The Hidden Importance of Teaching With Stories

By AJ Juliani on January 31, 2014

The Hidden Power of Stories by A.J. Juliani

A few years ago I was lucky enough to teach the book, Things Fall Apart, to my 10th grade English class. It’s a great book…but that’s not why I was lucky.

I had recently been to Africa two times and learned so much from the people there, and now I finally had a book that related to my experiences. Each day in class I had another story to tell, and when we missed a day of storytelling in class, my students eagerly asked me if I had any more stories, or if we were “just going to have a regular class”.

That comment opened my eyes to the power of stories in my own classroom. My students wanted to hear about my experiences because they connected to those stories. As we read through the book and discussed Okonkwo’s (the main character) motivations and actions, there was a deeper understanding taking place.

Soon, we were all sharing stories that related to the book. Okonkwo had wanted to be a different man than his father was, and now his son wanted to be different than he was. Young men and women in my class spoke about the pressures they put on themselves to live up to their parents, or be different than their parents. We began to relate to the deeper conflicts in this book, because our stories connected with them as well.

I’m a big believer in project-based learning and inquiry-driven learning…but there is something special about “story-driven learning”. My students ended up scoring better on their quizzes and projects for Things Fall Apart than any other book I’d ever taught. From that moment on, I knew there had to be something to the power of story.

The Science Behind Storytelling

Every night before my daughter goes to bed I tell her a story. Sometimes it is based on the day’s events, and other times it is a story about when I was a child, but usually it is completely made up…and she loves it. She also vividly remembers the stories later on.

If I hit on a similar theme or topic in my bedtime story the next day, or next week, or even next month…she calls me on it. She lets me know that I talked about that before, or that this sounds like the other story I told her… She’ll also relate our bedtime stories to real events that happen, and many of the same themes and topics that come up in our stories…come up in our lives.

This is not unique to my daughter, instead it is based in science and research. “A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed an intimate connection between the brain activity of speakers and listeners in conversation, demonstrating how the brain of an engaged listener “syncs up” with a speaker. By engaging students with compelling stories that impart important material, teachers reach students both emotionally and biochemically, increasing the potential for rich learning experiences.”

Sherrelle Walker – a teacher, administrator, and professor of 30 years – wrote about the science behind stories:

Scientists have long known that human beings are storytelling creatures. For centuries, we have told stories to transmit information, share histories, and teach important lessons. While stories often have a profound effect on us due to emotional content, recent research also shows that our brains are actually hard-wired to seek out a coherent narrative structure in the stories we hear and tell. This structure helps us absorb the information in a story, and connect it with our own experiences in the world.

So, if you are like me, maybe this is all starting to make sense. I know that I learn best through experience and stories. If I think back on some of my best learning experiences they were often either having to do with hearing a great story…or creating a new story. When I look at what articles I enjoy, they almost always teach me something through a story. That is the initial hook of many great learning experiences.

But yet, so often in our techno-focused world we fail to take the time to actually teach through stories. I’m guilty of this, you might be too. Technology is a great tool for learning, but guess what, storytelling might be a better tool.

Stories, Technology, and Innovation

Pamela Rutledge is a Professor and Director of the Media Psychology Research Center. In an article she wrote for Psychology Today, Rutledge says:

Even with technology’s increasingly sophisticated and jaw-dropping capabilities, the tools are becoming simultaneously more accessible and user-friendly. So much so, that the boundaries are blurring not just across technologies but also across the people who are creating, using, producing, augmenting, distributing, hacking, mashing, and every other ‘-ing’ imaginable.

In spite of all the excitement, however, the human brain has been on a slower evolutionary trajectory than the technology. Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience. No matter what the technology, the meaning starts in the brain.

The research has shown that stories fuel understanding of all types of learning objectives. If you want your students to…

  • understand mathematical principles
  • write better essays
  • learn through inquiry
  • apply scientific theories
  • tackle real world issues
  • innovate in the classroom

…then teach them with stories.

Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, wrote a fantastic article on the science behind storytelling. He explains that our brains can’t help but function differently when we are being told a story:

When we are being told a story, things in our brain change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too. And yet, it gets better.

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas that you’ve activated that way, active too.

What does this mean then for our teachers and students?

First, it means we should spend some time rethinking the “best practices” in instruction. Stories are often told in History and Language Arts classes, but are they used effectively? And are we ever thinking about teaching with stories in the STEM subjects? For example, the book Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard, teaches “making” and “STEM” concepts through the story of a young wizard with no magical powers.

Second, I’d argue that one of the most innovative ways to teach may be to slow down, and tell a story. Figuring out what story to tell, and how it connects, is the job of any great teacher. If we want our students to change the world, they’ll need some inspiration from the stories of those that have already changed the world.

Finally, books like Kendall Haven’s Story Proof, need to be must-reads for anyone who is teaching anything. Haven’s book explores more than 150 qualitative and quantitative research studies that discuss the effectiveness of stories and/or storytelling on learning. Let’s use the research we have to improve how we teach. I know I took the time to change a lot of my book (Learning By Choice second edition coming out soon) in order to add more stories. I hope that type of teaching benefits my readers.

Somehow I was never told to “teach with stories” when I was starting out as a teacher, even though that is one of the best ways in which I learn. However, “story-driven learning” may be one of the most underused and oldest methods of teaching…and the most effective.

What’s your story?


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