The Magic(and Science) of Learning Through Stories

The Magic and Science of Learning Through Stories

My kids and I recently listened to a book, something we often do on the long drives to the nearest larger city, where we stock up on groceries and participate in a homeschool coop once a week. The book was a collection of stories by a man who has spent a great deal of time in wild places with all kinds of animals. Most of the stories are quite incredible, even astounding. One began with him on a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where he had journeyed alone for a period of months. He was gazing up at the stars, feeling awestruck by the vastness of the universe and how completely and utterly alone he was. At that moment a massive whale surfaced from the water, and, incredibly, laid its head across his boat for a moment, then slowly retreated to his or her underwater world.

Though it’s impossible to imagine how shocking such an experience would be, the author clearly conveyed the fact that no matter where we are in this world, one thing we are not, ever, is alone. Most of us probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how many creatures are all around us at any moment, mostly unseen by humans (think termites and cockroaches), but this story was a potent reminder of that truth- whatever it means to you. I can’t really think of a better way to convey such a concept, and all its implications, than through a story, other than living through it yourself of course.

There’s no telling what experiences our children might have waiting for them in their futures, but reading or listening to human stories is one of the most effective, and time-honored, methods of preparing them for whatever lies ahead. We have read stories in which families face racial violence, take a trip across the ocean in which shared decisions are made and alliances are shifted, a parent or parents are lost, and children overcome fear and make new connections in a foreign country. Personal perspectives on historical events, scientific discoveries made through exploration, cultural dynamics explored and pondered, even advanced math concepts (Try “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, by Andrew Hodges, or “A Beautiful Mind”, by Sylvia Nasar)- there are virtually no areas not covered by the sweep of good stories.

Possibly more important than the topics they cover, however, is the way stories engage the human brain for learning. There are many ways for stories to be conveyed, and through books are the most common in our era, verbal storytelling and even formats such as dance, fine arts, or crafts have been used since time immemorial. In fact, there are some who make the argument that verbal storytelling is even more important to the human mind than the written word because of our genetic evolution with that format. Neurological research has shown that when we hear a story told by another person, our whole brain becomes activated- every region that would normally be engaged if we actually lived through the experiences. Additionally, our brains will empathize with a good storyteller, lighting up in the exact same places at the same time as the storyteller’s brain.

( “The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains.”

https://buffer.com/resources/science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brainsW) It’s like a hard-wired path to compassion.

Perhaps because of this, stories have long been used by advertisers and educators, who know they are the best way to get their concepts across and recruit people into their way of thinking. Princeton educator Uri Hasson says “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”(“the science of storytelling”) But of course, as we all know, stories have been used for far more than business reasons for as long as we know. One theory about why humans have told stories so ubiquitously throughout time and geography is that it increases survival chances. Because we retain up to 22% more facts from stories than from information alone, a child is much more likely to avoid a dangerous place or animal if they hear a story about it than if they are simply told to do so. ( “The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling.” https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-psychological-comforts-of-storytelling/381964/).

Most research tends to include reading stories together with hearing them, and it appears the effects are very similar. (“To Your Brain, Listening to a Book Is Pretty Much the Same As Reading It”https://www.thecut.com/2016/08/listening-to-a-book-instead-of-reading-isnt-cheating.html) There may be certain advantages at times to either method, for example, listening can be done together with other people or while doing hands-on activities, whereas reading is appropriate for quiet situations. The key, it seems, is that we experience stories of all kinds, one way or another.

I remember seeing an exhibit at a fair once in which storytelling quilts were displayed- images depicting family or historic events, some in coded symbols ( for example in underground railroad quilts). In the National Gallery of Art, which we have the privilege of touring when we visit relatives, there are many examples of narrative art, visual storytelling as painting or ceramics. From Hula dancing, traditionally performed to rhythmic language, to Chinese shadow puppetry, to the Indian dance known as Bharatanatyam, or Caribbean Calypso, a way of spreading the news through musical spoken word, humans have created myriad fascinating and entertaining ways of telling stories.

Of course, most of us may never have the opportunity to witness these global traditions in person (though I hope some of you do!). Most of us do, however, have the opportunity to read and listen to books. My hope is to convey the brilliance of novels and other stories as an educational tool for raising a thoughtful, conscientious and engaged global citizen. We are genetically wired to learn this way, plus it is great entertainment, and the result is pure magic.