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Teaching and the Power of Story5 min read

*Below is a transcript of the video

These two hunters are walking through the woods one day and they come across a big hole in the ground. Now this hole is huge, like some sort of endless pit.

So the one man says to the other, “I wonder how deep this hole is?” He then proceeds to pick up a rock and toss it in the humongous hole.

They listen, nothing.

The other man then grabs a large stick and throws it in, and again, nothing. So they look around a little for something bigger to throw in, and they come across a railroad tie. They both grab an end, walk it over to the hole, and then drop it.

The men are looking down the hole when all of a sudden they hear this noise in the woods. They look over and see this goat running all over the place. It’s zigging and zagging between trees. Then it runs right up and dives head first into the hole. Now the two men are thinking, what the heck was that? A minute later they hear someone calling from the woods, Becky! Becky! It’s a farmer, and he asks them if they’d seen his goat. The two men tell him that they saw a goat come running out of the woods and jump into this huge hole.

But the farmer says “that can’t be my goat, cause I had mine tied up to a railroad tie.

Okay, so that was kind of a dumb story, but you know you liked it. And the reason is probably because of how it ended—- or maybe it’s because of my incredible animation skills. But I’m guessing it’s the ending. For most of the story, you’re wondering where it’s going, how is two guys dropping rocks interesting? What’s going to happen? In the story world, this is called suspense. Tension, unknown outcomes, each moment builds on the next.

Think about Romeo and Juliet. Romeo finds Juliet in a deep sleep. He can’t handle that his lover has died. Wait Romeo, what are you going to do with that poison? Romeo, no!

It’s suspense. In the ‘hole story,’ you finally find out the goat was tied to the railroad tie, and that’s why it went into the hole. That’s at the climax of the story, where we get resolution, or in the story world, the denouement. It’s all wrapped up nicely. It’s these components of a story that make stories so compelling. It’s why we remember them, and love listening, hearing, reading, and watching them so much. Stories have this power to captivate like nothing else.

Which raises the question, if stories engage people so much, then why is school so often devoid of them? There’s not a whole lot of suspense in sitting, getting information, memorizing it, regurgitating it on a test, and then moving on to a new set of information. I mean, some students can find this suspenseful, as grades might matter to them and so they’ll invest in the class and put in the necessary work to reach the climax and get that desired grade. But many, MANY students are not motivated by that grade. There’s no story there. And that’s why many kids jump through just enough hoops to get by.

And as a result, so much of that important knowledge and information is not remembered and retained. It’s discarded. Which brings us back to stories. Stories have this ability to make information stick, to last permanently. There’s even compelling neuroscience that proves this. So as educators, we have to find ways to take advantage of the power of story. This means telling stories instead of just telling information, but also means creating them within your classroom, so that when students look back on time in class, they remember it as a story with real conflict, real suspense; solving problems that actually mattered to them. You can call it project-based learning, problem based learning, inquiry-based learning, whatever, what’s important is that learning is authentic and students face real challenges in the midst of content work.

Like when my students found out that there were actual World War II veterans in our hometown, but that they are dying at an alarming rate before anyone has recorded their stories. This is a real conflict my students felt they needed to solve. And so they spent the next month interviewing veterans, writing their biographies, and even creating documentaries for the veterans. We rented out a local theater and screened their films for the entire community, and invited the veterans to sit in the front row as the guests of honor.

Meanwhile, my students learned all of the history content that they would have learned anyway. Only this time, it was framed by a story with suspense, conflict, and resolution. This learning was not forgotten right after a test, but is now with those students forever. This is what story can do in the classroom.

Now, of course this makes teaching different than what many of us are used to and have been trained in, and so we need grace and time to try new things and experience failure, And it also takes a great deal of creativity. But that shouldn’t be a problem, because teaching is inherently a creative profession.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.