The Narrative Hunger: Stories That Meet a Need

I have been involved in on-line communities for over 20 years now and, apparently, people are rarely surprised when they meet me. “Oh, you talk just like you type.” is the effective statement and I’m quite happy with this. While some people adopt completely different personae on-line, for a range of reasons, I seem to be the same. It then comes as little surprise that I am as much of storyteller in person as I am online. I love facts, revel in truth, but I greatly enjoying putting them together into a narrative that conveys the information in a way that is neither dry nor dull. (This is not to say that the absence of a story guarantees that things must be dry and dull but, without a focus on those elements of narrative that appeal to common human experience, we always risk this outcome.)

One of Katrina’s recent posts referred to the use of story telling in education. As she says, this can be contentious because:

stories can be used to entertain students, to have them enjoy your lectures, but are not necessarily educational.

The shibboleth of questionable educational research is often a vaguely assembled study, supported by the conjecture that the “students loved it”, and it is very easy to see how story telling could fall into this. However, we as humans are fascinated by stories. We understand the common forms even where we have not read Greek drama or “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”. We know when stories ring true and when they fall flat. Searching the mental engines of our species for the sweet spots that resonate across all of us is one way to convey knowledge in a more effective and memorable way. Starting from this focus, we must then observe our due diligence in making sure that our story framework contains a worthy payload.

Not all stories are of the same value.

I love story telling and I try to weave together a narrative in most of my lectures, even down to leaving in sections where deliberate and tangential diversion becomes part of the teaching, to allow me to contrast a point or illuminate it further by stripping it of its formal context and placing it elsewhere. After all, an elephant next to elephants is hardly memorable but an elephant in a green suit, as King of a country, tends to stick in the mind.

The power of the narrative is that it involves the reader or listener in the story. A well-constructed narrative leads the reader to wonder about what is going to happen next and this is model formation. Very few of us read in a way where the story unfolds with us completely distant from it – in fact, maintaining distance from a story is a sign of a poor narrative. When the right story is told, or the right person is telling it, you are on the edge of your seat, hungry to know more. When it is told poorly, then you stifle a yawn and smile politely, discreetly peering at your watch as you attempt to work out the time at which you can escape.

Of course, this highlights the value of narrative for us in teaching but it also reinforces that requirement that it be more than an assemblage of rambling anecdotes, it must be a constructed narration that weaves through points in a recognisable way and giving us the ability to conjecture on its direction. O. Henry endings, the classic twist endings, make no sense unless you have constructed a mental model that can be shaken by the revelations of the last paragraphs. Harry Potter book 7 makes even less sense unless one has a model of the world in which the events of the book can be situated.

As always, this stresses the importance of educational design, where each story, each fact, each activity, is woven into the greater whole with a defined purpose and in full knowledge of how it will be used. There is nothing more distracting than someone who rambles during a lecture about things that not only seem irrelevant, but are irrelevant. Whereas a musing on something that, on first glance, appears irrelevant can lead to exploration of the narrative by students. Suddenly, they are within a Choose Your Own Adventure book and trying to work out where each step will take them.

Stories are an excellent way to link knowledge and problems. They excite, engage and educate, when used correctly. We are all hungry for stories: we are players within our own stories, observers of those of the people around us and, eventually, will form part of the greater narrative by the deeds for which we are written up in the records to come. It makes sense to use this deep and very human aspect of our intellect to try and assist with the transfer of knowledge.

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