Storytelling is the way to teach kids…

story

There was once a king who had three sons who were extremely stupid and unworthy of succeeding him. The king was very worried about the future of his kingdom. He sought advice from his ministers and after much discussion he decided to invite a highly learned person to come and teach his sons. This gentleman decided to consider the king’s request and started teaching his sons. But soon enough he realized that conventional teaching methods will not work as he was not able to get his student’s attention. It is then he created various interesting stories, whereby he was able to command the interest of his three students. Using these stories as educational tools the learned teacher was able to teach the prices thereby getting them ready to fulfill their duties and responsibilities.

Do you know who this teacher was or what were the stories he used?

All of us at some point in time or other have used these stories for our kids. The teacher was known by the name Pandit Vishnu Sharma and the stories are called ‘Panchtantra’. The king’s name was Amarashakti and it is believed that these stories were created some 2500 years back and since then have been translated into various languages across the globe.

This brings me to the point why Pandit Vishnu Sharma used stories to teach those dull prices? What’s so important about stories? He could have as well tried many other tools. Well why he didn’t try any other tools OR did he tried other tools and they didn’t work? Well we don’t know. But what we know for sure is that the educational tool called “Stories” that he tried worked and reformed the prices. This is the power of storytelling.

Neuroscience research have proven this simple fact that stories have a phenomenal persuasive power. Keith Quesenberry at Johns Hopkins reviewed over 100 Super Bowl ads to see what the most effective ones had in common. The answer? They told a story. Parents knew this fact since ages and that why in the early days of growing up parents expose their kids to lot of stories – Panchtantra tales, Jataka tales, Cindrella, Ali Baba, Aesop’s fables, Jungle Book, etc. etc. I am sure each one of us can recollect those days when we would curl up to our mother/father/grandparents/etc. and hear those stories before going off to sleep and then dreaming of those fairies and demons and magicians and so on. In fact in lot of houses reading stories before going off to sleep is almost a ritual. Why is that such an important thing? Why are stories the first tool typically used to teach kids?

One of the most important reason I believe Stories work with kids is because they makes it easy for kids to understand and remember difficult concepts like values. Imagine telling a kid that “Honesty is the best policy” and then believing that she will understand it. It just does not work. Why? The simple reason is “Honesty” is a difficult philosophical concept for a kid to appreciate especially at a stage when she is just learning to make sense of the world. So what do parents do? They tell their kid stories of fairies/ demons/ kings/ etc. in which honest characters are rewarded with good things in life. Thus stories while entertaining the kids gives them some appreciation of abstract concepts like honesty. Also because the honest guy wins in the end in all such stories, they start believing that honesty is the best policy. Once a kid starts believing in honesty it’s easy for her to remember it also. That’s the power of stories that make difficult concept easy to understand and thus remember. This happens probably because of the way our mind works.

In an interview with HBR Robert McKee, one of world’s most respected screenwriting lecturers says “Human beings naturally want to work through stories. Cognitive psychologists describe how the human mind, in its attempt to understand and remember, assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story, beginning with a personal desire, a life objective, and then portraying the struggle against the forces that block that desire. Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget lists and bullet points.”

The story of Mahabharata was written by Ved Vyasa because he wanted to explain the abstract concepts enshrined in Vedas to common man. His idea was liked by Gods and so they sent Ganesha to do the writing work. So you see the power of a good story was even appreciated by Gods also.

To teach anything in a way that students willingly accept that lesson, the cardinal rule is to first get their attention, then hold it and then when they are enjoying slowly drop the lesson in their excited mind. Thus though our target is to get something across to the mind of a kid, the path has to go through the heart. Stories help us to reach the heart of a kid as they are typically constructed around larger than life characters achieving larger than life goals. The kid’s limited understanding of the practical world makes it easy for him or her to believe such stories to be real. This allows the kids in a way to start the life journey on a more positive note. As someone said, “Aim for the Sun…you will at least end at one of the stars”. Stories make the kids start the life journey aiming for the sun.

Another important feature of stories, because of which it is able to hold onto attention of kids is that it start with a defined set of characters and then moves fluidly from one situation to another till they finally end in a neatly defined conclusion or end piece. This neatly connected paragraph set holds the attention span of the kids thereby allowing them to appreciate the entire story and learn that one concept that is intended to be driven. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University and director of its Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, looks at the power of the story in our daily interactions, be it with friends, strangers, or even objects (books, television, and the like). What he has found repeatedly
 is that nothing compels us to receptivity, emotional and behavioral, quite like the neat, relatable narrative flow.

So the first learning tool that we give to our kids has this unique characteristic of being easy, interesting and a complete package. It’s because of these unique characteristics that stories hold sway on kids across countries, religions, cultures, timelines, etc. and help parents build that crucial foundation required to ensure that kids start that life journey on a firm footing.

Now let’s look at the characteristics of our formal education system that kids have to deal with in the latter stages of their life in schools.

It’s difficult…

Recall the conversation between Professor and Rancho in the class in 3 Idiots movie.

Prof.: What is a machine?

Rancho: Uhm, a machine is anything that reduces human effort.

Prof.: Will you please elaborate?

Rancho: Anything that simplifies work and saves time is a machine. In a warm day, press a button and you get a blast of air—a fan, that’s a machine. Speak to a friend miles away – the telephone, that’s a machine. Compute millions in seconds – a calculator, a machine. We are surrounded with machines, from a pen’s nib to a pants zip, all machines. Up-down, up-down…

(Teacher throws a piece of chalk at him)

Prof.: What is the definition?

