I was recently talking to Mauricio Marrone (Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Corporate Governance) about work he’s been doing with digital storytelling and it made me want to delve a little deeper into the magic and stickiness of storytelling. If you needed some inspiration or a reminder to try out some storytelling in your teaching practice, here are some simple pointers.

There can be a misconception that you can’t be entertaining or add storytelling into lectures. At last year’s Ascilite, keynote speaker Professor James Arvanitakis (Dean Of Graduate Studies, Graduate Research School, WSU) said his lectures are often described as “edutainment”, but he said he just strives to tell great stories. He spoke about how storytelling is the most powerful cultural tool humans possess, it’s a fundamental part of every culture across the world, binding ideas, faiths, movements and advancing the human experience.

There are lots of people across campus who use storytelling elements in their teaching and use compelling approaches. Examples may be:

  • The story of a discovery – looking behind the scenes of the people and the journey – the ingenuity, risk and courage it took to make a breakthrough

  • Starting with a cliffhanger – to build anticipation and focus

  • Using songs to start a lecture – where the lyrics hint to the content to be covered. Or use music to create a relaxed environment and ambience conducive to learning

  • Digital storytelling – using video, images and animation to get key concepts across visually

  • Linking key concepts to real life scenarios and following how the story played out

  • Discuss examples of how a problem was solved and the obstacles that needed to be surmounted

Embracing elements of storytelling can have a powerful impact to capture attention and focus, increase engagement and make content memorable.

“Telling a story often creates a “clicking experience” in a person’s brain allowing them to suddenly understand what someone else is trying to say.” (How to tell a story, Miller, 2014)

Most breakthroughs and progression in academic thought are achieved though contact with conflict, drama, overcoming obstacles, risk-taking, going against the odds and the triumph of the human spirit. All great stories involve courage. Courage to test out an idea, risk failure, argue against an established idea, venture into unknown territory. Tell these stories of human achievement and creation of new ideas and knowledge.

“Stories engage our thinking, emotions, and imagination all at once”,

that’s why they’re so effective and have such sticking power. (Storytelling in Teaching and Learning, NYU).

Here are examples of two powerful storytelling frameworks, used in most epics, movies and children’s stories, using story telling principles that have been around for centuries.

In Joseph Campbell’s 1949 work “The Hero with the Thousand Faces”, he draws on hundreds of stories, myths and traditions from a diverse range of sources to define a common pattern which has come to be known as the ‘hero’s journey’ (read more about it here). It’s not about turning your lecture content into a Star Wars-eque saga with goodies and badies and overcoming evil forces. But some of these story elements are the ones that really make ideas stick. The stories that involve developing the courage to step into the unknown to achieve a seemingly impossible objective are the stories that really draw an audience in.

When I was studying script writing at uni one of the fundamental scriptwriting texts was Story by Robert McKee. Donald Miller says that McKee shows us,

“it’s from story we learn what to value in life, what’s beautiful and what’s banal, what to live for and what to die for.”

The journey of a protagonist through a story shows us what drives human will and choice, what the pursuit of an objective looks like, what we fear, what we are willing to risk, what pain our choices may bring and what joy may come in overcoming obstacles to reach a goal (or not).

Try out these story telling frameworks by taking a concept, a theory, an idea, a movement, a theoretical development and ask:

  • Who were the protagonists involved? (story always centres on the human experience).

  • What did they want?

  • What was the problem/obstacle?

  • Who did they learn lessons from in order to progress?

  • What action did they take?

  • What would have happened if they didn’t solve the problem?

  • What was the outcome? (most academic advancement happens from a breakthrough – the climax)

  • Did they achieve their objective?

  • What did they do when they didn’t achieve their objective?

  • What has changed, transformed? (both for the protagonists and for the world around them)

It’s about organising the story into a structure that makes sense. These structures can allow ideas to appear simple and clear. “The human brain is drawn towards clarity and away from clutter” (Miller, 2014).

Many popular classroom activities use storytelling structures, for example:

  • Role play

  • Digital Storytelling, through use of video and other media

  • Visual Storytelling, through use of images

  • Case studies

  • Simulations

  • Game-based Learning

  • Icebreakers

Storytelling comes naturally to us, so go ahead, try it out, and tell great stories.

In a few weeks we’ll have Mauricio Marrone and Murray Taylor talk to us about digital storytelling and practical ways to incorporate it in your teaching.

For more inspiration, here’s a Ted Talk on the Magical Science of Storytelling

Posted by Geraldine Timmins

I was Communications and Engagement Lead for the Learning Innovation Hub 2017 - 2018 and Teche Editor during that time.

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