“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” - Indian Proverb
Have you been watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s excellent reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic television series Cosmos? If not, you should be. This is non-fiction television at its finest.
Every episode has a theme that is generously interspersed with the historical background of the topic. For instance, in one episode, A Sky Full of Ghosts, the host used animation and historical storytelling featuring Isaac Newton, William Herschel, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell to explain how science came to understand the nature of black holes and how far light travels in a year, thus understanding how big the universe is and where we are in it.
William Herschel, the great English physicist, when asked if he believed in ghosts, explained to his son John, that the light we see from stars today are actually light of the stars from millions or billions of years ago. We are, he said, in fact, seeing ghosts of something that is no longer there.
The story is powerful. It is coded into our genes. We are a people of the story and our species is a species of storytellers; from the cave paintings El Castillo in Spain to The Grand Budapest Hotel to our family dinner table, we tell stories. And we learn from stories.
The producers and writers of Cosmos understand that story trumps facts and figures any day. Cosmos could have been a terribly boring retelling of science theory and formula. Instead, by weaving the story into the science, the concepts come alive. I bet you still remember what you just read about the ghosts of stars.
And the writers of Cosmos are not the only ones that know the power of the story in teaching science.
“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.” (source) A 2004 article from the Association for the Psychological Science broke down three reasons why storytelling in teaching is important:
- Stories Provide a Structure for Remembering Course Material
- Stories Are a Familiar and Accessible Form of Sharing Information
- Telling a Story From Experience Can Create a More Personal Student-Teacher Connection
Yet the narrative is sadly missing from most teaching that we do. In our efforts to cover as much academic territory in as little a time as possible, we have thrown out or maybe even lost that trait that all of the great teachers of old had: storytelling.
So how do we get the story back into the teaching and learning? How can we make the connection to the future if we do not understand the past?
Roy C. Owens (1899-1973) in a speech to the Vancouver Club in 1958 said "We cannot know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve come from." That has been quoted many many times, most famously by JFK. We can only know where we come from if we know our story. We can only understand where we are today if we understand how we go here. The story is important. You cannot understand how you got to where you are without story.
I am not suggesting that we add the historical narrative to everything we teach. However, there is enough evidence to point out that the narrative is a superior way to get students understand concepts.
The narrative is a good way to make things “stick,” as the Heath Brothers would say. One of the six ways that they have for making an idea stay with someone was the Story.
In their companion piece "Teaching that Sticks," the Heath Brothers say “The stories don’t have to be dramatic, they don’t have to be captivating, and they don’t have to be entertaining. The story form does most of the heavy lifting—even a boring story will be stickier than a set of facts. And that’s comforting to a lot of us who don’t consider ourselves great storytellers or dramatists. Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” and that seems to be true of storytelling. Ninety percent of the value is just trying.”
Authors as diverse as John Medina in Brain Rules and Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind understand that the story, or storytelling does something to the brain that tumors on multiple areas that all connect. Pink says “Story represents a pathway to understanding that doesn’t run through the left side of the brain.” The story stimulates all portions of the brain. The more neurons firing, the more learning taking place.
Doug Stevenson wrote in his blog about the relationship between brain science and storytelling: "Now is the time for leaders to become wisdom sharers – synthesizers – storytellers. Simply “getting through the content” is not only ineffective; it wastes everyone’s time. However, simply telling a story will not make you a better leader. It has to be the right story, crafted strategically to make the right point, delivered at the right time, and in a compelling way."Change the word leader to teacher and you now understand how story becomes important in class. What is your story and how are you telling it in your classroom?