Recently, when I decided to write something here about why narrative structures help people remember their school lessons, I realized that I have never really gone into detail about the underlying reasons for this phenomenon. Today, I would like to explain a bit more about why linking abstract concepts to stories is so effective.
Of course, one of the most prominent aspects of storytelling’s effectiveness for teaching is the one we discussed last time: A story can put a human face on an arbitrary concept.
As we have commented in the past, students often recall a concept by remembering a tale related to that concept. For example, they easily call to mind the notion of market segmentation because they visualize a story from a case we have read. In their minds, they can still evoke—even many years later—an animated discussion between a software developer and a marketing manager, as each one fought for her vision of how the market should be segmented.
Other than this human ingredient, though, there are a number of other advantages to using storytelling in virtually any learning context.
Among narrative’s strongest points for teaching is simply that it holds people’s attention better than any other form of discourse. In my interviews, grades school educators told me consistently that we should not underestimate the simple notion that anecdotes generate excitement. When we tell children a story, their concentration increases, as they listen with a feeling of anticipation.
In my MBA classes, I frequently note a similar sense of excitement and anticipation when I use anecdotes. At certain moments, I even use storytelling to bring a drifting class back to order, or if I sense that people’s application to the task at hand may be flagging a bit. Telling the group an appropriate tale about the subject we are discussing can even radically change the ambiance, turning a momentarily detached classroom into a campfire-style gathering.
Whether the story is one about a character in our business case or one from my personal experience, people have a natural tendency to perk up and listen better. In addition, because of the narrative’s human element, there is often a feeling of identification with the protagonist or other characters.
Stories are also a powerful vehicle for learning because of their vivid, concrete images. Author Annette Simmons asks us rhetorically why we remember some things from childhood and not others. With no effort at all, we recite the tale of the big, bad wolf who huffed and puffed and blew the house down. In contrast, she writes, “most of us don’t remember squat from math class.”
Of course, the answer is apparent to anyone who understands the role of narrative in human thought. To young minds, mathematics can often appear arbitrary and unstructured. A wolf and a house falling down, on the other hand, are solid and palpable, leaving us with mental pictures we will never forget, even into adulthood.
Since stories simplify and dramatize simultaneously, they help us understand the complex lessons of life. Throughout the ages, and across civilizations, this quality of simplifying and explaining life has been the role of myth and fable. For example, “slow and steady wins the race” is perhaps sound advice, but it remains just words from our parents and teachers. Hearing or reading Aesop’s parable about a race where the unwavering, dependable tortoise defeats a flashy, overconfident rabbit makes a far deeper impression.
In our youth, and in fact during our entire lives, a good story simplifies an aspect of our complex world, turning it into something we can readily understand.
Writing this post has caused me to reflect on some other aspects of narrative that I have never discussed here. While I do not wish to write exhaustively about all that I have researched about storytelling, there are several more facets of narrative and learning that are worthy of exploring. Perhaps I will go into those next time.
Image: Flickr user Robert Nunnally