June 10, 2023

Why Telling Tales in the Classroom is Beneficial

“Stories are ‘psychologically privileged’ in the human mind”

D. Willingham

Storytelling seems to be a ‘universal’ human trait, anthropologists find evidence of storytelling stretching back tens of thousands of years in the visual form of cave paintings, in the pictographic form of hieroglyphs and onto the written alphabets that form the basis of more modern languages. It is clear that transcending these recorded forms of storytelling is the most basic way to communicate a narrative or story to another will have been orally – requiring nothing more than a voice and someone to listen. 

The ability to transmit information from one’s own mind into that of another provided a huge evolutionary leap for human-kind. It aided survival, allowing us as a species to evolve not only in a genetic fashion but societally also.

It could be said that we have evolved a predisposition to want to listen to and to tell stories, that the human mind is hardwired to understand narrative. We have the ability to use language to not only describe reality but to create fictional realities that allow us to predict, problem solve and anticipate outcomes in a uniquely safe and virtual setting.

Our students are keenly aware of when something does not make sense to them but many will be unlikely to challenge or question you as a teacher because they cannot articulate how your explanation does not make sense – a storyteller however is a different matter. By the time we are teaching science in school children are already deeply versed in how narrative structures work, they have the existing schema for how a story should develop and the existing vocabulary and confidence to challenge it.

This provides us as teachers with a powerful pedagogical tool – a good story can allow scaffolding of concepts, modelling behaviours, guide students to infer meaning, promote questioning, anchor the abstract in more concrete terms, stimulate critical thinking but, most strikingly, maybe even enjoy what they are learning. A story gives a wider, richer affective context for the core knowledge you have to transmit.

We tell stories all of the time as science teachers without even realising – think hard, do you teach development of the heliocentric model of the Solar system without telling the tale of Galileo and his ‘heresy’?  Archimedes and the golden crown for density. The wonderful ’accidental’ discoveries of microwaves as a method to heat food when a chocolate bar melted in a pocket or Roentgen and his mysterious x-rays. 

Remove these forays into the hinterland of our subject and it becomes a dull place indeed – take the time to step into the hinterland of your subject and frame the key information with context. Become a storyteller. Allow yourself the satisfaction of sharing the wider meaning and majesty of your subject and your experiences with your students.

The stories you tell needn’t be historical; they can be personal or anecdotal – anything that adds quality and power to your explanations, never forget you are the expert in the room not only in subject knowledge but in world experience; is there an experience you can share that will effectively support the learning you are trying to convey?

“Standing in the hinterland is just…different. I know it’s different, the students know it’s different”

A. Boxer

Time is a constraint in the modern classroom, we are continually pushed to deliver more and more both in terms of content and outcomes, how then can we find time to indulge in storytelling? Simply recognising that storytelling is not an indulgence – that would imply something extraneous that can be done without – I would argue that you cannot truly teach the complexities of science without getting to know its rich history and links with our everyday reality that might not be obvious to the novices we interact with on a daily basis in the form of our students.

Storytelling does not require resources and vast amounts of time; only a voice. When you plan a sequence of lessons take a look at the opportunities to add a few minutes of science history, an anecdote or experience from what you already know. Could you build a different activity into a lesson or homework that incorporates these human aspects of our endlessly empirical subject. Taking a fresh look at how you teach is something that takes a little effort on your part but can be hugely rewarding, there are many wonderful resources already out there to help you build your repertoire of stories from student led reading activities like the #scistories compiled by @DrWilkinsonSci or the wonderful Stories from Physics booklets from @RBrockPhysics and the IOP (https://spark.iop.org/stories-physics). Talk to your colleagues, skim through your old textbooks and you’ll find the seeds from which your narratives and stories will grow, alongside the engagement of the students and their ability to recall information and apply it successfully – but that is a tale for another time.

Featured photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Science teacher in non-selective Kent coastal secondaries for over 13 years including those in special measures, RI and with 'good' ratings. Interested in using cognitive science to support own teaching and that of others; recently focused on improving student vocabulary and using narratives/stories to explore subject hinterland to pique student interest. Miss Charlie tweets @mxcharlier

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