It is the growing of these neural pathways in their students that teachers intend
to foster: the growing of new dendrites and the connection of new and existing
dendrites to form increasingly complex neural networks. Smilkstein (2003)
“dendrites, synapses and neural networks grow only from what is
already there” (p. 126). If this is the case, then the use of students’ personal
narratives is an excellent technique to foster the development of dendrite growth.
The technique starts by requiring students to work with what they already know,
to use their life experiences told in story format. Facilitated by the instructor,
those existing dendrites are then connected to the desired course content. As
a result of these connections, new dendrites and new neural networks are
developed. A personal connection to the new content has been made.
makes it possible for every student to ‘catch on’ and have a foundation from which
to then grow higher structures…” (Smilkstein, 2003, p. 128).
What is currently known about the brain and how learning occurs suggests another area in which the use of students’ personal narratives is an effective teaching technique to employ. Fluids flow through the synaptic gap between neurons in the brain. When students have positive emotions, the chemicals that are produced enhance synaptic communication and therefore facilitate learning. When learners have negative emotions like self-doubt or anxiety, different chemicals are released by the body that in fact inhibit the synaptic communication between neurons and as a result learning is impaired (Smilkstein, 2003, p. 6).
Because the use of students’ personal narratives allows everyone to be the expert on their own life, self-doubt and anxiety are minimized. Within the directed topic, students choose which story they want to tell from their lives. Their experiences and knowledge are highlighted and placed at the forefront in this activity. As a result the emotional conditions that facilitate learning are created.
Marsha Rossiter writes, “Narratives and stories in education have been the focus of increasing attention in recent years” (2002, p. 1). Case studies, critical incidents, role-playing and simulations are all story-based teaching techniques that adult educators use. These techniques are mentioned frequently in the literature but are not specifically what I wanted to research: the use of students’ personal narratives in teaching content.