The Power of Stories

Calvin and Hobbes. Stories.
Calvin and Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson. (Dec 21, 1988).

“The impulse to repeatedly tell and listen to stories appears to be a lock-and-key mechanism of intergenerational information transfer.”

Cozolino, L. (2013). The social neuroscience of education : Optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom (First ed., Norton books in education). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Storytelling, easily dismissed as the domain of fantasy and frivolity, may in fact be a potent teaching tool.

Stories are, in the words of Daniel Willingham, “psychologically privileged” (2009). Cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, Willingham explains “the human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories” (2009). Louis Cozolino, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, adds “it is very likely our brains became as complex as they are precisely because of the power of narratives to guide and organize our thinking” (2013).

Psychologist Louis Cozolino talks about stories and learning

Stories, then, seem imbued by evolution with the power to pass knowledge from parent to child, teacher to student, down through the ages. Indeed, an oral tradition has been a universal feature of human civilizations.

That’s fine for minstrels and children’s authors, but what can teachers do to harness the mind’s natural affinity for narrative? A couple things, it turns out. One, we can incorporate storytelling elements in our class activities. Two, we can cast ourselves as guides to the students as heroes in the archetypal mold of Joseph Campbell’s myth. Let’s delve into the first of these two possibilities.

Storytelling in Pedagogy

Tales and legends from The Odyssey to Star Wars have captivated audiences for millennia: interesting characters locked in struggle, persevering through adversity, striving to fulfill their chosen destinies or the fate thrust upon them.

To take advantage of the brain’s predilection for stories, lessons can be presented with some of these elements. But teachers need not compose an epic poem or write a best-selling novel to incorporate storytelling into their instruction. We can simply try to weave in one or more of these four elements.

The core components of a tale, in Daniel Willingham’s account, are the four Cs:

  • Character: they posses traits and goals the audience can identify or sympathize with
  • Causality: a chain of events connected in time and space
  • Conflict: strife and struggle among or within characters
  • Complication: characters do not simply triumph over adversity; unexpected events (and other characters) compound the struggle

Now that we know the power of stories and have seen which components to use, we can try to adapt our material accordingly. But some subjects (and some teachers) lend themselves to storytelling better than others. History and statistics, for instance, are reputedly dull subjects to many students. Can this be overcome with story elements? In his book, Willingham provides examples of doing exactly that to teach the attack on Pearl Harbor and the z-score in probability. He gives us other examples in this blog post and this interview.

Willingham also urges instructors to employ “medium-difficulty inferences” to connect the elements in the way storytellers do. A narrative containing exhaustive detail bores an audience, so the storyteller (and the teacher) should leave small gaps between story points. Students traverse these gaps using their reason and imagination. Willingham cites a scene from Star Wars in which Han Solo and Luke Skywalker handcuff their friend Chewbacca. The director leaves it to viewers to decipher the reason for this seemingly strange act. Han and Luke haven’t turned on their furry companion, but rather have concocted a ruse to fool their enemies. Such medium-difficulty inferences pique curiosity, which (as we know) motivates learning and memory.

A character trying to handcuff his companion is a “medium-difficulty inference”

For my part, I plan to incorporate a story into each weekly segment. Throughout my section of TWP, we will explore several wicked problems connected to technology, so I’ll have the opportunity to open each new discussion with a story. Here’s what I mean:

I won’t just say “Welcome to class, I hope you all read the article on cyberbullying. Let’s talk about ways of solving that.” Instead, I will begin with a real-life narrative, complete with character, conflict, causality, and complication, drawn from a news source or scholarly article. I hope to thus prime the students’ interest and set the stage, so to speak, for discussion- or inquiry-based exercises.

I hope to explore the second method of using stories in pedagogy, students as the heroes of myth, in my next post.


Cozolino, L. (2013). The social neuroscience of education : Optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom (First ed., Norton books in education). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Willingham, D. (2009). Why don’t students like school? : A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *