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The Power Of Stories

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Dan Willingham writes on his blog about yet another study that provides “evidence that putting to-be-learned material in a story format improves learning outcomes.”

I’m not going to describe that particular research here since Dan does an excellent job over there. But I will spend a little time reviewing how I’ve written about stories previously here on this blog and in my books (you might want to explore The Best Digital (& Non-Digital) Storytelling Resources for even more info).

Neuroscience researchers Renate and Geoffrey Caine have reflected on the importance of stories in their study of two types of memory systems: taxon and locale.

Taxon learning consists of lists, basic skills, and habits. Locale, on the other hand, involves creating stories out of a person’s life experiences. Taxon tells how to turn a key in our house door and locale tells us what to do when we lose the key. Taxon memories must be rehearsed regularly to move into long-term memory. Locale memories, however, go automatically into long-term memory. Taxon learning responds more to extrinsic motivation and is resistant to change once a fact or habit has been learned. Locale learning is more responsive to intrinsic motivation and is always evolving.

Professor Melanie Green calls it “narrative transportation.” Another researcher likens the effect of stories to a Trojan House — they make people let their guard down.

And here’s how Jerome Bruner summed up the research:

Stories-are-about-22

But just teaching information through storytelling is only….part of the story.

If we want to maximize the effectiveness of stories in the classroom, then not only should we tell stories, but we should also help students use their own personal stories to construct new knowledge.

As I described in my ASCD Educational Leadership article, Get Organized Around Assets:

I used my Hmong and Latino immigrant students’ locale memories to strengthen their reading skills during a unit on feudalism. The textbook’s authors listed several key facts about feudalism: People spent most of their time working in the fields, they didn’t own the land they farmed, and their homes had one or two rooms. The book flatly declared that feudalism had ended with the Renaissance. Instead of having students memorize these facts (taxon memory), I asked students to think about them, write about whether they’d experienced any of these conditions in their home culture, and ask their parents and grandparents the same question (locale memory). Every student commented that they were either experiencing some of those “feudal” conditions currently or had done so very recently, either before their families emigrated or while they lived in refugee camps. The class concluded that the textbook was mistaken in saying feudalism had ended.

Examining parallels between their lives and the lives of people in the Middle Ages strongly engaged students. Many clamored to read more challenging texts about the Middle Ages. This unit provided countless opportunities for my students to learn reading strategies, academic vocabulary, and grammar. They embraced those opportunities because the lessons took place within the framework of their own stories and those of their families.

During my nineteen-year community organizing career, our primary strategy was to learn people’s stories, have them share those stories with others, and then help them develop a new interpretation of those stories. This new interpretation then was the engine that would propel themselves to action. It’s similar to a challenge we face in the classroom—we need to help students connect our lesson content to their background knowledge and then attach new understandings and learnings to it.

So, yes, we teachers need to emphasize the use of stories in the classroom. But let’s make sure they aren’t just ours.

Let’s make sure our students are tellers of their own tales, too…..

(For more thoughts on this topic, you might want to explore my New York Times post, English Language Learners and the Power of Personal Stories)

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Great post. I am facinated by the power of storytelling. I love the front part for creating an experience yet also attracted to the back part of how our brains absorb and store stories. Thanks for the geat links!

    Christine

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