Education: Storytelling — a tool to enhance learning

Published August 24, 2014
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Hakim is eight years old. In his science class, he learned how to use a microscope. The microscope is a device consisting of a lens which can be used to see enlarged images of minute objects. When looking closely through the microscope, Hakim was able to see chloroplasts.

Boring, right? I’m assuming most eight-year-olds would be bored by this rambling in class.

But how about something like this — the same facts intertwined in a narrative-driven story?

Eight-year old Hakim was amazed by all the things he saw under that gigantic metallic device — the microscope. He could now see the large bubble-like pores on the green leaf — they were larger than life. These pores, known as chloroplasts, contain the green pigment which gives plants their green colour.

Storytelling has been used for centuries as a compelling medium to gauge audience attention. Dr Maxine Alterio, an experienced lecturer, mentor and researcher with expertise in narrative approaches to learning, teaching and research, mainly in higher education contexts, says storytelling is an enduring and powerful means of communication crossing cultures and communities.

Education should act as a driving force for the young. It should inspire them — fuelling them with energy and passion, so they think of learning as fun and life-changing, rather than boring and repetitive

“Even before we had the ability to articulate what we knew, felt and thought, we learned to make sense of our world through stories,” she says.

Alterio says to learn through stories is to take critically “the human need to make meaning from experience, to communicate that meaning to others — and in the process, to create opportunities for thoughtful change to occur.”

“Robust storytelling processes incorporate opportunities for reflective dialogue, foster collaboration, nurture the spirit of inquiry and contribute to the construction of knowledge,” says Alterio.

Among other benefits, students develop critical thinking skills and the ability to imagine, according to Bruce Carmody, a retired Canadian educator and now a professional storyteller.

Carmody says that when he conducts workshops, many times he begins by telling the audiences a story, after which he reflects and asks them, what they were doing while he was telling them the story. His answer: “... they were imagining things, they were thinking what was going to come next, they were comparing what was happening in this story with other stories.” Carmody adds, “And all of these things that are essential critical thinking skills that we want children to develop [and] are present when children listen to stories.”

Storytelling, therefore, acts as a vital tool to enhance people’s imagination whereby they create images of things in their mind, according to Carmody.

“If you can’t imagine the possibilities and imagine a way of solving the problem then you’re not going to be able to come up with a solution.” He provides an example of a trailer that can be attached to a bicycle. “If I can’t begin to create in my mind an image of what this might look like and imagine how it might attach to my bicycle ... then I’m never going to come up with a solution to the problem,” he explains.

When asked why storytelling is an effective medium to enhance learning, Alison Davies, a professional storyteller and author of books including, Storytelling in the Classroom: Enhancing Traditional Oral Skills for Teachers and Pupils, says, “We react differently when we hear a tale. Our brainwaves slow down and we absorb more information, so it makes sense that we use wonderful tools to engage children and communicate new ideas. If you eliminated stories from everyday communication, it would be a dull exchange of information. Stories resonate with us.”

Though all this seems superb, how can storytelling techniques be applied to teaching and ultimately student learning?

According to Davies, memory tales — tales from personal experience — can be used to demonstrate a point.

“We can use traditional tales as an introduction to a subject area and a way of engaging students, and we can create springboard tales, which are interactive stories where the students get involved in continuing the narrative and learning about the subject in the story.”

She also says that teachers could stop the story before its ending and involve students by asking them what they would do in a similar situation. “Alternatively, if you want to get them thinking, you could ask them to switch the tale around and tell it from a different viewpoint. This alters the focus of the tale and helps them come to their own conclusions.”

When asked whether storytelling techniques can be incorporated in technical subjects like mathematics and science, Davies says they surely can; though, being a little creative helps.

Davies, for example, had developed some material for primary school children which promoted the use of data handling. She wrote a story about a girl who loved to play hockey at school, but the school bully always interrupted the game. Davies says, in the story, the main character “stands up to the bully and says: ‘You’re not the best hockey player in the school’. The bully keeps saying: ‘Ok then, prove it!’

“In my story, the character, with the help of a magical character called Master Data Cruncher, goes on to discover what kind of data she needs to prove it, how to gather it and how to present it in tables and charts to prove the bully wrong. We then used this as a spring board story.” She explains when the story reaches its point of crisis — when the girl stands up to the bully — she gathered the children in groups and got them thinking.

“We asked them to continue the narrative thread of the story. So what happens next, how did she prove the bully wrong, what sort of information would she need and how would she collect and present it,” she says. Davies says this exercise not only got children involved in telling a story, but in the process, they also learned about data handling and using statistical vocabulary.

In fact, difficulty in understanding technical subjects like mathematics and science can arise because kids are unable to imagine problems in their minds, according to Carmody, who worked with kids experiencing difficulty in problem solving in mathematics. “They couldn’t create an analogy to help themselves understand the problem,” he says. “And that has to do with being able to imagine things in order to be able to solve the problem.” He says when a scientist is trying to invent a new landing craft on the moon, it’s critical that he imagines the possibilities.

Carmody suggests that storytelling techniques should not just be restricted to telling stories to children, rather children should also be taught how to tell stories. He believes that when children learn to tell stories they develop better vocabulary, good sentence structure and become better writers. All these are skills which can only not help them at school, but also when they leave school and enter the workforce.

When asked which age bracket could gain the most out of storytelling, Carmody says that when it comes to helping children develop as learners, the primary years are probably the most impactful. Having said that, he says that the joy of storytelling continues as we age. “I tell stories regularly to senior citizens in their 80s and 90s. And they enjoy stories. It keeps their minds active,” says Carmody.

Davies says age doesn’t matter. She, for instance, works with all age groups starting at the pre-school level going right up to university — where she teaches academics who want to improve their teaching skills. “Storytelling works at all levels, because it’s inherent to who we are,” says Davies.

The multifaceted benefits of storytelling are suggestive that we must incorporate storytelling techniques into teaching practices. When it comes to teacher training, there are many resources available including books and online learning resources. Both Carmody and Davies, conduct workshops as well.

Most learning and teaching in Pakistan is very formulaic in nature, with more emphasis on rote memorisation and less importance on engaging the imagination. Educators must come up with more proactive solutions and ways to stimulate student minds so children enhance their creative potential and develop the skills which will help them in the real world — be it critical thinking, problem solving or communication skills. Education should act as a driving force for the young. It should inspire them — fuelling them with energy and passion, so they think of learning as fun and life-changing, rather than boring and repetitive.

More so, children must develop an emotional affinity with education, and storytelling could be a great tool to build that connection.

Carmody says it perfectly: “When we listen to a story, we sort of enter into a story. In many ways, it becomes our story.”

The writer is a Member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada. She can be contacted at

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 24th, 2014


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