Task: Describe an effective classroom teacher. Answer: A storyteller. That answer should surprise no one who does even a cursory survey of how the vast body of accumulated knowledge has been informally transmitted from generation to generation. To illustrate: When one observes the teaching techniques of the greatest teachers in history, storytelling takes center stage. Exhibit one: Mom and Dad. Exhibit two: The first century rabbi and storyteller par excellence, Jesus of Nazareth.
Epistemology leads us to the same conclusion. The reality in which one lives and through which one interprets reality is best thought of as a story. One’s story includes presuppositions and preunderstandings that affect the meaning one assigns to all aspects of reality. This story is part of, intertwined with, and subsumed under other stories (e.g., one’s parents and one’s religious and social cultures). The characters in the stories closest to our own—parents, mentors, close friends—have the most influence over our story. Experience, especially the experiences gained by living within other stories, is the most powerful force in transforming one’s own story and, therefore, one’s own interpretation of reality. [See “A Tale of Two Stories.”]
The effect on one’s story from reading, hearing, and viewing texts in the form of narrative or verse most closely resembles the transforming power resulting from the experience of living out one’s story within other stories. Narrative and verse cause readers to identify with their characters and these characters’ stories. Consequently, with an effect similar to living in a story that circumscribes or overlaps one’s own, one’s story is imperceptibly altered in the act of reading, hearing, and viewing texts in the form of narrative and verse. [See “Instructional Assumptions at a Baptist University.”]
All teachers teach by example, just by living out their story. The value of this instruction’s content may be good or it may be bad, just like the value of the content of Mom’s and Dad’s instruction. But, the effective teacher realizes that next to one’s example in its instructional power is story. Story transforms story.
Modern educational theory is just catching up to this fact. Tucked away in a September 6 New York Times article by Benedict Carey, “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,” are the following lines: “‘The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,’ researchers have concluded. Ditto for teaching styles, researchers say. Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness. ‘We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,’ said Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book Why Don’t Students Like School?”
Elsewhere, Willingham sounds more confident about how to create constructive learning atmospheres than the preceding New York Times quotation would lead one to believe. For example, the first review of Why Don’t Students Like School? in Amazon.com states, “Dr. Willingham presents the most consistent research findings, all of which tend to confirm things that the best and most experienced teachers already know to be true—e.g., the effectiveness of using narratives to dramatize and illustrate important concepts, a ‘best practice’ that’s been around since at least the time of Christ.” This conclusion is supported by Willingham’s post, “Why Great Teachers Are Story Tellers,” on The Core Knowledge Blog. For all those who aspire to be great teachers, that is, great storytellers, Willingham’s complete post follows:
“Just about every teacher at some point tries to trick their students into learning something by making it ‘relevant’ to students’ interests. You might be surprised to learn that I don’t think much of this technique. I love cognitive psychology, so you might think, ‘Well, to get Willingham to pay attention to this math problem, we’ll wrap it up in a cognitive psychology example.’ But Willingham is quite capable of being bored by cognitive psychology, as has been proved repeatedly at professional conferences I’ve attended. Trying to make problems ‘relevant’ can also feel forced and artificial, and students see right through the ruse.
“So if content isn’t the way to engage students, how about your teaching style? Students often refer to good teachers as those who ‘make the stuff interesting.’ It’s not that the teacher relates the material to students’ interests—rather, the teacher has a way of interacting with students that they find engaging.
“When we think of a good teacher, we tend to focus on personality and on the way the teacher presents himself or herself. But that’s only half of good teaching. The jokes, the stories, and the warm manner all generate goodwill and get students to pay attention. But then how do we make sure they think about meaning? That is where the second property of being a good teacher comes in—organizing the ideas in a lesson plan in a coherent way so that students will understand and remember. Cognitive psychology cannot tell us how to be personable and likable to our students, but I can tell you about one set of principles that cognitive psychologists know about to help students think about the meaning of a lesson.
“The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories—so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as ‘psychologically privileged,’ meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material. I’m going to suggest that organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember.
“First, stories are easy to comprehend, because the audience knows the structure, which helps to interpret the action. For example, the audience knows that events don’t happen randomly in stories. Second, stories are interesting and engage listeners more readily than other formats, even if the same information is presented. Lastly, stories are easy to remember.
“I’m not suggesting that teachers simply tell stories, although there’s nothing wrong with doing so [emphasis added]. Rather, I’m suggesting something one step removed from that. Structure your lessons the way stories are structured, using the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications, and character. This doesn’t mean you must do most of the talking. Small group work or projects or any other method may be used [emphasis added]. The story structure applies to the way you organize the material that you encourage your students to think about, not to the methods you use to teach the material.”