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The Power of Stories

Stories have special powers. While most of humanity learnt to read and write in recent history – only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820 – narratives have been central to human life for thousands of years. Cave paintings from 30,000 years ago appear to depict scenes that were probably accompanied by oral storytelling. Story dominance in human interaction has rewired the human brain to be predisposed from birth to think in, make sense in and create meaning from stories. Stories predominance is a survival skill; forms of narrative, allowed early humans to learn more about their kind than they could experience at first hand, so they could cooperate and compete better through understanding one another more fully [1]. Story was so crucial to survival that the brain evolved specifically to respond to it.

If you’re reading this your brain is designed by evolution to develop story representations from sensory input. Don’t believe me? Then watch this video and explain what is happening:

The animation experiment by Heider and Simmel (1944) revealed that humans have a strong tendency to impose narrative even on displays showing interactions between simple geometric shapes. When watching this animation with three simple shapes, most observers tended to interpret them the shapes as having intentions, desires and beliefs. You might enjoy watching how comedians reacted to watching the animation:

As Bruner [2] (1990) explained: “Children produce and comprehend stories long before they are capable of handling the most fundamental Piagetian logical proposition that can be put into linguistic form.’. In the present educational landscape when Ofsted claim learning is “an alteration in long-term memory” and recall and retrieval are valued so highly it strikes me the power of story in supporting the formation of memory is undervalued and frequently overlooked. As Egan [3] (1997) states:

“oral cultures discovered long ago that ideas and values put into rhythmic story form were more easily remembered and more accurately acted upon”.
The power of stories to support learning is quite remarkable with research showing it has impact on comprehension, motivation to learn, language mastery, writing and memory [4] .

Let’s Think lessons draw upon the power of story. In Let’s Think in English (LTE) we are fortunate as the focus of the lessons tends to be narratives. It’s a pleasure and privilege to observe pupils following the texts, eager to meet the next page and see if their predictions ring true before engaging in cycles of discussion sharing their views and collectively developing understanding. In Let’s Think we are familiar with the Vygotskian concept of mediation; the act of guiding and supporting pupils to develop higher mental functions as a more knowledgeable other. However, in LTE lessons I see narrative texts as mediators too providing a springboard for thoughts linking to Vygotsky’s role of cultural mediation and supporting internalization.

Let’s Think maths’ and science’ programmes draw upon the power of stories too. As Alan Edmiston, Let’s Think in maths tutor explains:

“All of the maths lessons follow a sequential series of episodes, the first of which is concerned with engagement within a context. From that context comes an exploration of mathematical relationships moving upwards towards the more abstract aspects of the concept that runs throughout each lesson. An example is a Year 5 lesson: Sports League.

The lesson is focused upon how many games a team will play within a league which can be expressed algebraically in an expression as n x (n-1). To begin with however we start with a story of how both my daughters love netball, yet I do not like team sports because of my father who used to embarrass me in team games when I was in Year 5. I mention to the class that they asked if I could organise some games with two other schools but this time the parents and teachers play, and the students watch. The only problem is I have to make sure I can take part in all the games and fit them into my diary so I need to know how many games we will play altogether if everyone plays everyone else and everyone plays at home. Hooked – you bet they are! I find such an approach and the narrative that flows from it acts as a stepping stone towards higher level mathematical thinking.”

While Dr Martina Lecky, executive headteacher of the Vanguard Learning Trust, outlines the influence of stories in Let’s Think science and CASE:

“As an experienced practitioner, I have often found that the use of a narrative can increase students’ engagement in CASE lessons. One of my favourite lessons is activity 20, which focuses on the reasoning pattern of correlation.

I set the scene with the class: we live in a village called Brocklehurst and we are all carrot farmers. The problem is our supermarket buyer, Sainsbury’s, is about to cancel its order because our carrots are not as big as those of other growers. One of the villagers has, however, found a company selling a chemical called ‘grocaro’ which could solve our problem. As the carrot growers of Brocklehurst we need to decide, based on the evidence, whether the treatment, grocaro, has the effect of growing larger carrots compared with a control group.

I give the students different roles – farmers, town mayor, representatives from Sainsbury’s and the company selling grocaro – and the excitement throughout the lesson is palpable. I believe the narrative provides the context for them to have a heightened response as they consider the issue from the perspective of their role. At the end of the lesson, I know that the experience leaves an indelible mark on students as they have not only been challenged cognitively in terms of the lesson’s reasoning pattern, but also they have been on a conscious journey facilitated by the unfolding narrative.”

The narrative framing evident in the LT math and science lessons and rich texts of LTE provide familiar steppingstones to formal thinking and abstract concepts. Once we recognise the power of stories we have to as Egan says: “…reconceive the curriculum as the set of great stories we have to tell our children and recognise … school teachers as the storytellers of our culture.”

In my next blog post I’ll look at another story influence: how a lesson’s sequence can mirror narrative structure.

1. Boyd, B. The evolution of stories: from mimesis to language, from fact to fiction. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, Volume 9, Issue 1. 2017
2. Bruner, J. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
3. Egan, K. The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
4. Miller S & Pennycuff L. The Power of Story: Using Storytelling to Improve Literacy Learning. Journal of Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives in Education Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 2008) 36 – 43

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