The Storyteller

Resources, ideas and prompts for discussion related to Explanation

Increasing the likelihood that learners will remember what I tell them

Cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham (taken from his book ‘Why Don’t Student’s Like School?’ in the aptly named chapter, ‘Why Do Student’s Forget Everything I Say?’) notes that stories are ‘psychologically privileged’, meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other type of material.

We often have to deal with ‘curriculum stories’ if you think about how this sample of topics sound, as Tom Sherrington points out

  • How climate change flows from excessive carbon emissions
  • How humans came to exist on a planet orbiting a star
  • How poets convey the realities of war through imagery and emotions conveyed in the language and structure of their poems.
  • How fossils of sea creatures can be found half way up a mountain
  • How we can derive and use equations that can tell us how objects  will move in the future
  • How in 1854 John Snow came to understand that cholera was water-borne.
  • How Scrooge’s character and behaviour reveals aspects of Victorian attitudes.
  • How a loudspeaker works.

Willingham suggests that teachers can harness the power of stories in the way that lessons, or the materials within them are organised and used. The reason he believes the features of stories can benefit explanations is down to four Cs:

  • Causality: Stories are told in a way that link events, one things causes another, events are not random.
  • Conflict: Stories often include and acknowledge the challenges or difficulties that need to be overcome.
  • Complications: Stories have sub-plots, offshoots and sub-problems that add depth and meaning.
  • Character: Stories, good ones, have strong characters that play a key part in the plot.

Now this does not have to be taken too literally, it is not for teachers to become novelists when framing an explanation about loudspeakers or cholera (from the list at the top of the page)! But actually if we consider all of the examples at the top of the page they would be best explained when the story is told with: a clear sequence of events and how they link, the sources of difficulty or problems within the topic, and where relevant any key ‘characters’ or persons that are integral to learning the full story.

Tom Sherrington illuminates the ‘How does a loudspeaker work?’ question that might be posed in the science curriculum by pointing out that a) there is a clear goal to the operation of the device, b) it takes a causal sequence of events to work, c) there are some complications and difficulties in making a loudspeaker. He also links to a video of Brian Cox talking about a Key Stage 5 Physics topic of Entropy/Second Law of Thermodynamics to demonstrate the power of ‘story’.

Three other ways to include stories in lessons…

  • Stories about past students: We can use this when we want to demonstrate the positive attitudes and behaviours we wish to see. It gives them something to emulate, adds the emotional, the credible and the concrete again. Avoid using negative examples of course!
  • Personal anecdotes: Being careful with this – as the intention is not for a lesson to become some comedy stand-up routine – but teachers are living, breathing, human beings with lives beyond the classroom and this is a shock to some learners! So a relevant anecdote that can help illuminate an explanation or ground it in a real life example (without it becoming the whole story in itself) can add to fascination. Andy Tharby recounts such an example he has used when introducing war poetry to GCSE students:
Andy Tharby’s personal story when introducing the topic of war poetry
  • Turning a misconception into a story: Misconceptions have been discussed previously, an approach here is to make the misconception explicit by giving the genuine example of the common mistakes learners we once have taught made, and what we should avoid to not find ourselves in the same position.

Associated further reading and references:

  • ‘Chapter 2: Explanation’, in Allison, S. and Tharby, A., 2017. Making Every Lesson Count. Carmarthen: Crown House.
  • ‘Why Do Student’s Forget Everything I Say?’, in Willingham, D., 2009. Why Don’t Students Like School?. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Tom Sherrington: ‘Great Teaching – The Power of Stories’ –

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