Bob Shepherd, veteran designer of curriculum, texts, and educational publishing, explains here why the Common Core is wrong to favor informational text over fiction, argument over narrative.

Shepherd writes:

One of the many things that Coleman didn’t know about ELA (one could make a very long list there) is that getting a handle on narrative is essential. He decided unilaterally, for the rest of us, to de-emphasize narrative in favor of argument.

Narrative is arguably the primary means by which we make sense of the world. Let me tell you a story

Not so long ago. . .

the world was completely different.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years.
But only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark. . .

and people gathered under the stars, which they could REALLY see in those days before electric lights. . .

and under those stars, they gathered around fires and told stories.
In every culture around the globe. . .

Storytelling existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have in every case record stories that were ancient then.

Where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential faculty of the human mind, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world.

Storytelling turns out to be the fundamental way in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have scientists come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures.

If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it will make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

When you look out at the world, you have the impression of taking everything in and seeing a continuous field.

But scientists have discovered that in fact, at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. The brain FILLS IN THE REST, based on previously gathered information and beliefs about the world. In short, your brain tells you a STORY about what you are seeing, and that is what you actually “see.”

Again, at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment, even though there are literally millions and millions of things that they could be thinking about or attending to. This limitation of our mental processors to seven bits of information at a time is why telephone numbers are typically seven digits long. That’s the most information that people can attend to at any particular moment. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only a few small bits of your environment, and your brain is FILLING IN THE REST, based on previously gathered information, to create a complete picture for you. In short, your brain is continuously telling you a STORY about what you are seeing. The rods and cones at the back of your eye that take in visual information are interrupted by a place where the optic nerve connects to your brain. In other words, there is a blind spot where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE, but your brain automatically fills that information in for you. It tells you a story about what’s there.

The same thing happens when you remember something. Your brain only stores PARTS of the VERY FEW THINGS that you attend to in your present moments. Then, when you remember something, it CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story of what was PROBABLY the case and presents a whole memory to you, with many of the gaps filled in. In other words, memory is very, very, very faulty and based upon the storytelling. (For more on memory as confabulation, see the wonderful work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus.)

Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan with a golf club.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends.
The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story.
That’s the most plausible current explanation of why dreams occur. They make use of this storytelling function of the brain.

Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that your brain tells you about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The story you tell yourself about yourself becomes the PERSON you are.

The word person, by the way, comes from persona—the Latin word for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre (which was, in turn, based on Greek theatre).

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place automatically.

In fact, there is a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, storytelling is key to being human. It’s one of our essential characteristics. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It fills every aspect of our lives. Years ago, the historiographer Hayden White, in an essay called “The Literary Text as Historical Artifact,” pointed out that we tell ourselves that we’ve understood historical events once we have imposed a narrative frame upon them.

We make sense of the world via storytelling.

So it’s no wonder that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are truly Homo vates, man the storyteller.

Storytelling is an essential, or defining characteristic of our species, one of those things that makes a human a human.

But Coleman understood nothing of that, clearly.

Why is anyone taking him at all seriously?