Storytelling in the PBL classroom

By Maud Oostindie

When we discuss the PBL classroom, we cannot but address group dynamics. Although group dynamics are important to many types of education- and learning practices, they are especially central to PBL, with its focus on constructive, collaborative, contextual, and self-directed learning. Although I recognise that that group dynamics are influenced by an array of factors (e.g. group size, tutor, or even the room itself), I have noticed one factor to be particularly impactful when it comes to group dynamics, namely: in-group diversity.

Of course, diversity comes in many ways, shapes and forms: our tutorial groups can be diverse in terms of cultural background of the students, skin colour, religion, gender, physical ability, sexuality, socio-economic background, mother tongue, political orientation, age, family status, and much more. Besides these markers of internal and external diversity, we should also not forget different styles of learning, not to mention intersectionality! All of this is to say: diversity in our tutorial groups is very much present and complex, and the underlying power relations even more so. It does not come as a surprise, then, that diversity in a PBL classroom actively influences group dynamics, and consequently the learning process.

The impact of in-group diversity on the students’ learning processes is particularly evident in the humanities and social sciences. Quite a few of our courses address issues related to political and social inequality and power relations (for example: Cultural Pluralism, Power and Democracy, Culture and Identity in a Globalising Europe, Globalisation and Inequality). Naturally, diversity is closely tied to power relations and thus to political and social inequality. So, if we teach courses that cover issues of inequality to a diverse group of students – some of whom experience the ramifications of that inequality in their daily lives – how does this influence the tutorial? In a much more serious way than we might be aware of!

The academic world is often criticised for being an ivory tower, with (too) little connection to the so-called real world. Although the validity of this critique is debated, I do believe that the disconnect between academia and the real world can be perpetuated inside the PBL classroom. In our tutorials, we can have nuanced and intellectual discussions about issues like racism, homophobia, or poverty. Yet, those of us who do not experience racism, homophobia or poverty can leave this discussion behind when leaving the classroom. But for students who experience – for example – racism on a daily basis because of their skin colour, hair texture, or religious clothing, the discussion is real and embodied, rather than an abstract intellectual exploration of a topic.

So, the problem we are facing here is the following: many individuals from our diverse set of students are personally affected by many of the issues we cover in our courses. In my own experience – and based on conversations I have had with students – this influences the participation of those affected by the issues of inequality. More often than not, their participation takes a turn for the worse, since they feel uncomfortable participating in the discussion. Without a doubt, part of the work in terms of remedying this goes into the design of the course. However, I am speaking now as a PBL tutor, not as a course designer. I believe, in line with what Patrick and Mirko argue about the role of teaching staff in PBL, that another large part of the solution to this issue comes down to the facilitating role of the PBL tutor.

We should create space for the inclusion of students’ own experiences and stories, especially when they are stories from perspectives that do not receive equal attention to the more powerful perspectives. In a recent EDLAB lecture on the topic of decolonising the curriculum, Aincre Evans (UCM) discussed the method of storytelling as an approach to decolonising the classroom. She argues that “placing narratives and stories in conversation can create a depth [that is] often missing”. Storytelling has been gaining ground as a research method, especially within ethnographic research (see for instance the work of Tsing), but I agree with Aincre that storytelling can also prove an extremely useful method in the PBL classroom. Creating room for different stories, narratives and perspectives on issues discussed in class will only enhance the students’ learning processes. And, in order to create this space, I believe that we need to create an open and inclusive atmosphere in the PBL classrooms.

In conclusion: if we value constructive, collaborative, contextual, and self-directed learning, we need to pay attention to diversity and group dynamics in the PBL tutorial. The role of the tutor is, in proper PBL fashion, to facilitate an open atmosphere in which different stories and narratives are heard. I urge all of you to create space for different stories and narratives in your classroom, whether you are a course coordinator, a tutor or a student!

About the author

Maud Oostindie teaches BA courses in Arts & Culture and European Studies and acts as supervisor of BA theses. In addition, she is the coordinator of the BA European Studies mentor programme. Maud was voted best BA AC tutor by the students in 2019, winning the annual FASoS Education Award.