Storytelling in tutoring and teaching

February 21, 2014 by Mark Maclaine
Image Storytelling is a powerful teaching aid, allowing a student to learn emotionally and logically at the same time. Here is a blog written by Mark Maclaine which explains how to put storytelling in tutoring.

David Baboulene explains in ‘The Story Book’ that human beings learn principally in one of two ways. Firstly, through experience: doing things and seeing what we get back from the world. This, he claims, is the most powerful learning tool, but at the same time it is also the most painful, because we are learning emotionally.

The second is learning analytically. ‘We sit in retrospect, perhaps in a classroom or laboratory, strip out the emotion and understand events through clinical analysis of the facts over an appropriate time period.’ Baboulene states that, in normal circumstances, you cannot learn both emotionally and analytically at the same time.

But storytelling allows us to engage with a narrative emotionally, while being removed enough from events that our brains can analyse the situation logically. Pupils learn through the hugely powerful delivery method of emotions, while having space to understand what is going on and what lessons they can take for themselves. Added to this, they are developing valuable listening skills, and may even be inspired to read more. So, how do we improve our storytelling?


The greatest stories involve conflict on many levels. Generally, the greater the conflict, the more engrossed we are in the story, and thus the more capacity we have to learn from it. The best storytelling often comes in the form of internal conflicts that characters we care about are presented with. What if you found a loveable alien in your cupboard? Or you were out at sea in a lifeboat, with the power to save a drowning animal - only, that animal is a full-size tiger?

The power of storytelling as a teaching skill comes in setting up a scene with an individual who has a need or desire, and then helping the students understand how the protagonist came to the conclusion. At this level, a teacher is not just teaching students about a topic, but also how to solve problems and overcome difficulties. Essentially you are teaching students how to learn.

Let’s look at the topic of Galileo Galilei’s observations of the solar system. How can we explain this using a story? Here’s a basic outline:

1. Old World: a world in which people believe that the Earth is centre of the universe.

2. Need/desire: Galileo wants to prove that this is not true.

3. Problem: The powerful Catholic Church is not keen on anyone going against their interpretation of the The Bible. How can he prove this and also avoid getting in serious trouble with the Church?

4. Solution: he uses his telescope to make detailed observations of the night sky which he then publishes. He decides to defy the church in doing so.

5. New World: his publication is put on a banned book list and he eventually died under house arrest for “heresy”. However, the world eventually comes to accept these ideas as fact and he is later described by Einstein as the father of modern science.

This is hardly Booker prize material, but it livens up a straight factual explanation. The main things to look out for are an original (imperfect) equilibrium, the conflict, the method for change and the new equilibrium.

Of course, stories don’t have to use people at all. Even in describing the violent early solar system through to the formation of the planets, or displacement reactions in Chemistry, conflict can be used to add a little interest to the story.

Storytelling comes in many different forms. I encourage anyone engaged in any form of tutoring or teaching (including parents) to take the time to explore its power. After all, storytelling is just an act of communicating in a creative way to bring subjects to life – something we all do naturally every day. So let’s share this power. If you have a story which you feel has helped your students or children to learn, then please write it in the comment box below.


Image from: CC-by
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