I only just started my PhD 4 years ago and didn’t have any special training. I only knew one thing – I didn’t want to be one of these professors who come over to give a lecture based on literature and then leave the room after exactly 90 minutes of talking. I struggled, tried to improvise. I chose a two-phase approach. The first step was to tell stories, and the second one to ask for questions. Practice has shown quickly that in general contemporary students don’t know how to ask questions. They are used to be given everything in an unquestionable manner. At the same time, they showed a great interest in stories. My instincts were right. I asked myself why and this way discovered a new goal – a better understanding of education, to be as efficient as possible. I signed into different courses and international trainings, gaining know-how from formal and non-formal frameworks. Now and over the past few years I consider myself lucky to be able to evolve and grow as an educator. Teaching, should it be done properly, is joy and it gives better understanding of the taught subject, and I really am fascinated by what I talk about, believing that the questions I try to answer are important.
Going back to that first step of mine, though. Storytelling. That is something I am going to focus upon in the following paragraphs and it doesn’t matter whether you are an aspiring teacher or a student trying to enhance the learning experience, I believe that you will be interested to know why stories are important and how they can help you on daily bases.
Storytelling is as old as our kind. The core of human beings is made from stories. DNA itself is a story written down, generation after generation, by the invisible hand of evolution. Or like Matthew Lieberman wrote: „(…) psychologically, our reality derives from stories we tell ourselves, at least the ones we believe” (Lieberman, 2013). Imagine a bonfire. It is lightning up a small meadow in the middle of a dark, old forest. People are sitting around it, staying close to the warmth as night brings cold. They made there a stop in a longer journey, you see them tired, falling asleep where they sit. It’s year 16000 BC, a slow end of the ice age, or the last glacial period. The group is moving, as many other tribes did, from Asia to the North America, in an everlasting urge to explore. According to the Land Bridge Theory they most likely have taken paths across the Beringian bridge which existed when sea levels were much lower. Somewhere there they decided to camp. Elders of the group, long into the night, were telling their people about the ancestors, their ways, about the stars, and spirits hidden within the nature. Woven into the tales were lessons: about surroundings, about society structure, about survival. They were passing on, transferring, the accumulated knowledge of their group. And „even after the development of rock art, cave drawings, and the written language, oral storytelling was still the primary conveyance of information, history and entertainments. Many of our classic pieces of literature originated from the ageless art form of oral storytelling. Classic works such as „The Iliad” and „The Odyssey”, “Beowulf”, “Cinderella” and most world mythologies and even certain books of the Bible (the list is endless); all had their genesis in oral storytelling. Stories were told to convey a lesson, to teach, to educate” (Bones, 2008).
Think about your past for a moment. What created you? What legends and tales used to be told before going to sleep? What kind of people surrounded you and what they had to tell you? Most likely, in a healthy environment, they were there to make you feel connected within a group – the basic society cell, your family, or a bunch of peers in a kindergarten, etc. They were there to show you the proper norms, rules and traditions and how to live; how to cope with emotions and how to behave. „Stories have the power to reach within us, to command emotion, to compel involvement, and to transport us into timelessness. Stories are a way of thinking, a primary organiser of information and ideas, the soul of a culture, and the consciousness of a people. Stories are a way in which we can know, remember and understand” (Livo & Rietz, 1986).
What is more the tales we are telling are not a one way street. When done properly it’s a complex mechanism with an unforced feedback in a form of interest of the listener who simply wants to hear more, and maybe add something from himself. Sharing stories between teachers and their pupils “create the potential for new connections that link them together inside a new tale” (Dyson & Genishi, 1994).
