Listen to the podcast here or check it out on iTunes or the Google Play store.

I was recently listening to a speaker (George Couros) talk about Ryan Gosling in his presentation. I had seen the presentation before and loved the video he shared where a man battling cancer created these Gosling videos while in the hospital.

The story struck a chord the first time I heard it, but this time it was different because of another story I heard about Ryan Gosling from author Shane Snow. Here’s what Shane shared:

Ryan Gosling grew up in Canada. His dad was a traveling salesman, so they moved a lot. The family fell apart when Ryan was young, and he ended up being raised by a working mom and his sister.

The family trouble affected him. He didn’t learn to read until far later than most kids.

He brought knives to primary school and threw them at other kids, because for some reason his mom let him watch Rambo, and it was one of his favorite movies.

(Imagine a skinny six-year-old sitting cross-legged in front of a 15-inch TV day after day, watching Sly shoot explosive arrows at helicopters, while Mom works late.)

He had ADHD. He loved Marlon Brando. Kids picked on him; he had no friends.

At age 12, Ryan decided to go to a Mickey Mouse Club audition in Montreal. He was a cute kid, and they let him in.

He then moved to Orlando, where he was taken in by none other than Justin Timberlake’s mom! (She became his legal guardian, so pseudo-adopted.) He learned to perform.

He learned to read. He learned to focus.

He grew up.

…and then he became Ryan Gosling.

And now, I watch every one of his movies when they come out in the theater.

Ten minutes on Wikipedia turned me from apathetic to advocate. I’m on Team Gosling, and I’m on it simply because I learned his story.

You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon yourself at some point in time.

It always happens in the same way:

Step 1: You don’t care about someone, something, or you have a pre-conceived notion of how you should feel about someone or something.

Step 2: You hear, read, or watch a story about that someone or something.

Step 3: You have a newfound respect, understanding, and empathy for that someone or something.

This is not some magical trick that happens to all of us. It is the science of stories, and how they impact our learning and empathy for others.

The short version of the science is this: Our brains pay special attention to stories, engaging more areas of the mind then when we hear or see facts. And when we learn a good story, our brains synthesize the neurochemical oxytocin. This helps us feel others’ emotions and empathize with them.

Scientists have shown that high oxytocin levels lead us to donate more to charity, be more interested in people’s well-being, and have more respect for “others” who aren’t like us.

Whether it is Ryan Gosling, or a co-worker, or a student, or an enemy. When we know each other’s stories, we find empathy in places we did not expect to find it.

How Stories Impacted My Teaching

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 assessments and projects for Things Fall Apart than any other book I’d ever taught. They had a true empathy for the characters in the story and their words of reflection showed how much they cared.

From that moment on, I knew there had to be something to the power of story.

The Science Behind Storytelling

Every night before my boys go to bed I tell them 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 they love it. They 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, they call me on it. They let me know that I talked about that before, or that this sounds like the other story I told them. They’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 kids, 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, and it builds empathy.

Stories provide a window and a mirror into our lives and the lives of others. And, isn’t that what empathy is all about. Putting yourself in another person’s position and perspective.

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 For Anyone Teaching or Leading?

First, it means we should spend some time rethinking the “best practices” in teaching and learning. 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, John Spencer’s 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 slowdown, 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 impact the world around them, they’ll need some inspiration from the stories of those that have already changed the world.

Finally, a book 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 empathy.

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 ways to teach empathy.

What’s your story?

Call to Action

This year I’m focusing a lot of attention on building empathy with myself, my kids and family, with my team at work, and hopefully with our community of teachers, coaches, and leaders!

If you want to get a weekly email filled with a story of empathy, and an activity, sign-up here to be a part of our EMPATHY EVERYDAY tribe and get access on January 1st.

Join 76,000 other learners (and teachers)

And get new posts every week by email.

Powered by ConvertKit

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Bill Funk says:

    What is your favorite story resource library? I would find it very useful to have a story-to-subject and topic cross-reference as a go-to for having a handy story to use when teaching. Not all of us are consistently creative and have these readily at hand…

  • Bill Funk says:

    Speaking for myself, I think the problem is less about realizing and believing in the power of storytelling, and more with having a lack of stories.

  • Kimberly G. says:

    If you are struggling with coming up with stories, check out your local library or media center. We have a bunch. Try using podcasts like NPR’s Storycorps. These stories are deeply engaging and affecting. Read widely and cultivate empathy. Be observant. Think with your heart. The stories will come.

  • Tara Link says:

    The best post I’ve read all week. You nailed it. Why are motivational speakers and ministers who “lecture” effectively powerful? They tell stories in meaningful ways.

  • Marisa Dahl says:

    Another great podcast for storytelling is The Moth.

  • Natasha Paul says:

    With my team, we developed a cross-curricular PBL experience called “The Legacy of Imperialism” for our 10th graders. In English, we read Things Fall Apart, Shooting an Elephant, and some poetry (“White Man’s Burden” “Black Man’s Burden”, etc. ). One year I didn’t teach 10th grade English and another teacher took over that portion of the project. She hated TFA, so she left it out and didn’t replace it with another story. That year the projects all lacked empathy and the students struggled with how to really understand and connect with the African country they chose to create a solution for (water, jobs, health, education, etc. ). What our team learned from that experience was how important stories were for our students to empathize with lives so different from theirs and the correlation to the quality of their project. It was a real aha moment for me to really see the value of my work in changing the world!

Leave a Reply