Rancho: Sir, I just gave it to you.

Prof.: You’ll write this on the exam…up-down, up-down?!

(Class laughs; professor calls another student.)

Chatur: Sir, machines are any combination of bodies so connected that their relative motions are constrained, and by which means, force and motion may be transmitted and modified as a screw and its nut, or a lever arranged to turn about a fulcrum or a pulley about its pivot, etc. especially, a construction more or less complex, consisting of a combination of moving parts or simple mechanical elements as wheels, levers, cams etc.

Prof.: Wonderful. Perfect. Please sit down.

 

This is the problem with most of the teachers and the books used in schools. For no obvious reason things are made Greek and Latin. It’s as if some sadistic pleasure is achieved by making comprehensible things incomprehensible for children.  It’s like what Bill Bryson says in his book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, “There seems to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near realm of mildly interesting and always at least a long distance phone call from frankly interesting”. I would personally apply this statement to our teachers also.

I can’t understand why this happens. A large number of the same people who are writing books or who are teaching must be parents or were parents. If they can resort to stories that make difficult concepts simple for their own kids, then why can’t they make arcane scientific concepts easier for their students also? Like Bill Bryson said, “It’s a mystifying universal conspiracy”.

It’s boring…

Imagine the following two sets of conversation that happens between a student and teacher:

Conversation 1

Kid: Sir yesterday I was seeing TV. One particular channel which I wanted to see was not getting tuned. It was very irritating.

Teacher: Yeah that happens because of various reasons including signal interference.

Conversation 2

Kid: Sir yesterday I was seeing TV. One particular channel which I wanted to see was not getting tuned. It was very irritating.

Teacher: Yeah that’s irritating. But do you know about one percent of that static that you see is accounted for by the radiations that were emitted when the Big Bang happened. So don’t complain that there is nothing coming on TV. When you were seeing that static on TV, you were actually a time traveller watching the birth of Universe as it happened 13-14 billion years back.

 

Which is the better conversation to have with a student? Why are teaching conversations mostly like Conversation 1 above? Why are teaching conversations so cut and dry? Why don’t they try hard to expand the horizons of student? Why don’t they make a student imagine things on grand scale?

One reason can be is that most of the teachers themselves are hardly educated to a level to give ‘good’ explanations. But then if they are not then they should study somewhat more. Most of the basic scientific concepts require no formal training in today’s world. They are all available written in books by legendary authors, and besides that with internet everything is just a click away. Teachers are handling the future of our specie. If they don’t have commitment to that cause then why they became teachers in the first place.

It has no single narrative…

Looks at the way schools are structured today. Students are taught Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English, History etc. Even in a Physics class the teacher will teach today about gravity, then in next class about heat and then in class about light and so on. Whose responsibility is to put all these concepts together? The student is supposed to conclude on his own that the 100 bricks given to him over the years in various classes can all be put together to make a wall or something else.

Eventually the whole intent of education is to let student make sense of the world we live in. But we don’t teach our kids about this world…we teach them Physics, Chemistry, English etc. We don’t tell our kids that the same atoms which create electric fields also create chemical reactions that keep us alive. We don’t connect the dots and make it a composite story for our kids. So the kids jump from one boat to another boat without realizing that these boats are floating in the same river. The end result is that students choose to become an engineer because he is good with physics and a doctor because he is good with biology. And thus we have a world where engineers have no appreciation of biology and doctors have no appreciation of physics, though all of them study the same atom.

 

What does all this mean?

We humans devised a very good tool to teach our kids in their early formative years…that tool is called ‘Story’. But for some ‘mystifying’ reason the same humans devised pedagogical tools to teach their children which are completely unfit for imparting proper education…in fact this tool is complete antithesis of the highly effective tool called ‘Story’. The net result is that a large majority of kids are, for no fault of theirs, kept away from an understanding of this beautiful world we live in.

Bill Bryson at another point in the same book says, “I was on a long flight across the Pacific, staring idly out of the window at moonlit ocean, when it occurred to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness that I didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on.” Why are denying our kid the right to understand the only world we are ever going to live on? Why are we torturing our kids with this unimaginative style of teaching? Why?

A simple answer is that it is not possible to teach kids concepts of friction, electricity, magnetism, etc. by using stories of fairies, demons, kings, queens etc. But then who has asked anyone to do that? The point is that tools used to impart education has to have three simple qualities, the same qualities that stories have – easy, interesting and complete package. As long as our teachers ensure that the way they teach is having these simple qualities the job will be well done. This is not a big ask, this is not difficult…what this requires is a commitment to the cause called ‘teaching’.

Let’s stop this so called ‘education’ which makes our kids think in boxes like robots. Let’s make them imagine a better future for themselves and our specie. We are not doomed to be killed by a meteorite like dinosaurs…we are destined to take our right place in the universe. Let’s correct our path and begin the journey once again.

References:

  • A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
  • 5 science-backed tips for spotting a lie, Eric Barker
  • Storytelling That Moves People, by Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review

 

About Us

DreamNobel is an education initiative to teach Science subjects to kids in a way that “original & independent” thinking becomes an integral part of their personality. We have developed a unique and revolutionary course whereby a kid can be taught broadly all the Science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Geology) that she will learn during her entire schooling life, through a unique story and rationalization led pedagogy.

www.dreamnobel.com

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