How stories make lessons come alive

How stories make lessons come alive

As we mentioned toward the end of the previous post, there were a number of reasons why my students at the graduate school of business came to enjoy case-based learning. Among these reasons were some that I had fully anticipated. Others were surprising even to me.

To better understand my fast-growing faith in the value of story-based learning, we should recall that I was in a period of exhaustive reading and research for my doctoral dissertation in leadership. As the weeks and months passed, I was moving increasingly in the direction of writing my thesis about the power of personal stories of identity, and how leaders can use them.

The “literature review” requirements of the doctorate in England were wide-ranging, and my thesis director expected me to be familiar with a multitude of concepts that were directly or indirectly related to my eventual topic. As such, one of the areas where I was doing extensive reading was narrative’s role in learning.

What I discovered in the literature was clear evidence that storytelling engages participants more fully than other types of discourse. This is true at any age and in any setting. In particular, advances in neuroscience were demonstrating that stories are the most effective vehicle for presenting information in a format that people actually remember.

Reading hundreds of academic articles, scholarly studies and also some mainstream books, I came across many compelling arguments about the key role story can play in all types of learning. On this journey, I collected countless quotes about storytelling and teaching, from a wide range of sources. Here is one of my favorites on the matter, from Peg Neuhauser, author of Corporate Legends and Lore:

“Stories are the single most powerful form of human communication. This has been true all over the world for thousands of years and is still just as true today in our organizations, communities, and families. If you want someone to remember information and believe it, your best strategy in almost every case is to give them the information in the form of a story.”

In light of my augmented trust in narrative as a teaching tool, I fully expected that the people in my classes would enjoy the process of studying cases. After all, business cases are real-life stories. While some of my faculty friends saw the widespread use of narrative as counter-intuitive in management courses, I was more and more convinced that stories of actual people faced with organizational dilemmas could make theoretical concepts come to life.

My first two years of teaching this way yielded results that were even superior to what I had expected. From what I was seeing on their examination papers, I quickly concluded that students were retaining not only the stories from the cases, but also the theoretical principles associated with them.

In fact, my classroom experience was confirming the advice of the experts I was reading and interviewing: Attaching a theoretical concept to a narrative will make it memorable. As such, what I came to realize more and more was that human stories—with purpose, with meaning, with feeling, and with lessons—are something that people can easily learn and remember.

Superior retention of our course material was but one advantage of using cases and story extensively in my teaching. In the opening paragraph of this post, I stated that some of the reasons we all enjoyed this form of learning were even surprising to me. In the coming weeks, I will discuss a few of those.


Image: Flickr user Ben Francis