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When I was a little girl, my dad used to make up stories to help my siblings and I understand his rules and expectations. The amusing stories helped us internalize the lessons, but the biggest thing I learned from them was how well stories work to teach people.
It turns out he was intuitively using an ancient and powerful method to pass on what was important. When you tell someone a story, you help them to understand and remember what you’ve shared much more deeply than if you just state the facts.
Countless educators and leaders have noticed this funny little phenomenon through personal experience:
Telling stories is one of the most powerful means that leaders have to influence, teach, and inspire. What makes storytelling so effective for learning? For starters, storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Stories convey the culture, history, and values that unite people. When it comes to our countries, our communities, and our families, we understand intuitively that the stories we hold in common are an important part of the ties that bind.
Stories at the heart of education
I was curious how educators can use stories to teach in a way that lasts, so I went right to my favorite source: Peter Searby, the visionary educator who directs the Riverside Club for Adventure & Imagination.
Speaking from his experience as a teacher of boys, he explained that the stories we tell our children are at the heart of their entire education:
So many parents and educators consider education to be about curriculum and content. I think we need to radically rethink the way we educate the young in general, but especially the way we guide boys.
Boys need to not sit down for countless hours listening to teachers and working on summary questions and finishing tests. They need to experience the power of the imagination by making stories come to life through active projects with tangible or performable end goals, like putting on a live radio show or theatrical production, or writing a short story with illustrations and a cover; they need to create films, sing ballads together, recite epic poetry at great feasts, create narrative board games that they can play together, and there are so many other ideas to inspire their imaginations.
His words put me in mind of one of my other favorite educators, Charlotte Mason, who advocated for giving children “living books,” that is, books that tell an engaging story. These kinds of living books can (and should) be used to teach almost every subject, from science to history to geography.
Entering the epic story
If you stop to think about it, the greatest Teacher of all time, Jesus himself, taught primarily through stories. Think of the rich symbolism with which we are so deeply familiar; the prodigal son, the mustard seed, the lost sheep, the vine and branches, and many other vivid images will jump to mind.
Searby explained that these parables are part of the vast and cosmic story God is writing every day. Stories capture our imaginations and hearts, and the stories of our faith show how we can be a part of God’s great story:
Stories give us hope, and in hope we are saved. This is why Our Lord loved to tell stories, and why He knew He had to enter into the great epic story of mankind to redeem it from within. We come from a creative storytelling God, and as Tolkien once said, He chose to save us in a way consonant with our nature. And so opening up [children’s] imaginations through the power of story is vital.
This secret to powerful teaching doesn’t only apply to children: The next time you need to get a message across to your coworkers or clients, try telling them a story to make your point.
It’s amazing to see how well a simple story works to help anyone to remember and understand.