have been used by social studies teachers to achieve various citizenship aims and suggest that stories have an important place in the teacher’s pedagogical toolbox.

When do teachers tell stories? For many teachers, the magic is in the moment. Many do not plan to tell stories, but tell them as the opportunity arises (see Jackson, 1995). Yet, for others, story materials are deliberately chosen and weaved into their lesson plans to achieve specific purposes (Egan, 1986). Why do teachers tell stories? Stories have a privileged status among the different types of information as they are easy to comprehend and remember, not only because people pay close attention to them, but also because of something inherent in the story structure that makes them so (Willingham, 2004). They are carriers of values and knowledge that can be put to use both in school and beyond (Hensel & Rasco, 1992). Lastly, stories are not only good for transmitting knowledge but they are also the knowledge we want students to have (Jackson, 1995). Knowing particular stories make us part of a community. Whether or not one agrees with it, it would be surprising for a Singaporean not to know “The Singapore Story”, the tale of Singapore’s rapid transformation from third world to first under the governance of the People’s Action Party (PAP).


An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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