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October 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Wisdom Stories for Teacher Education

Alan Maley is well-known as a trainer and materials writer.  He has been involved in ELT for 55 years.  Now in retirement, he continues to write and give presentations and workshops.  His main areas of interest are in innovative methodology, spontaneity in teaching and in literature and creative writing. Email:



Most teachers are familiar with using stories as input to their language classes.  And there are useful resource books too.  (Morgan & Rinvolucri, 1983, Wajnryb, 2003, Wright 1995, 1997.)  And the value of using stories has been well-documented. (Maley, 2004) But what I am suggesting here is that stories of one particular kind can also provide a useful resource for teacher training and teacher development groups.  

These stories are what are commonly called Wisdom Stories.  They present stories which on the surface at least are often absurd, paradoxical, illogical, ambiguous, irreverent and nonsensical.  They work on several levels and are open to multiple interpretations, which is why they are so valuable in sparking discussion and debate.  They are often allegorical and suggest rather than define their meanings.  Think of Shakespeare, ‘By indirections find directions out.’

Such stories come from a number of traditional sources, such as Zen stories, Sufi stories - in particular the Nasrudin stories, Jewish stories, Prankster stories, such as the Anansi stories of West Africa or the Xieng Mieng stories of Laos, the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine, the Folk stories of the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault and Hans Cristian Anderson, and more recently, Urban Myths.  They can also be found in personal anecdotes, in the paradoxes of ancient Greece, the fables and stories of authors like James Thurber and Borges, in newspaper stories, mini-sagas, flash fiction and in certain categories of jokes.  The References and Sources below give details of some of the very wide range of published resources available.

Typically, these stories open up issues which touch on life in general – but which often also illuminate pedagogical issues too.  The framework which I have presented below is not the only way in which such stories could be used but it offers a number of possible entry points. Experienced teacher trainers will doubtless have additional or alternative techniques for getting the most out of such material.


Suggestions for use

Here are four examples of wisdom stories.

Yu Gong and the Mountain

Yu Gong was a poor farmer. His house lay at the foot of a high mountain. On the other side of the mountain was the sea. Yu Gong very much wanted to have a view of the sea. So he began to remove the mountain by digging out rocks and carrying them away in his wheelbarrow to the far end of the valley, where he dumped them into a deep lake. He had been doing this for a year or two, when an old man saw him on the road.
'What are you doing?' he asked Yu Gong.
'I am removing the mountain so that I can have a view of the sea,' he replied.
'But you will never finish in your lifetime,' said the old man.
'It doesn't matter,' said Yu Gong, 'After all, my sons will carry on the work after me, and then their sons, and their sons after them. We'll have our view of the sea in the end.'

Looking for the Keys

Nasruddin's neighbour found him on his knees, looking for something in the yard in front of his house.
'What are you looking for?' he asked. 'I dropped my keys,' said Nasruddin.
'Let me help you,' said the neighbour.
After about 10 minutes, they had still not found the keys, though they had looked at every square inch of the yard.
'Where did you say you dropped the keys?' asked the neighbour.
'I didn't. But actually I dropped them in my bedroom.'
'So why are you looking out here in the yard?'
'Well, there's more light out here, so it should be easier to spot them,' said the mullah wisely.

The Master Archer

The guru tells a story about a prince who becomes a master archer. The prince excels to such a point that he believes he’s the finest archer in the world. On his journey home after winning the archery championship, the prince stops in a small town to get something to drink. Across from the tavern, the prince sees a barn with painted targets along the entire side of the barn. And, there is a single arrow, dead centre in every target on the barn. 

How could such a master archer be living in this small town? Finally, the prince sees a young boy and asks him. ‘It was me,’ says the boy. ‘Show me,’ demands the prince.

They stand. The boy takes aim. His arrow hits the side of the barn, far away from any of the targets. Then, the boy runs into the barn. He emerges with a brush and some cans of paint. He paints a solid circle around the arrow he has just shot, then two more circles to form a target. ‘Like that,’ he says, with a smile.

‘That is how I teach,’ said the wise man.  ‘First, I shoot the arrow, and then, after I see where it has landed, I start to paint the target.’ 


