The Power of Storytelling

The Power of Storytelling

By: Mohammad Khari

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As teachers, we constantly find ourselves in situations where we are reading, listening to, writing, or telling a story of some sort. It is in our collective knowledge that stories have the power to mesmerize an audience and change them. It has been the case since our ancestors gathered around the fire until now that we can listen to stories everywhere, be it at our fingertips on our phones or in classes in academia.

In our introductory Short video, The Brain Science of Storytelling, neuroeconomist Paul Zak explains why stories are so powerful and how a good story can change our behavior by both changing our brain chemistry and transporting us to other people’s worlds. He explains how the two specific chemicals (cortisol and oxytocin) produced in our brain after a dramatic story contribute to the feeling of distress and empathy. He also points out how a well-structured story following the Dramatic Arc defined by Gustav Freytag, can activate different parts of our brain responsible for our understanding of what others are doing and triggering our empathetic drive. As he states, that is what makes us social creatures capable of connecting to others and caring about them.

In our introductory Deep video, How Your Brain Responds to Stories, Karen Eber clarifies the difference between listening to a lecture and a story: how the former has to do with the mere engagement of two areas of your brain (Wernicke’s and Broca’s) whereas the latter makes the whole walnut light up in fMRIs. Then she reminds us of the magic of Neuro Coupling, leading to the shared experience of the storyteller and the listener and ultimately, cultivating trust. Does this not strike one as being the same way we bond with our students (good rapport) and connect to strangers?

When you analyze the components of a great story, you see the correlation between a good story and lesson design (or UX design: see Rishma Hansil’s article in this issue). According to Eber, a good story answers three questions: What is the context? What is the conflict? And, what is the outcome? A good story has three other attributes as well: It builds and releases tension, builds an idea (makes the audience see something that cannot be unseen), and communicates value. When it comes to planning our lessons, we all know that we must start by showing the situational, social, and linguistic context for the language we will teach (CONTEXT); the lesson should be engaging, yet educational, (CONFLICT); and lead to some sort of production or reception (OUTCOME). Likewise, the students usually find a well-planned and executed lesson is interesting and engaging (TENSION), relevant (IDEA), as well as capable of surpassing classroom boundaries (VALUE).

Eber demystifies two common beliefs about data presentation and clarifies how combined with storytelling, data’s true power can be unleashed: Data does not change our behavior, emotions do, and data never speaks for itself. In other words, data’s inability to speak for itself explains its impotence in altering our species’ behavior; emotions, on the other hand, are the effective agents in doing so. We, teachers, are more than fortunate to be able to integrate stories into our lessons and let the learners’ amygdala take charge of the emotional engagement at the subconscious level and cause the change we aim for. What is more, by so doing, the brain will be given the chance to go through the natural anticipation process and move beyond previous knowledge and experience, which exist as schemata, and biases.

Stories are powerful. They have always been so. Yet the thrill lies in us knowing why, and that they can be used in our lessons. That is the purpose of this Think Tank. We will show you how stories stimulate emotions, change our brain chemistry and behavior, and build trust, all of which are major contributors to a better learning experience.

As Karen Eber concludes: “Do not wait for a perfect story; take your story and make it perfect.”

Mohammad Khari is an English lecturer at Ozyegin University, Istanbul. He holds a BA in English Literature, an MA in Philosophy of Art, and a CELTA. Mohammad has been reading and researching on the integration of neuroscience into pedagogy, sharing his ideas through a series of professional development sessions.

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