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Learning stories, a Top End way

CMS missionaries Ian and Jenny Wood serve in theological education at Nungalinya College in Darwin. They share how culture shapes the way people present information. 

In many of the courses we are teaching at Nungalinya, students need to demonstrate that they can research information and fill in the background to a text we are studying. We have Bible dictionaries, atlases and reference books, and, with iPads, students can hunt down information online.  

The challenge is that most of the books, and even more the articles online, don’t tell stories the way our students do. It’s not just a question of vocabulary: reference books assume a level of background information that our students might not know, and reference books can miss out important steps that our students would value.  

“Our students know how to tell stories: they do it all the time. Their stories have sophisticated ways of thinking about the landscape, about time, and about relationships. They can encode layers of meaning well beyond the obvious—but they don’t do these things in the ways that western stories or Bible stories do.” 

Differences in storytelling 

When Jesus meets Jairus Jesus arrives by boat and then talks to Jairus. In the Gospel of Mark there is no mention of Jesus getting out of the boat. First century storytelling just assumes that he does. Top End storytelling doesn’t make that assumption. This can make an interesting difference in our picture of what happens.  

A Bible dictionary article about Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor can be great, but it assumes that we know a bit about wheat farming, about the layers that surround a grain of wheat, and that harvesting is one big effort once in the season.  

Plenty of people before us have worked on very good resources for teaching in the Top End, but we still run into gaps. To fill a few of the gaps, for the Certificate III and IV Theology courses, we’ve started writing our own references.  

Indigenous story techniques 

Our students know how to tell stories: they do it all the time. Their stories have sophisticated ways of thinking about the landscape, about time, and about relationships. They can encode layers of meaning well beyond the obvious—but they don’t do these things in the ways that western stories or Bible stories do.  

When our students tell stories, things start at the beginning, go to the end and then stop. There’s no backstory that develops halfway through the narrative, no flashbacks. No introducing a surprise that you’ve kept hidden until near the end. No jumping from one story to the middle of the next without explaining how we got there.  

The kind of passive voice beloved by academic textbooks doesn’t work in our context at all, and ‘ifs’ and ‘howevers’ can take us into difficult places.  

The value of context 

The New Testament does all those things in its storytelling, and that requires enough jumps from our students, without reference books that do it, too. So, we have written an article about threshing floors that begins with ploughing and ends with fresh bread. Or one on town gates that begins with why Bible towns might need walls.  

The process isn’t straightforward. Our students keep finding details that from their point of view are absurd, and things that we might assume as background, but which aren’t obvious. There’s plenty here for us to learn from our students about how stories work in the Top End, and plenty of room to create resources for teaching that cut with the grain.

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