Sufi story
A Sufi teacher was one day rowing across a lake.  Suddenly he heard the voice of a young woman in the distance.   She was singing a Sufi mantra but he realised that she was not singing it quite correctly.  He felt it was his duty as a committed and conscientious teacher, to help the student – for she was obviously not yet qualified to sing the holy mantras.
So he rowed over to the island where the singing was coming from.  As he rowed, he thought of his own teachers, and the skill and dedication with which they had taught him these mantras.  And he remembered all the hard work he had done to master the correct way to sing these texts. It had taken him a lifetime of effort to learn this.

When he arrived, he introduced himself to the young lady, and explained politely why he had come.  She was most grateful to him for pointing out her mistakes in the singing.  She asked him to show her how to do it correctly.  They spent many hours practising the mantra until, at last, she seemed to have learnt it perfectly.

He left her, feeling very satisfied with his work, and proud of having been able to help her.  As he rowed away, he heard her begin to sing again.  Suddenly, he realised with a shock that she was singing the mantra wrongly again, just as she had earlier.  And as he realised this, he noticed that the song was getting louder and louder.

When he turned around, he saw the young woman walking across the water towards him. As she reached him, she begged, ‘Oh my great teacher, please teach me again how to sing this mantra the correct way.  I have forgotten everything you taught me.’

The Sufi could find no words to answer.


Suggestions for using the stories

And here are some suggestions on how they might be used in teacher education sessions. You can apply these to the stories above to see how they might work.

Introducing the stories. Level 1
Decide whether to present the story orally or in writing.  Allow time for the surface meaning of a story to be fully understood before moving on.
~ Present the story without a title.  Trainees suggest possible titles.
~ Trainees suggest up to 5 keywords for the story.
~ Trainees suggest a one-sentence ‘moral’ for the story.
~ They re-tell the story from memory.

Working on the stories. Level 2
~ Ask trainees in small groups to suggest at least two possible interpretations of the story.  These interpretations are then discussed, first in the small group, then in full class session.
~ In groups, participants present at least two questions they would like to ask the protagonists in the story.  They then share their questions and suggest answers.
~ Groups each prepare and act out a performance of the story for the rest of the class group.
~ Hot-seating.  One trainee sits in front of the whole group.  They are in the role of one of the protagonists.  The group asks questions / challenges the one in the hot seat, who must reply in role.

Level 3
1. The following are intended to draw out the deeper meanings of the stories and how they might relate to pedagogy and to personal development.  They are all intended to be done in small groups of 3 or 4.
~ Invite trainees to visualise, to ‘see’ the situation with their inward eye. And share what they see.
~ Then ask them to empathise: to try to share the thoughts, feelings, attitudes and actions of each of the protagonists.
~ Then invite them to associate the story with their own personal experience.  Does the story strike a chord in their memory?  Has anything like this ever happened to them or been observed by them?  Does this story remind them of any other similar stories?
~ Finally, they analyse the implications of the story and try to relate it to pedagogical issues.
2. Groups share information about their own experiences:
~ the relevance to a student they have taught (or are currently teaching ).
~ relating the story to a class they have taught or are teaching.
~ relating the story to memories of teachers or classes they have experienced as a learner.
~ making connections between the story and something they have experienced in their own lives.  This could be teaching-related or life-related.


Concluding remarks

I have collected 150 stories of this kind.  The stories in my collection are presented in no particular order.  Some are very short, others somewhat longer.  They engage with the whole spectrum of human experience seen through the lens of narrative.  Trainers will know which ones are likely to mesh with a particular group’s needs and interests.  They may decide to use them as short warm-ups to introduce a topic or as longer nodes of activities to develop ideas in greater depth.  They are a raw resource – inert until they are put to use.  I hope trainers may be tempted to try using them.  Anyone interested in accessing this collection can contact me on: 

‘A story is like a magnet dragged through randomness, pulling the chaos of things into some kind of sense.’ (John Yorke)


