Tell Stories, not Lectures

paint_studioFew students will tell you that the lecture they just heard is amazing, exciting, mind-blowing unless… Unless, that lecture really wasn’t one. It was a story, one that had a hook, that engaged with the audience, and made them want to become part of the larger discussion.

Best practices indicate that creating a connection to our student audience is one of the best ways to engage them in the coursework and lead to their successful completion of the semester. We can learn a lot about creating connections through the art of storytelling. As content experts, this means examining the subject by stepping back and looking at it with new eyes, ones through which our students may view it.

In my own graphic design classroom, I find that students are often more engaged when the stories are personal. Why, for instance, would they need to learn points and picas? and what ARE they? I share the simple story that begins with asking them to divide an 11-inch wide page into thirds and tell me what the measurement is – “3.66667 inches!” is shouted by one student who had pulled out their handy dandy very expensive smartphone calculator. Then a challenge from me, the instructor – “Can you find that on a ruler?” Silence. We then engage in a story of my own journey of embracing points and picas, if for no other reason but to plan for creating a simple trifold brochure.

Boring? Perhaps it could be. But this is a design class preparing students to take their work into production. By sharing a personal struggle of trying to divide a piece of paper into easily measurable units that can be readjusted, I was able to connect with my students. (In art and design, the struggle is real!) For the record, math is not a problem for me. I can switch easily between inches, metric, and printing measures. Fractions and decimals are not a problem for me, either. The real struggle was how to explain to my students the value of why I do what I do when I do it.

Several recent articles highlight the value of storytelling in teaching and learning. For instance, in an article by Geraint Osborne, Let Me Tell You a Story: Enhancing Teaching and Learning through Personal Stories (Nov. 12, 2018). A qualitative sociologist who teaching sociology and criminology, Osborne emphasizes that:

[s]torytelling as a form of transferring knowledge has a long and venerable history.”

In addition to using various pop-culture and historical references for his talks, his stories include more personal narratives to help students see a different aspect to the content, providing students a glimpse at “the human side of their professors.” This practice also encourages students to open up about their stories, whether they do it in or out of the classroom.

Another area where I use storytelling is in an assignment I reinterpreted from one I read about a Harvard professor using. A worksheet called “Public Narrative: Self & Us & Now” is available online that describes one version of the project. The authors describe the value of storytelling as follows:

“Because stories speak the language of emotion, the language of the heart, they teach us not only how we “ought to” act, but can inspire us with the “courage to” act.”

In my Communication Design Across Cultures class, I split the narrative story project into two parts. I introduce this project by sharing a short version of my own journey to where I am standing before them. It serves to present myself as human, someone who has had her own challenges and losses to overcome, and successes in spite of them. For Part I – Story of Self, I ask students to introduce themselves, share their story and especially share their values and what they would want me to know. The story is not shared with the rest of the class and sometimes some very personal – sometimes tragic – stories are written about. In addition to encouraging the practice of storytelling as part of a design course, this has also helped me to help my students in a number of ways. It helps me anticipate potentially serious triggers, for instance, in a class where we deal with often difficult social justice topics such as overcoming drug addition, or sexual abuse, when learning about one student had been raped as a child, and another whose mother died of a drug overdose.

At the end of a semester of exploring challenging topics both in the US and abroad, I ask the students to write Part II – The Epilogue where they share their reflections on the semester, if it has impacted their values, their resolve, their thoughts on the role of their potential career choice, or anything else they’d like to share. This serves to provide a bit of a release and reflection on the work they’ve done, while providing me some insights into whether or not the course opened up any new insights for the students.

In another article, Marie K. Norman provides some valuable insights from TED Talks. While admitting that there are some advantages that the TEDTalk speakers may have over already stressed and stretched college lecturers, Norman captures some key take-aways that we can all utilize to make our courses more engaging. Norman shares these five points:

  1. Idea – “Use the discipline imposed by a single, central idea to prioritize the knowledge and skills that students need most at their particular stage of learning.”
  2. Throughline – A line at the beginning of your talk that may sound counter-intuitive. Always stay focused on this throughline as you write your way through the talk. It should make sense to your audience as you reach the end of your talk
  3. Connection – “use questions, stories, and vulnerability to draw us in and disarm our natural skepticism.”
  4. Story – “When giving a lecture, think about how to bring sensory information and detail to the story.” Utilize the five C’s:
  5. Structure – An example includes Ken Robinson’s “introduction, context, main concepts, practical implications, and conclusions,” or Markus Fisher’s “teaser, background, demonstration, implications.” (Norman, November 1, 2018)

From the Chronicle for Higher Education, in the article titled “What Podcasts Can Teach Us About Teaching,” the authors suggest that podcasts can tell stories that are authentic and compelling, providing yet another mode of sharing content that can connect with our students.

In the end, it is the stories we share that helps us connect the passion we have for the material we teach, to help our students understand the value of learning not just the “what” by why the content is important to know.

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