Guest Author Peter Worley On His Book, “Once Upon An If”

Guest Author: Peter Worley

PeterStories are as old – almost – as breath itself.  Teaching too. And the relationship between the two is just as old. But the nature of that relationship has changed with the times. Once Upon an If: The Storythinking Handbook is a book about thinking with stories and has been written to the tune of ‘thinking with stories for oneself’, in other words critically and creatively.

Having found storytelling to be the most effective way to engage difficult-to-engage classes – as well as getting that message across to any teacher struggling to engage a class – I also wanted to write a book that shared the craft of storytelling, particularly as it pertains to teaching good thinking with stories. The section entitled ‘Sheherazad’s Handbook’, after the storytelling character in The Thousand and One Arabian Nights collection, aims to do just that, as I could not find a similar guide when I needed it. Though the book can be used by a teacher who intends to read the stories (in fact, there’s a section on how to read stories well), the ‘handbook’ helps a would-be storytelling teacher to use (among other things) their voice, body, hands, eyes, props, language, classroom space, person perspective, tenses, pause, movement, gestures, structure and even the senses to help engage a class through storytelling – all skills that can be used in other areas of teaching too.

The book contains, in its third section, a collection of stories,once upon an if each one a  new resource, but also an example of a kind of story and a kind of approach for using stories for teaching and thinking. So, it includes examples of:

  • Stories about stories (‘The Matches’ and ‘Once Upon an If’ parts 1 and 2)
  • Dialogue stories (‘The Cat That Barked’)
  • Parables (‘The Patience of Trees’, ‘The Six Wise Men’)
  • 2nd person stories (‘The Magic Crown’, ‘Flat Earth’)
  • Tall Tales/anecdote (‘Il Duomo)
  • Narrative stories (‘The Sinbad Stories’)
  • Stories in Verse (‘The Luckiest Man in The World’)
  • Allegory (‘Water People’)

The ‘Storythinking’ section equips a teacher with many ways to use stories to help classes think better with and about stories. For instance, when is it best to stop a story and hold a discussion? What are the best questions to ask and how should they be asked? How do you approach the ‘moral of the story’? (This is one of the clearest indicators of how the relationship between stories and teaching has changed over the years.) How can role-play help children face, more forcefully, the horns of a dilemma? ‘The Thinking Kit’ section outlines some original techniques for critical thinking in the classroom developing strategies introduced in the earlier books The If Machine and The If Odyssey. Worth mentioning and of particular interest to teachers who struggle to get children to approach and unpack metaphors is a new procedure called ‘The Concept Box’. This is a tried-and-tested method for getting classes to identify for themselves central concepts and themes in a story or poem (or other things metaphor-related) to enable them to engender discussions around stories and poems without the need for the teacher to intervene in exasperation with such exclamations as, ‘But it’s not really about that!’

About Author:

Peter Worley BA MA FRSA is co-founder and CEO of The Philosophy Foundation, President of SOPHIA, and an award-winning author of five books about doing philosophy in schools.

Peter is resident philosopher at 4 state primary schools in Lewisham, visiting philosopher at Wellington College and Eagle House School, and is a Visiting Research Associate at Kings College London’s Philosophy Department. He has delivered training for philosophy departments across the UK, including Edinburgh, Warwick, Oxford Brookes and Birmingham Universities. You can find more about him at

Leave a Reply

Stay Connected