References and sources

Aesop. (1998) The Complete Fables.  London: Penguin.
Alldis, Brian. (1985) The Book of Mini-Sagas. London. Alan Sutton.
Baig, Yawar. (1994) The Holy Cat and other stories. Madras. Disha Books/Orient Longman.
Bettleheim, Bruno. (1978) The Uses of Enchantment. Harmondsworth. Penguin.
Booker, Christopher. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots.  London: Continuum.
Borges, Jorge, Luis. (1975) A Universal History of Infamy.  London: Penguin.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. (1999) Too Good to be True: the colossal book of Urban Legends. New York. W.W. Norton.
Carter, Angela. (ed.) (1990) The Virago Book of Fairy Tales. London. Virago Press.
Cleary, Thomas. (1993) Zen Antics: 100 Stories of Enlightenment. Boston and London: Shambhala.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. (1998), Short: a book of very short stories. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
Epstein, Steve. (1995)  Lao Folktales.  Vientiane: Vientiane Times Publications.
Epstein, Steve. (1996) Lao Folktales: Tales of Turtles, Tigers and Toads.  Vientiane: Vientiane Times Publications.
Garvie, Edie. (1990) Story as Vehicle. Multilingual Matters.
Goodman, Roger, B. (1961) 75 Masterpieces: stories from the world's literature. New York. Bantam Books.
Kearney, Richard. (2002) On Stories. London. Routledge.
La Fontaine, J.  (1972)  Fables.  Paris: Livres de Poche.  
McCabe, Anne. (2002) Narratives: a wellspring for development. In Julian Edge (ed.) Continuing Professional Development. Whitstable; IATEFL.
Maley, Alan. (1993) Short and Sweet. I. London. Penguin.
Maley, Alan. (1995) Short and Sweet. II. London. Penguin.
Maley, Alan (2004) Once Upon a Time: The Conspiracy of Narrative.  Humanising Language Teaching.  Year 6, Issue 3, September 04.
Medgyes, Peter. (2002) Laughing Matters. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Morgan, John and Mario Rinvolucri. (1983) Once Upon a Time. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Namjoshi, Suniti. (1995) Feminist Fables. Delhi. Penguin India.
Owen, Nick. (2001) The Magic of Metaphor. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing, Ltd.
Owen Nick.  (2004) More Magic of Metaphor.   Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing, Ltd. 
Patten, Brian. (2001) The Story Giant. London. Harper Collins.
Ramanujan, A.K. (1993) Folktales from India. London and New York. Viking.
Rees, Nigel. (1999) The Cassell Dictionary of Anecdotes. London. Cassell
Reps, Paul. (1957)  Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.  London: Penguin
Rosen, Betty. (1990) And None of It Was Nonsense. London. Mary Glasgow Pubs.
Rosen, Betty. (1993) Shapers and Polishers: Teachers as Storytellers. London. Collins Educational.
Schank, Roger. (1990) Tell Me a Story: a new look at real and artificial memory. New York. Charles Scribners' Sons.
Shah, Idries. (1979) Wisdom of the Idiots.  London: Octagon Press.
Shah, Idries. (1983) The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin. London. Octagon Press.
Shah, Idries. (1983) The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin and the Exploits of the Incomparable Nasrudin. London. Octagon Press.
Shah, Idries. (1983) Learning How to Learn.  London: Penguin.
Shah, Idries. (1991) World Tales. London. Octagon Press.
Shapard, Robert and James Thomas. (1986) Sudden Fiction. London. Penguin.
Sherlock, Philip, M. (1956) Anansi the Spiderman. London. Macmillan Educational.
Somadeva. (1994) Tales from the Kathasaritsagara.  London: Penguin.
Taylor, Eric. (2000) Using Folktales. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Thomas, James, et al (eds.) (1992) Flash Fiction. New York. W. W. Norton.
Thurber, James (1983) Fables for Our Time. London. Harper Collophon Books.
von Schonwerth, Franz Xaver. (2015)  The Turnip Princess and Other Newly-discovered Fairy Tales.  London: Penguin.
Wajnryb, Ruth. (2003) Stories. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
Wood, Ramsey. (1980) Kalila and Dimna: selected fables of Bidpai. London. Paladin / Granada
Wright, Andrew. (1995) Story-telling with Children. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
Wright, Andrew. (1997) Creating Stories with Children. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
Zipes, Jack. (1985) Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion.  London: Methuen.


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  • Wisdom Stories for Teacher Education
    Alan Maley, UK