How do children interpret encounters that happen during an international story exchange project?

February 2020

by Oona Piipponen

Most research on intercultural education, i.e. education that fosters the ability to interact effectively and appropriately with people from different cultural backgrounds, agrees that developing these skills, attitudes, sensitivities and competences is important in our globalising, increasingly interconnected world. However, it is not always clear to teachers in schools how intercultural education could be implemented effectively in practice. Our research project investigated a classroom-based initiative, focusing in particular on the participating children’s perspectives on intercultural encountering.

Many schools, especially in the higher grade levels, run a foreign exchange program with a foreign partner school. However, not all children in all schools can afford to take part in an international exchange where they can travel to meet the exchange partners in person. Yet experiences of encountering foreignness are important when growing up into a globalised world, because they help to develop the skill of taking the perspective of another. It is important to develop projects where children can learn to encounter strangers without having to leave their classrooms, so that intercultural encountering is not only an experience of the privileged classes.

The Study: An Intercultural Storycrafting Exchange

In our research study, we were particularly interested in understanding how children connect with other children when provided with a freer space to encounter the other. Children’s cultures of communication can be different to adults’ (Christensen, 2010). We decided to apply the Storycrafting method (Karlsson, 2014), which has been used over the years to promote children’s participation in matters which concern them.

An intercultural Storycrafting exchange project was developed to enable children (aged 10-11, n = 98) to encounter each other by sharing stories. The Storycrafting instruction says, “Tell me a story, any story you want. I will write it down exactly like you tell it. When the story is finished, I will read it aloud and you can make any changes or corrections.” Initially the teacher acted as a scribe for whole class stories, where children took turns adding to their shared tale. After they were familiar with the method, the children scribed for each other in pairs or small groups. The stories were sent to the partner class’s students, who responded with their own stories.

The researcher who was also working as a class teacher at the time collected ethnographic data that included the children’s stories, audio-recorded class discussions and comments, and background notes about the context in the classroom as well as the teachers’ email correspondence. All the data was analysed using thematic content analysis, and the themes were developed further to answer Goffman’s (1974) question in frame analysis: What is it that’s going on here?

The Findings: How Children Interpreted the Encounters

There were six ways that the children framed situations during the Storycrafting exchange.

Telling to entertain. Encountering was about having fun and telling humorous stories that were meant to entertain both one’s own classmates and the exchange partners.

Telling to challenge. Who dares to tell the riskiest story? These stories contained taboo subjects such as death, violence, illness, drunkenness and sexualised word choices. The stories may also challenge an authority figure, but this happened only in the “story world”.

Telling from real-life experiences. Sometimes the child interpreted the Storycrafting space as an opportunity to tell about people, things and events that are meaningful in their own lives, such as skateboarding, playing on the computer, pets, etc.

Telling from shared experience. Although the children knew the stories would be sent to a partner class, sometimes the teller wanted to tell a story that was shared with the scribe who was also a friend. The situation was framed as reaffirming their friendship through shared experiences.

The last two frames were related to how the children reacted to the partner class’s stories.

Responding defensively. When the children responded defensively, they tended to talk a lot about “us” and “them”, seeing the other class’s children more as exotic objects rather than equal partners. This frame was mostly identified during teacher-led class discussions, which led us to change the method towards a more participatory, less teacher-directed approach.

Responding sensitively. When the children responded sensitively, they entered into the story world and echoed a story’s theme in their own storytelling. They also showed an interest towards their exchange partners and asked questions where they tried to imagine the life of the other.

The study found that the teacher had a central role in enabling a participatory space to be formed that promotes reciprocal intercultural encounters. When the teacher resisted controlling the classroom talk too much and allowed children to bring their own interests and thoughts in their stories, the children’s talk also changed from focusing on the academic only and they could enjoy the stories and start forming a shared narrative culture. The shared narrative culture formed when the stories exchanged started influencing one another and the participants started taking more ownership of the Storycrafting exchange.

The intercultural Storycrafting exchange created a space for encountering a foreign exchange partner in a child-centred way. A participatory approach also seems to encourage the children to approach the exchange partners’ stories with curiosity and joy rather than stereotyping the other or focusing too strongly on comparing “us” to “them”. The project strengthened the children’s identities and class cultures. Despite not meeting their exchange partners face to face, many of the participating children appeared to feel fondness for them. Hopefully these experiences will help the children to engage in intercultural encounters in the future. This is something that we wish to investigate in upcoming research.

Oona Piipponen

Doctoral Student

University of Eastern Finland

oonamp (at)

Twitter: @OPiipponen

You can find the full research article behind this link:

Piipponen, O. & Karlsson, L. (2019) Children encountering each other through storytelling: Promoting intercultural learning in schools. The Journal of Educational Research, 112(5): 590–603. DOI: 10.1080/00220671.2019.1614514


Christensen, P. (2010) Ethnographic Encounters with Children. In: Hartas, D. (ed.) Educational Research and Inquiry: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. London: Continuum, pp. 145–158.

Goffman, E. (1974) Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Karlsson, L. (2014) Sadutus: Avain osallisuuden toimintakulttuuriin [Storycrafting: The key to a culture of participation] (3rd ed.). Jyväskylä, Finland: PS-Kustannus.

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