Learning from Stories

The pedagogical literature deals with so many aspects of teaching; some topics are covered regularly, others not so often, and some only rarely. This may be the only article I have encountered with the goal of offering “a general, interdisciplinary ‘how-to’ . . . for using stories in the college classroom” (McNett, 2016, p. 186).

Gabriel McNett isn’t writing about what we sometimes call “war stories,” those tales of personal conquest that delineate in great and glowing detail the accomplishments of the storyteller. In courses, those stories hinder more than help learning. McNett defines stories broadly including those that derive from actual cases, those that are narrative based (e.g., stories that involve historical figures), hypothetical stories formatted as scenarios, and those that start with problems that leave listeners working on solutions.

The article highlights a wide range of research that identifies why stories help us learn. McNett says, “Stories are useful in the classroom because humans have a natural disposition for interpreting experiences as stories. . . . Our brains constantly and unconsciously play out scenarios that hone neural pathways and allow the real action, if it is ever taken, to be sharper and more efficient” (p. 185).

A bit more pragmatically, stories can be a great way to refocus wandering minds. Stories connect with emotions; good ones pull us in. They can get students engaged and make content memorable. The article illustrates these benefits with several examples. Early in her insect biology course, McNett shares a letter with students. The letter’s author “Twisted in Tallahassee” describes a lifelong struggle with identity. “Twisted” doesn’t fit in, feels isolated, and has low self-esteem and a poor body image. It turns out that “Twisted” is a twisted-wing parasite, “one of the most bizarre-looking insects one could imagine” (p. 184). Then there’s the letter Francis Crick (of Watson and Crick DNA fame) wrote to his 12-year-old son, describing what they’d discovered just before it was published. Stories like these create a context that makes the content difficult to forget.

The liability with stories is that they can become the point instead of supporting the point. I used to tell a story about how my first husband and I argued over how to load the dishwasher. It was a great illustration of ineffective conflict resolution strategies. But I had to stop telling the story because in subsequent encounters with students, more often than not, they remembered the story but nothing about conflict resolution strategies. About that time I encountered a metaphor proposed by philosophy professor Jakob Amstutz that explains the underlying function of stories. They are nails or hooks on which we can hang conceptual knowledge. Hooks and nails derive their purpose from their function. Without that purpose, they have no utility and, in this case, no place in the classroom.

Some faculty shy away from stories because they don’t fancy themselves “storytellers.” They aren’t comfortable using dramatic voices or big theatrical gestures. With its broad characterization of stories, this article makes clear that the ability to engage in storytelling isn’t a prerequisite for success. Good content can carry a story just as effectively as dramatic presentation. Moreover, the stories used to facilitate learning don’t always have to be told by the teacher. Students have stories and can be helped to share them in ways that enlarge the understanding of others.

Some educators avoid stories because telling them feels like wasting time that could be used for covering more content. But stories can help teachers accomplish important learning objectives. Here are just some that are listed and discussed in the article: capture student attention, personalize the instructor, enhance classroom atmosphere most noticeably by reducing stress, associate a concept or theme with a story, communicate facts in a more accessible way, and represent exceptional, underrepresented, or unique perspectives (p. 190).

McNett says, “Stories have been part of our history since archaic humans rubbed pigments on rocks and cave walls.” They continue to be an integral part of our existence. Why shouldn’t they be a thoughtful, purposeful part of the learning experiences we provide students in our courses?

Reference: McNett, G., (2016). Using stories to facilitate learning. College Teaching, 64 (4), 184–193.

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