January 9th, 2015

The Power of Storytelling in the College Classroom

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I love stories; stories about life, our personal experiences, the happy and the sad. Stories teach us about how the world sometimes works and how we relate to it. When I was young, I used to love to hear my parents talk about their experiences when they were young. Their stories gave me the opportunity to learn not only about their lives, but also gave me a better understanding of my culture, the traditions of my family, and its history. In a sense, these stories gave me a better understanding of myself. Stories put into context information that would otherwise remain fragmented, pieces of this and that, thrown into a catchall closet in which items are tossed and usually hopelessly lost.

Our students also love stories. A brief, well-told narrative can catch their attention and can set the mood for learning. We like stories because our brains operate in the same fashion. Stories allow our brain to use information in the most effective way. Our brains need the opportunity to classify and file information that is in relationship to each other. It doesn’t like that catchall closet of miscellaneous bits of information, it likes order, context, and continuity. Stories not only allow for a beginning and an end, but help us understand how we came to that end, what brought us there.

I try to start each class with a story. It could be a personal experience, a myth, a historical event, or anything that relates to that day’s lesson. Stories grab students’ attention. They become interested in not only what the story is about, but how the story relates to them. Stories in many ways touch the core of who we are, and that thing that makes us human. If you think back when you were a child and having a story read to you, didn’t you immerse yourself in the tale and perhaps think about how you would react if you were a character in the story? Philosopher James Stevens wrote, “The head does not hear anything until the heart has listened. The heart knows today what the head will understand tomorrow.” The things that we learn and remember usually stick with us because on some level we can relate to them personally. If we use stories in our teaching, it may give our students a better opportunity to connect to a more personal kind of learning.

Stories in the classroom can be a fundamental way of making discussions more meaningful. Interjecting that human component and assimilating ideas based upon our own personal experiences, not only allows students to begin to connect all the dots, but may aid in helping students feel more confident in their understanding of the subject matter.

Author and scholar Kieren Egan wrote this about teaching and storytelling: “Thinking of teaching as storytelling…encourages us to think of curriculum as a collection of great stories of our culture. If we begin to think in these terms, instead of seeing the curriculum as a huge mass of material to be conveyed to students, we can begin to think of teachers in our society as an ancient and honored role. Teachers are the tellers of our cultures role.”

I’d like to share a story with you

It’s always interesting to me when, at the beginning of class, I start with the words, “I’d like to share a story with you,” how the attention in the class changes. Students seem to put their focus not only on me, but themselves as well. It’s almost magical in some ways. It may be one of those few times where technology cannot replace the power of one person telling a story to another person.

So in using this notion, stories in our classroom can have four key advantages:

  1. Getting the students attention, as well as, focusing on the lesson at hand.
  2. Setting a platform for students to interact and comment on their thoughts about the story.
  3. Providing a stronger connection in the classroom, with you and fellow students.
  4. Giving students who normally do not participate in class, the opportunity to share their own personal experiences in relation to the stories shared.

Storytelling may be the oldest form of education. If I can, in some way, help students relate to what I am teaching, then their learning becomes more personal. So create a lesson which includes a story, give students the opportunity to become personally involved in the story, and you may find your students discovering a different view of the subject matter and the joy of learning itself.

Sal S. Buffo is a psychology professor at Yavapai College.