The Privileged Place of Story
You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.
-Anthony De Mello
There is something special about stories. They have been told and retold for as long as people have had the wherewithal to convey them. They have been the substance of entertainment at countless firesides over millennia and in every corner of the globe to which mankind has spread. But their value goes far beyond entertainment; they inspire, instruct, connect, and move people. Stories are the vehicles through which we convey the amusing, the intriguing, the sacred, and the useful. There is nothing that will settle more quickly and reliably a tumultuous group of pre-schoolers than the call to story-time. For that matter, there is nothing that will enthrall otherwise distracted adults more surely than a good novel or a compelling film. During a good story we are lost in the moment. Afterwards we remember and understand what was told in a way that raw data and bare facts never could be. This power derives not from the stories themselves but from the nature of the human mind.
Psychologists tell us that the human mind is “wired” for stories. The format of stories make them not only interesting but easy to understand and remember. Even FaceBook seems to be hoping to capitalize on this human penchant for narrative with the new timeline format that by adding the element of chronology seeks to transform a disjointed profile page into an unconcluded tale of a user’s life, with perhaps a bit of the compelling nature of a soap opera in which outcomes can be vaguely guessed at while unexpected twists bewilder and tantalize.
It’s the format that is key. A story is a narrative with beginning, middle, and end, in which a series of events all bound up by causal links, has characters experiencing conflict that is eventually resolved. Stories can make abstract ideas easily comprehensible and readily recalled thus making them a powerful, though oft neglected, teaching tool.
I still tell my high school students stories in my history classes, even the jaded seniors. And you can feel the room settle as the beginning of a story is signaled; eyes on the teller, bodies leaned forward, relaxed but alert, the almost primal postures of companions ready to absorb whatever tale the teller may unfold before them. Few other forms of presentation have such an effect on students who have had their fill of notes, lectures, debates, and discussions. Stories engage without taxing. I’ve found over the years that more material, relevant or otherwise, finds its way into students’ essays and responses than the details of these stories. A perennial favorite is the investiture conflict between Henry IV and Pope Gregory II, a rollicking tale of shrewd, powerful men locked in high-stakes conflict over big ideas, with a conniving emperor first groveling in the snow for forgiveness and later overthrowing his foe, along with plenty of side-plots with rampaging knights and rebellious nobles. The kids always remember this one and often ask for it to be retold.
While stories are a natural format for presenting history they can be employed to good effect in nearly any subject. Word problems in math could be presented as “puzzlers” with some additional plot beyond the two proverbial trains heading out from different stations at different speeds. Biological processes can be explained in the life-story of a plant, or cell, or protozoan. Relating how an influential author, scientist, or mathematician came to make a unique contribution to the field could go a long way toward enhancing comprehension and retention of the work itself. With a little creativity and practice any teacher can make story-telling a powerful weapon in the instructional arsenal.