The power of stories to teach

Being away from the academy in a formal manner for years has started to really start an itch in me. For the longest time, I defined my interests in terms of how technology can be used to extend one’s ability to make messages accessible, and by extension, improve teaching outcomes.

Over the past few years however, technology has started to fade into the background. There hasn’t been much of an “oh wow” or “must have” piece of tech entering the teaching environment. It seems that technology is fading to the background and iterating. While this may be temporary (I think it’s likely happened before), it does allow us to take a breath and think about substance more than shine.

What I’m curious about isn’t something that puts technology together with storytelling, ala digital storytelling. Alan Levine aka CogDog has done some amazing things with this in ds106 as has Brian Alexander (h/t Ken Bauer of Flipped Classroom fame). Digital storytelling uses technology as a means of democratizing the production of high impact stories that share the perspective of the creator, from Wikipedia:

One can think of digital storytelling as the modern extension of the ancient art of storytelling, now interwoven with digitized still and moving images and sound. Thanks to new media and digital technologies, individuals can approach storytelling from unique perspectives. Many people use elaborate non-traditional story forms, such as non-linear and interactive narratives.[1]
Simply put, digital stories are multimedia presentations that combine a variety of communicative elements within a narrative structure. Media may include any combination of the following: text, images, video, audio, social media elements (like tweets), or interactive elements (like maps).
Digital stories may be used as an expressive medium within the classroom to integrate subject matter with extant knowledge and skills from across the curriculum. Students can work individually or collaboratively to produce their own digital stories. Once completed, these stories can easily be uploaded to the internet and can be made available to an international audience, depending on the topic and purpose of the project.[2]

I certainly see the power of this tool in the classroom or in educational spaces in general, but what I’m more interested in is the story aspect of it. I want to explore not only what makes a digital story effective as a teaching tool, but what makes any story effective as a teaching tool? How can educators harness the power of narrative in their pedagogical practice?. From the traditional classroom, to the work site, my experience over the last 20 years has shown that context, analogies, and interpersonal connections make teaching anything more effective. In my experience, my teaching, and the teaching of others has been that a solid story can help anyone to learn just about any topic. After all, learners are not just vessels to be filled, they are more akin to sculptures to be formed and hewn.

I’m not foolish enough to think that I’m the first to do this, or think this way. There have to be others with similar thoughts, but this is what I hope to be able to find out more about over the next while. There are ideas from Education of constructionism, and connectivism that look at how people build and connect ideas together in the learning process. There will also be ideas from literary theory.

Originally published at