This post is part of a series that explores the Basics of Educational Storytelling. Largely taken from my master’s thesis, The Value and Principles of Educational Storytelling (which can be read here), this I will lay the foundation for an educational storytelling model regardless of setting and medium. We look at the basic elements of storytelling, five guiding principles and educational stories, and practical tips.
Check out the rest of the series.
This is it. We have taken a long journey through educational stories and barely scratched the surface. In the best tradition of “memory episodes” from T.V. shows we love, I wanted to walk down memory lane. Here is the entire series boiled down into ten-ish bite sized bits 🙂
Stories are part of humanity, and have been ever since, and probably before, humankind took to speech. John Niles even went as far as to call humankind Homo Narrans, storytelling man. Cultures have developed myths, legends, and works of fiction core to identity, history, and moral behavior, and the transmission of knowledge. This is not a past society phenomenon. Narrative still shapes our daily lives, be it intentional or unintentional. It seems that stories can be a great deal more than fun.
Fables are specifically useful in character education and the passing along of traditions, mores, and cultural ethics. Stories are not just effective in teaching social-oriented principles (like fables). Process-oriented principles like math, the scientific method, problem solving, and even computer programming can all benefit from storytelling.
At its heart, and educational story must be a good story. We can all relate to some cheesy special (though I bet you learned some good stuff). But, its simple: the better the story, the more attached we get, and the more powerful the opportunity to learn.
So, what does it mean to tell a good story? What is a story? Scholars and storytellers share a favorite past-time: arguing about the elements of a story. Some definitions include close to a dozen like setting, plot, character, theme, motif, symbol, point of view, and so forth. Since this is an introduction, and not a series on the elements of story, we will stick to a simpler definition of a story:
A person (character) doing something (plot) in a place and time (setting).
The first principle of educational storytelling is simple: the audience has to bond with and care about someone. We create a hero the audience can learn through. With an identifiable character, the audience can see through their eyes through empathy and emotion. As the hero progresses through the story, learning and problem solving, the audience will learn the same lessons.
What creates a “bondable” characters? In a dedicated post, I show that
- Identification with the character (“hey this person is like me!”)
- Empathy for the character (“I’ve felt that same way before”)
- Believability (“The character seems real”)
- and Complexity (a want, a wound, and a need)
are key to hero audience bonding.
4. The Hero’s Journey
I am a fan of simplicity. Many Hero’s Journey outlines include 12 or 15 stages plus a dozen archetypes. I have boiled this down to five pieces of the Journey, each with an important task to the journey and the growth.
- The Hero and the Cast of Characters – Main and supporting characters (from archetypes) that reflect, counterpoint, and aid the character. (Click the link to learn more)
- The Hero and the Ordinary World, Broken – Something goes terribly wrong in the hero’s ordinary world and they must set out into a strange world to get everything back to normal. This can be any ordinary and special world, so long as it is ordinary and special to the character.
- The Hero and the Journey – Once the hero steps into the special world, the trials begin. This may be a literal special world like a new city or fantasy world. It may also be a new venue or set of circumstances with different rules than the hero understands. This is where the Hero begins to learn.
- The Hero and the Moment – The climax of the story where the hero puts her new learning to the test.
- The Hero and the Repercussions – The hero now has what is needed to set her life back in order. They”™ve grown from the experience and overcome the major flaw along the journey. Now, they re-enter their ordinary world to find they don”™t quite fit anymore. She creates a new ordinary world melding the best from her experience and the world that surrounds her. Everything is in balance again.
An educational story must be active, not passive. This does not mean the audience must be moving during the story, but there must be a way for them to express, test, reconcile, and cement the knowledge. To use it. There are a lot of ways to do this, and its not as complicated as it may seem. Also, check out the tag for interactive stories.
An educational story will only be effective if it is engaging. Therefore, it is important to follow the conventions of whatever medium you chose to tell your story in. Each medium has its own flares, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. Prose allows you to crawl inside the readers mind, Video engage multiple senses, etc. Know your craft and choose the right medium for the story you are telling.
Just as every medium has its quirks, each form also engages different people in different ways. I have posted about individual differences and learning profiles, but its enough to say that some people are visual learners while others may learn best through hearing or movement. Specific storyforms lend themselves to these learning styles. Again, choose the right weapon.
There is a reason you remember the joke your grandfather told you at six years old, but you cant remember what you had for breakfast. Emotion makes things memorable. This isn’t just an axiom, its biological science. There are specific, easy things you can do in any type of story to entice the brain to store the information away.
9. All Kinds of Learning
Educational stories are not just for “we shouldn’t lie” morality. They can be used to teach social-oriented lessons, process-oriented lessons (like math), and identity management.
Fables are so effective at social-orient learning because the audience can relate to the situations. In the case of The Tortoise and the Hare, the hare is overconfident, falls asleep, and loses the race to the steadily plodding tortoise. This narrative would seem to impart the moral message that, in the domain of human actions, perseverance will be rewarded but not sloth and overconfidence.
Finally, stories are not just effective in teaching social-oriented principles. Process-oriented principles like math, the scientific method, problem solving, and even computer programming can all benefit from storytelling. Rina Zazkis and Peter Liljedahl use tell stories about math, mathematicians, and (most importantly) about math concepts. They use stories that “introduce, explain, ask questions of, and tell jokes about” mathematics. Folktales teach cause and effect, prediction, problem solving, and reasoning according to storyarts.org. Math Catcher uses aboriginal storytelling to show algebraic concepts. Even “A Robot Story“ teaches young children to count in binary through story. The repetitive nature of many oral stories can be helpful in teaching things like multiplication tables and the scientific method.
Stories can help students get in touch with themselves. “[Stories] have an obvious interpersonal value because they enable students to weave their unique histories into the fabric of the classroom community.” We can learn our relational place in the world through storytelling. For more discussion on this, check out my series about narrative identity.
10. A Memorable Experience
A good educational story must be memorable. It must grab the audience and not let them go, keeping them through emotion. It must also be an experience. Don’t let storytelling become a passive thing that keeps kids quiet for a few minutes. Leverage the power of narrative to truly transform lives.
And that ends my series. Hopefully, I have laid the foundation (both theoretically and practically) for educational storytelling. We set out with the goal of
Laying the foundation for an educational storytelling model regardless of setting and medium. Specifically, we will explore the value, history, theoretical foundation, and basic use cases for educational storytelling as well as common elements of engaging storytelling. The last major aim of this series is to outline a model for basic educational storytelling. The differences between teaching social-oriented principles (values, identity, etc) and process-oriented principles (math, science, etc) will be explored.
I feel I have at least touched on these goals. This blog is about transformational storytelling, and educational stories are at the heart of that. I am not finished. Together we will continue to work through the tough ideas and come up with practical solutions because
There is no joy like the simple joy of a tale well told.