The Power of Storytelling/Making in Learning
"Max and Ruby* were playing in the backyard one day, when suddenly they heard a loud noise...."
This has been the first line of nearly every bedtime story that I have told in the past six years. But no matter how bedtimes we've shared, my kids never seem to tire of hearing about the adventures of the two bunnies who live next door, the magical and mischievious gifts that their Uncle Bob sends (e.g. rocket-powered pogo sticks, invisibility pills), and their clueless but goodhearted parents, Lloyd and Louise Lapinette. (In fact, I had to interrupt writing this blog post to tell yet another Max & Ruby story in which Max runs for Parliament...)
But I'd argue that stories aren't just for children anymore. In fact, they can also be a powerful means of building dialogue and supporting learning with adutls.
Why Do Stories Work?
People are hard-wired to tell and enjoy stories, and we tend to remember stories far better than any simple recitation of facts.
Don't believe me?
Think back to a speaker you listened to a few weeks ago -- a professor's lecture, a sermon at church, a radio interview.... What do you recall? I bet that 8 times out of 10 you remember a story or joke that they told far better than anything else the speaker said.
But why do the stories work? Some argue that listening to a story evokes both sides of our brains and helps us engage at different levels of consciousness. Others suggest that stories stimulate an emphatic response (i.e. they speak to our affective domain, to our emotions, heart and feelings).
Or maybe, as my kids would say, stories work simply because they're fun.
My Stories, Their Stories
In facilitating any workshop, I make an effort to weave in stories of my experiences with the topic into the dialogue. I'm always amazed to see the change in body language and to feel energy level ramp up when I switch from sharing theories and statistics to telling a story.
But it's also really important to provide opportunities for the learners to share their stories. Storytelling can be a great way to break down barriers, to discover commonalities, activate prior learning and prepare the learners to explore new ideas together.
In one workshop with international relief workers, I included a warm-up task in which I invited them to form groups of four and share a story of a fond memory of their time overseas. After 15 minutes, I asked them to "widen the circle" and come back to the large group. No response. "Let's wrap up now and hear a few highlights....". They ignored me. I finally had to resort to banging two water jugs together to get their attention. "Engagement!" Jane would say with a smile.
- don't put people on the spot (voice by choice);
- invite them to share their stories in pairs or trios first to "test" them out; and
- stay clear of topics that might be too difficult, controversial or embarassing.
Is it a True Story?
"Is it a true story, Dad?" my daughter often asks me after I spin a yarn.
"Ah...true as only a story can be!" I laugh.
A great work of fiction can help us dig deeper into the complexity of a topic, to consider multiple viewpoints and to relate on a visceral level to the character's experience. In the same way, inviting learners to engage with a case study, even a fictional one, can help them deepen their engagement and understanding.
In the Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach workshop, we often included a case study of "Tony Olsen", an "expert" trainer who leads a community workshop and somehow manages to do everything wrong. It was a great way to invite the learners to apply what they had learned about dialogue education as they analyzed the story and suggested how "Tony" might do better next time.
And although we told everyone up front that this was a fictional composite, I was often surprised how irate people would get with "Tony". I actually started to feel bad for him. It was a great illustration of the power of story telling and the complexity of learning that it can enable.
NB: Using composite or case studies can work well provided that a) you tell people up front that it's not factual; b) it isn't too simplistic or stereotypical and c) the stories are relevant AND safe for everyone.
"Tell Me a Story and Put Me In It"
One of my Dialogue Education teachers, Joye Norris, once shared a Family Circle cartoon in which a child says, "Tell me a story, Mommy, and put me in it".
The fact that the fictional characters in our bedtime stories bear a curious resemblance to my children is no accident. We all love to be part of the story.
I wonder if that simple, child-like quote really captures the essence of what learning is all about: the process of exploring new Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes, making meaning of them in light of your own experience, context and community, and weaving the new learning into the fabric of your life.
Or as a great article on Adult Learning by the NYC Leadership Academy puts it:
Adults learn by creating and revising stories in order to make meaning. Through a largely unconscious process, human beings make meaning by experiencing and observing their environment, by selecting particular data from that environment, and by constructing a narrative or story that explains the relationship between otherwise disparate pieces of data. Adults view the world as material out of which to make meaning stories. They filter and select particular data, the building-blocks of their narratives, based on unique experiences, personalities, and evolving mental models of how the world works. Usually, adults perceive data and construct stories that confirm existing mental models.
What are Your Stories?
How do you use story telling in your teaching and learning designs? Please share your ideas and stories in the comments box below.
And They All Lived, Happily Ever After....The End.
* My stories were initially based on the characters in the children's TV show by the same name, but have since have gone waaaayy beyond.