Throughout most of our species’ history, we have relied on the oral tradition to convey information from person to person and between generations, particularly in the form of storytelling. We have evolved to love stories, and to use them to understand the relationship between events. This tradition should be emphasised in our education system as it is our natural way of processing information and of connecting to each other.
One way of engaging learners that is underutilised is storytelling. I most remember my history teacher, who spent the best part of the lesson telling us scandalous anecdotes and funny tales of historical figures. Some people said they wanted the lessons to be more exam focused, since it was A-level year, but that was the way he knew how to teach. Looking back, 14 years later, I remember many of these stories and little of the rest. He put the information into context, using the powerful mechanisms of good narrative, humour, surprise, and scandal, to cement the information. I will never forget his colourful descriptions of Stalin’s henchman Beria and his dungeon of horrors. He declared that we would rather go to the pub with Hitler than Stalin any day, much to our amusement.
This narrative tradition has long been used as a tool in American gospel churches, where the booming voice of the orator paints pictures of fire and brimstone far more vividly than anything on Netflix. This is all coloured with an engaging tone of voice, rhetorical tricks and pure flair. Perhaps mainstream education could borrow a trick or two from these dynamic preachers.
But do all subjects lend themselves to stories?
In a word: yes. I have read a whole book on Fermat’s Last Theorem (by Simon Singh). It is a book entirely dedicated to mathematicians trying to solve a really hard problem for several hundred years. Dry? Not at all. The book is brilliant, and if Maths can be a great story, can’t anything?
Similarly, in subjects with obvious narrative associations, like English Literature, the stories themselves can actually be overlooked. Sometimes close textual analysis can supersede the stories themselves. Teachers can forget that engagement should be the primary objective. I have observed some truly boring classes about Othello over the years, a story which is fundamentally as exciting as any soap opera (if you like that kind of thing). The disconnect often comes when students see the arcane language and their eyes slowly glaze over. The teachers’ job is to help the students get past the language, even if that means forgetting it at first. Once people are engaged, they will forgive a few “thees and thous”.
Hi, my name's Phil. I am a Content Writer and Producer. My background is a mixture of education, social media and management. I've spent a lot of my career working in Latin America and Spain, and I have a love for languages and education.