Stories and Storytelling for Student Engagement

This is the second in a short series on student engagement. I am no expert, I am teacher looking into engagement.

No prizes for guessing that stories engage people.

Here’s a little more detail that I found about why stories and storytelling is so engaging

1. Stories are easy to remember

It’s like our brains are designed to hear stories and remember them. You may not remember much about year 9 history (unless you teach it) or what you ate for dinner three nights ago, but you probably do remember these famous stories:

  • Jack and the beanstalk
  • Little red riding hood
  • The boy who cried wolf

And these famous Australian TV ads (told like stories)

You may not be able to recall everything, but you do remember the main characters and the point

My memory was:

“Jan didn’t put an ad in the yellow pages and her boss was unhappy with her. And of course’ NOT HAPPY JAN!”

Stories chronologically order events, which is how we live our lives, and how we make sense of our day to day.

Some who know more than me (Daniel T Willingham, Trevor Muir, Dan and Chip Heath) say that stories also follow a pattern and contain the same core elements, which helps us remember them too. 

(Possibly because our brain instinctively knows what a complete picture looks like and what its missing)

2. Stories are universal

National Geographic says that there is evidence of storytelling from 30,000 years ago, and that storytelling is universal across cultures.

In other words, all cultures used stories as a way to inform, entertain, educate. 

This makes stories inclusive. All of our ancestors, no matter where they came from told stories. 

Netflix says it’s streaming services are available in over 190 countries.

Although it is ‘not yet available in China, Crimea, North Korea, or Syria.’ The countries who do not yet have Netflix may also share an insight into the power of story

3. Stories are communal

We’ve all been there. Trying to get a kid whilst in a room with 20 of their peers to work in silence and in effect, pretend they are alone. 

Storytelling is communal and works with the social environment that we teachers find ourselves in every day, instead of fighting it

And in a weird way, we like to know what others thought of the story or experience so they can gauge different interpretations

There is even a television show about other people watching a television show! And even weirder is that the show (gogglebox) is quite popular. 

Although reading a book might be a solo activity, listening to and telling stories is certainly a social occasion.

4. Stories use emotion

Stories include and even encourage others to process their feelings.

They doesn’t ask you to demonise your emotions and pretend to be a robot.

Emotions need to be considered when getting students engaged in their education.

For the last word here lets go to Winson Churchill

‘I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.’

Winston Churchill

5. Stories give meaning 

In the previous installment of this series I focused on Scoreboards.

But it occured to me that a scoreboard may just be a way for someone to easily interpret meaning, and then transfer meaning (in terms of a story).

Meaning is a big one for us teachers because things that have meaning are more easily remembered (Willingham).

And meaning is what we want students to know. At the start of learning it is about identifying but then we move onto comprehension and meaning.

Dan and Chip Heath (authors of ‘Made to Stick’) believe that stories even go a little further than meaning…

“Some say we don’t just see a story as pictures in our head but we actually simulate the story in our heads.“

Chip Heath and Dan Heath

6. Stories are easily shared

Stories have been transferred for centuries and have even crossed cultures.

FAQ – Stories in the classroom 

Can you do stories for maths?

In Why Students Don’t like school, Daniel Willingham does give a story around maths. But it sucks.

However, I do remember a story that a teacher told me when I was in year 9 maths.

It was about an abacus and how to read it, groupings of numbers etc.

In the story, we (the class) were a spy for Caesar and we needed to correctly size up the enemy’s forces using the technology of the time.

I remember the last part of the story was Caesar asking us in heated fashion, ‘tell me how to read this thing or I will cut off your head’

Some of the students in the class who the teacher asked were quite caught up and trying to come up with an answer. You could feel the engagement.

What if you can’t do a story for a topic?

In short, use story structure

In ‘why students don’t like school’ Daniel Willingham suggests that story structure can be used when lesson and unit planning. 

In particular he suggests to organise a unit around conflict. He gives the example of following the japanese version of pearl harbour instead of the US one to better engage students.

In the Epic Classroom, Trevor Muir talks more about using the elements of a story to create a unit of work. The one I particularly liked was the climax, which could be something like a presentation, a race, a launch, etc.

Do stories need to be real and about real life events?

No. Aesop’s fables are a good example of stories that aren’t real (with the animals as the main characters). 

No need to trivialise with reality, stories only need to be believable.

My students won’t sit for a video, do you still think they will sit and listen to a story?

If you have tried to play a movie during class in the last 15 years and had students disengaged then you might be thinking, stories don’t do enough.

I mean Hollywood does stories that are good but they have a lot more resources than I do.

Good stories aren’t about money or how short they are, they are about making them believable.

What’s the difference between a good story and a bad story?

Great question, haven’t figured it out yet, but if you know something contact me.

I did find this video of a very persuasive story teller that I think could be a good start. He says that stories are about creating emotions. Particularly 3 emotions.

Happily ever after

Even the Victorian State Government is going on about stories, although their point is a little different to the one I am making.

Stories are one way to engage students. They probably suit some stiutations and not others and are going to take some practice.

The thing I like about stories in the classroom is how universal they can be (as long as everyone has the background knowledge they need).

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope this has informed you in some way. Don’t be a stranger.