The Art of Storytelling
In The Story Book (2010) David Baboulene suggests we learn principally in two ways. First, through experience: doing things and seeing what we get back from the world; this is both the most powerful and the most painful way to learn, because of the emotions involved.
The second is through analysis: “We sit in retrospect, perhaps in a classroom or laboratory, strip out the emotion and understand events through clinical analysis of the facts.”
Baboulene states that in normal circumstances you cannot learn both emotionally and analytically at the same time: “When we are learning emotionally, our instincts are in charge and there is no analysis going on in real time.” Storytelling is so powerful because it allows us to do this – to feel and understand at the same time. The more traditional way to learn is deductive – reducing the big picture into a set a rules that can be applied to many situations. Storytelling is a type of inductive learning. It involves sitting back and absorbing the tale, while your brain whirrs away making sense of it all. In a sense, the brain creates its own lessons from the content. Because it has worked harder to create these neural pathways, they are more likely to be judged salient and retained.
What makes a good story?
It needs to emotionally engages us. Generally, the greater the conflict the more engrossing the tale, and thus the more we can learn from it. Hollywood-style violence is not necessary. It can be internal conflict, a difficult choice, faced by a character we care about. What if you were a world leader and an allied country had been attacked, would you risk going to war? What if you were out at sea in a lifeboat, with the power to save a drowning animal, oh, and that animal is an adult tiger? Every detail of a story should matter, or else it’s a fluffy distraction.
Storytelling is best honed through practice. In my own lessons, I like to present short stories or anecdotes that pose a question. Let’s take as an example a lesson about the anatomy of the spine.
“Leonardo Di Vinci would often sketch human bodies, but one day he decided he wanted to sketch the insides of bodies too. At first he wasn’t sure how he could do this. Then it came to him. How do you think he managed to see inside the body?”
The idea of cutting up dead bodies is a grisly one for an artist, and a memorable one for an age-appropriate student. In this tiny anecdote we have set the scene, of a character with a desire, and then shown how they managed to meet it. It’s not just an introduction to early biology, but also a deeper message of overcoming difficulties, finding solutions and making discoveries.