Reviving the Art of Storytelling

Recently, I have come across the new podcast "Ben, Ben & Blue". It covers "education, technology, and whatever else comes to mind." The second episode was dedicated to the question: Why do we still lecture? Manifold research has shown it to be an inferior mode of teaching, yet many educators do not resist the gravitational pull of this default option.

One main reason certainly is that lecturing is easiest to prepare and to plan. You sit down with a blank piece of paper, and think through a familiar problem or topic.  The result, after cleanup, will be a linear progression of ideas, to be cast into a lecture or book. It is the natural result of an individual's mental work, and this is precisely what makes it so treacherous.

The problem is the cleanup. All the messy, nonlinear inner dialogue gets discarded, the dead ends, doubts and invalidated counterarguments. Students are expected to travel a single paved road to final insight, but learning a topic means getting familiar with a whole landscape around it. This is what open forms of learning aspire to provide. But that requires anticipating student answers and counter-answers, typical and nontypical mistakes, alternative approaches – in short, a much broader and denser understanding of the logical structure underlying the topic at hand.

The lecture is, so to speak, only halfway to a great and effective lesson. In order to reach it, the cleaned-up material needs to be enriched again, not only with examples, illustrations, and the like, but also with meaningful student participation.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

These ideas are not new, but much older than you might think. Thousands of years, in fact. Our current one-way method of lecturing is a remnant of the art of storytelling, which is as old as humanity itself. And good storytelling is interactive in all sorts of ways.

Ever since language began, huddled around a fire, we have hung on the lips of great storytellers. The first art, cave paintings and figurines, may have been used to accompany tellings and retellings of great stories. It is also one of children's first skills: to follow a story and to engage in it, and to tell their own. Take a look at these kindergardeners during storytime:

This is called "interactive read-aloud". The teacher engages the children by asking questions, providing time for reflection and discussion (also among the children), commenting on the story and pictures and even integrating physical activity. All of that in the span of six minutes!

These children are truly engaged in the story and will remember it thoroughly.

We memorize facts, but we remember stories. This is the magic our brains are hard-wired for. Stories contain characters, motivations, goals, interests, conflict, destiny, identity, rebellion, friends and foes, challenges, luck and misfortune – the whole gamut of the human condition. Stories make us notice and wonder. We revere our greatest storytellers, be that writers, comic artists or film directors. The most famous among scientists are also science's great storytellers. We don't even mind if the same stories are being retold over and over again (think of the countless superhero movie reboots), because great stories go far deeper than their plot. There is an iceberg of meaning, subtext, symbolism and interpretation beneath the surface. Novels and movies, while at first sight passive media, are accompanied by active engagement in the discourse and communities that form around them: critics, adaptations, magazines, fanfic, conventions, …

There is a hunger for great storytelling not only in literature and popular culture, but in science as well. Master storytellers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil DeGrasse Tyson make auditoriums burst at their seams. On YouTube, "edutainment" channels are among the most successful, because they show science and history in a way that school usually does not: as engaging stories.

Manas

The greatest stories of our time are the seed for entire subcultures. Again, this is not a new phenomenon: virtually every people in the world has some foundational myth, i. e. a story, and reveres those who can tell it most artfully. Just to name one example, the Kyrgyz people of Central Asia take great pride in the adventures of their mythical national hero, Manas. The Manas epic is twenty times as long as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey combined, yet it has been transmitted in purely oral form over generations of Manaschi, the master storytellers among the Kyrgyz:

 
 

Even today, Manaschi perform ritual recitations on special occasions such as weddings. History's great Manaschi are honored with busts:

 
Source: own work

Source: own work

 

Manas' purported burial grounds are a popular travelling destination:

 
Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

 

and a giant statue of Manas watches over the capital's central square and national museum:

 
Source: own work

Source: own work

 

Even the international airport is named Manas!

This example goes to show what power stories have on us. Wh do we harness that power so little in our classrooms?

Lecturing as Storytelling

The classic lecture (or teacher-centered instruction in classrooms) is but a faint shadow of the ancient art of storytelling, all the elements that make it engaging and humane are stripped away for reasons of time, effort and money. It is cargo-cult teaching. Some students are good with lectures, they have enough experience, background knowledge and imagination to fill in what the lecture lacks. This is in fact a trained skill: the ability to follow longer and longer stories, i. e. to internalize one's engagement. The benefit of this valuable ability lies in access to deeper stories, e. g. novels.

A good teacher provides and moderates a level of engagement appropriate to the developmental level of their students. In this regard I have the utmost respect for kindergarden and grade school teachers! In higher education, however, we tend to overestimate out students' abilities for internal engagement, and underestimate the benefits of interactive storytelling. That's for children, not grownups!

Let us revive the art of storytelling in education. Behind every formula there lies a story, complete with exposition, conflict and resolution. Tell the history of your subject, full of dead ends and surprises. Make your students tell their own part in the grander story: comments, retellings, variations or sequels. Then your class will take part in the most human of traditions – and your students will remember it for a long time to come.