With the above in mind, it should already be easy to understand why Mary Zabel pointed out that storytelling is a base of teaching. I would go further and say that it is the very essence of it, especially nowadays, when, just like Laura Fleming „I hear how uninspiring education is (…), however through the power of story, it is possible that meaning and learning can powerfully coexist” (Fleming, 2011). Again, why the value of stories is so high? I think that Maxine Alterio has summarized it very well:
„Storytelling is a powerful and enduring means of communication that has widespread appeal. It crosses cultures and communities; (…) To learn through storytelling is to take seriously the human need to make meaning from experience, to communicate that meaning to others, and, in the process, learn about ourselves and the worlds in which we reside. Meaningful storytelling processes and activities incorporate opportunities for reflective dialogue, foster collaborative endaevor, nurture the spirit of inquiry and contribute to the construction of new knowledge.” (Alterio, 2009)
A lot of researchers are putting an emphasis on the hows of learning processes and how our current system can be more efficient by simple change of focus. Let’s take the classes that I usually prepare in the field of History. Here, firstly, I need to admit to one thing – I almost always hated History at school. To me the formalized version presented in the books and by teachers was just a long list of dates and names. Nothing more than that, up until I discovered in secondary school that there are amazing stories hidden in our past. incredible people and relations far richer than any official, system-allowed, description can give me. I was so thrilled! My teachers, on the other hand, not necessarily. Nonetheless, I found out myself what history really is. It is everything, it is a fiber of a canvas which is now. It is a set of stories that create our reality. Then why cannot it be told this way? „History class needs to move from limiting discussion to the how and what of history to the much richer why that students crave. Presenting historical events in terms of possible social narratives that address the thinking, feeling, and motivations of historical figures may well improve retention of the agreed-upon key facts by involving the mentalizing-based memory system. It is like hiding medicine inside a piece of candy; the child enjoys the candy while the candy also serves as a vehicle for the medicine.” (Lieberman, 2013)
Who as a child would like to sit and listen to a set of rules? Who would honestly care? Try and put these rules in a narrative, with heroes to which one can relate, and that changes everything. The same can be done with any subject. In sciences – don’t go chapter by chapter, topic by topic. Show how one thing relates to another instead. Tell the stories of how theories were created; the relations between the facts and reality; show how sciences are entwined with each other. You do that and the impact of your teaching will be much greater.
The social narratives are so important cause they travel to our consciousness through a very unique part of our brains. Medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), our „social brain”, is relatively bigger than in any other species, and its role is „to learn associations between context, locations, events, and corresponding adaptive responses, particularly emotional responses. Thus, the ubiquitous involvement of mPFC in both memory and decision making may be due to the fact that almost all such tasks entail the ability to recall the best action or emotional response to specific events in a particular place and time” (Euston & Gruber & McNaughton, 2012). Hence, I agree with the scientists and the research showing the direct connection between the social impact and the social link of knowledge we try to acquire with its retention rate.
Saint Augustin said that he learned the most not from those who were teaching him but from those who were talking with him. The early Christian theologian enclosed in his words subconscious truth about education that we all carry within – that teaching in general is a one way street, and that some other more complex solutions are more efficient. Then go, tell and listen to stories, talk to each other. That is true learning. Nowadays, I am still terrified standing in front of a new group of students. I care too much and I do not want to fail them. Luckily, though, the fear is balanced by excitement which comes with the unknown. Everyone is different and has his own story. What is yours?
Recommended reading / resources:
Adolphs R. The Social Brain: Neural Basis of Social Knowledge, in: „Annu Rev Psychol.”, vol. 60, 2009, pp. 693-716, available online.
Alterio M., Using storytelling to enhance student learning, The Higher Education Academy,2002, available online.
Bones I., A Better Way to Educate through Storytelling!, in: Storyteller.net, published: 9/2008, available online.
Dyson, A. H., & Genishi, C., The need for story: Cultural diversity in classroom and community, Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
Euston D.R., & Gruber A.J., & McNaughton B.L., The role of medial prefrontal cortex in memory and decision making, in: „Neuron”, December 2012, vol. 20; no. 76 (6), pp. 1057-70.
Fleming L., Connecting Meaning and Learning Through Storytelling, in: „Huffington Post” online Blog, published on: 04/04/2011, available online.
Gersie A., Earthtales: Storytelling in Times of Change, Green Print, London, 1992.
Lieberman, M.D., Social. Why our brains are wired to connect, Broadway Books, New York 2013.
Livo, N., & Rietz, S., Storytelling: Process and Practice, Libraries Unlimited, Colorado 1986
McDrury, J., & Alterio, M. G., Learning through Storytelling: using reflection and experience in higher education contexts. Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 2002.
UNESCO’s TEACHING AND LEARNING FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE. A multimedia teacher education programme, available online.
Zabel, M. K., Storytelling, myths, and folk tales: Strategies for multicultural inclusion, in: „Preventing School Failure”, vol. 36, no. 1, 1991, pp. 32-34.