The power of using narrative in teaching

The power of using narrative in teaching

About 20 years ago, when I was a professor at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business, I made the radical decision—to stop the use of slides in my classroom.

Why do I consider this policy so “radical”? At that time, graduate school education in France was dominated by a traditional lecture format, where teachers present their ideas and students take notes, all in preparation for a final examination. In fact, professors were required to make paper copies of all the slides they were using in class, so that program supervisors and administrators could view them.

Several factors contributed to the choice I made. The first of these was research I was doing for my doctoral thesis. Among other things, my study involved a good deal of reading about how human beings learn and remember, and I was making some enlightening discoveries in that area. Second, former students who came to see me years after their graduation were making thought-provoking comments about what they recalled from our lectures and classroom discussions. And third, I was becoming increasingly convinced of the power of the case method as a teaching device.

Regarding the first point, my own research had begun to focus more and more on the psychology of storytelling, and its impact on memory. My dissertation topic involved how people of influence use personal stories to motivate others. As such, much of my baseline reading was about understanding the power of story in general.

Among the reasons that narrative is such a powerful form of expression is its impact on memory. Beginning early in childhood, we remember things by turning them into stories, and research shows that this form of recall does indeed continue throughout life. Story seems to glide effortlessly into our memory, while we often struggle mightily to retain facts, rational arguments and abstract concepts.

One of my favorite quotations about narrative memory comes from Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, who writes: “Just look at what we remember from childhood. We remember the wolf who ‘huffed and puffed until he blew the house down,’ whereas most of us don’t remember squat from math class.”

There is a fundamental truth in Simmons’ statement. If we consider our most vivid childhood memories, very often they involve stories we were told. Our earliest experiences are entrenched in our minds with stories attached to them.

So, if we “don’t remember squat from math class”, what do we remember from our days in school?  Artificial intelligence guru Roger Schank lends some insight when he comments: “A good teacher is not one who explains things correctly but one who couches explanations in a memorable format.”

And what exactly is a memorable format? My years as a university professor afforded me a forum for continuous reflection—and experimentation—on this matter. It is a question we can examine a bit further next time.



Image: Flickr user Ignacio Martínez Egea