Storytelling is my most favorite super power as a professor. (And yes, I do believe professors have superpowers…and more than one). I remember my freshman year of college I had to take an 8:00AM MWF World History class. I was dreading this course because it was at 8:00AM on Monday, Wednesday AND Friday and because it was World History. I have never been a history buff, in fact, I was always frustrated by my history classes because I could never keep track of dates and coordinated world events. I just didn’t have a passion for it. So here I am on the first day of class (showed up at 7:45AM because you just never know if you are going to the right classroom on the first day) and in walks my professor. He was in his mid 60’s and wore a bow tie. My first reaction was to sigh in frustration, this was going to be a brutal course to sit through SO early in the morning (I’m chuckling just typing this because if I only knew at the time that 8:00AM is NOT early).
The moment he opened his mouth all my frustration was washed away. He started his first sentence with, “Let me tell you a story….” He never stopped telling stories the rest of the semester. It was the class I looked forward to the most. I was fascinated by the stories. I wanted to learn more about history. I wanted to sign up for every one of his classes even though that was the only history credit I needed for my biology degree. He took the time to spark my curiosity, connect my emotions to events in history, and captured my attention every single day. He oozed the storytelling super power. What is it about storytelling that makes a difference?
Storytelling does these 3 things:
1. Sparks curiosity.
2. Evokes emotion.
3. Engages attention.
What do students expect to hear when they attend a lecture? Facts. Storytelling allows you to break the script. This simple skill is so unexpected you will have an immediate change in posture and attention the moment you begin your first sentence. If you don’t believe me, try it. The moment you start telling a story, watch the posture of your students. I see students sit up straighter, lean in closer, and move their eyes off their computer screens directly to me. They are waiting expectantly because story form in of itself has created curiosity. Once a knowledge gap has been opened the brain is not satisfied until it has closed the gap.
Dr. Uri Hasson, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton, investigated what actually happens in the brain during story-telling. His results were fascinating. He convinced a group of graduate students to lay in an fMRI machine and listen to another student tell a story, while he tracked what areas of the brain were more active. He found that our brains actually begin to work in sync with the storyteller’s brain. He called it a “coupling” between the speaker and the listeners. By simply telling a story, the student could plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions in the listeners’ brain.
Yes, storytelling is a super power. It is the super power that can influence how the brain learns and retains information.
Do you use storytelling in your classroom? How?
What is your favorite superpower in the classroom?
If you want to hear more about Dr. Hasson's work, check out his TED Talk.