Storytelling in the Classroom
by Emily Bartelheim
In development and adoption of innovative teaching methods, it is important to create a relationship between instructor and student that supports intellectual risk. This comfort allows students to understand difficult subject matter and know it’s okay to make mistakes, creating an opportunity for deeper learning. One way to do this is to use storytelling in the classroom.
Storytelling allows teachers to enter the lives of students as they’re forming a sense of self- identity. It promotes a sense of community and belonging, enables relationship networking, allows participants to engage in sense-making, helps develop empathy and self-confidence, and facilitates learning (Zepeda, 2014).
Research shows that when individuals’ needs are being met and they feel a sense of security and trust, their environment is more conducive to academic development (Zepeda, 2014). In order to create a classroom environment that fosters this social growth and emotional development, curriculum design that includes elements of narrative offers obvious appeal.
One individual at Ohio University who is particularly impactful through her use of storytelling in the classroom is Dr. Lynn Harter, professor in the School of Communication Studies and co-director of the Barbara Geralds Institute for Storytelling and Social Impact. “I typically start out my classes by talking to students about a paradox of safety and discomfort that I view as inherently a part of the classroom experience,” Harter said. “I view my job as creating a safe environment that allows students to feel uncomfortable.” Harter holds herself accountable for not only creating this environment, but also for students to grow while feeling that discomfort.
While she makes sure to create a structure that introduces students to new materials and ideas, she emphasizes the importance for faculty to let go sometimes. “In my finest moments as a teacher, and what I’ve witnessed from other phenomenal teachers, is that simultaneous capacity to surrender,” she said, “and to be present enough to veer off the predicted path and to know that the detour can be more meaningful than the planned route.”
“Thinking of classrooms as both structured and improvisational, and having a tolerance to stand amidst the thundering intersection of those experiences,” Harter said, “students might not appreciate it at the time, but I think that they come to.”
For example, when students take part in service learning outside the bounds of a typical classroom, they experience vulnerability and uncertainty. “As a teacher, I have a capacity to be present with that—to be comfortable so that students know this is difficult and messy, it’s okay to make mistakes, and we’re going to create a structure and organize and prepare, but then we’re going to surrender to the uncertainties that unfold when you’re learning in a community,” Harter said. “That’s a beautiful process. Is it a scary process? Is it tricky? Is it messy? Yes. But it’s worth it for me as a professor, and I think it’s worth it for students.”
How Storytelling Fosters Learning
Individuals rely on storytelling when making sense of expectations gone awry. Stories are shaped by individuals’ lived experiences and serve as a way to help them make sense out of the world and their place in it. Through careful watching and listening, teachers can learn about their students’ lives outside the classroom to help inform their day-to-day teaching. Studies have even found that storytelling is “significantly more effective in facilitating recall of prose content than is television” (George & Schaer, 1986).
In regards to storytelling and pedagogy, teachers can create opportunities for students to enter into the stories of other people; this may happen through case studies or simulations, where the goal of that experience is to invite students into the challenges of another person. “That’s what the heart of the case study method is about,” Harter said.
One way storytelling fosters learning among students is through entering into a storied experience of another set of characters. “I view that as powerful, whether that’s in an essay form or a documentary or feature film,” Harter said. “When you introduce and invite students into that narrative, it brings to life or personalizes otherwise distant and abstract theoretical ideas.”
Learners have been found to retain more information when it is presented in a narrative style, suggesting advantages for a narrative/storytelling practice of instructional communication (Glonek & King, 2014). Additionally, Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, argues that transformative learning fundamentally happens at the intersection of the personal and the disciplinary, and at the intersection of the personal and the public.
Harter echoes Palmers thoughts in that storytelling is a way into the personal. “Theory is best realized by students when it moves from the abstract to the lived, when it’s answerable to life,” Harter said. “I’ve found that happens in and through the storytelling process.”
Storytelling as a Teaching Strategy
The human need to communicate personal experiences makes storytelling a natural way to design lessons. Faculty can make conversational storytelling a regular feature of their classes to increase students’ interest, empathy, trust, and sense of connection. Robert Jones (2012) recommends classroom stories should focus on one simple event that gave rise to an emotional reaction (e.g., pleasure, surprise, fear, anger).
“One of the best ways I communicate with students and learn with them is in and through my own experiences,” Harter said. She finds great value in retelling instances of “this really worked well” or “let me tell you about a story when I made a mistake and what I learned from that.” “It’s in and through those lived experiences that I think I’m at my best in helping to mentor other people who are developing their own teaching philosophies and their own understanding of what it is that they do as educators,” Harter said.
“One major takeaway for faculty is that they shouldn’t worry about what story to incorporate,” said Hope Moore, instructional designer in the Office of Instructional Innovation. Moore’s work has focused on storytelling/narrative in course design and its effects on learning. She emphasizes that classroom stories don’t necessarily need elaborate details or fully fleshed-out characters; anecdotes, examples, and explanations of where students might encounter topics are a great way to use smaller stories in classrooms.
Moore emphasized that it's more important to have the elements of storytelling (character development to increase empathy, obtainable goals to work toward, building and releasing tension, rests between tasks, a slow buildup to a climax, a resolution that ties everything together, etc.) than what story is told.
In addition to being a professor and scholar, Harter is a filmmaker. She is particularly known for The Art of the Possible, a documentary she co-produced on pediatric cancer care. One way Harter creates a storytelling experience for her students is by inviting them to go on film shoots with her.
“If I’m teaching an interviewing class, I want them to develop an interview protocol for a conversation that they might facilitate,” she said. Narrative-based pedagogies are incredibly powerful at fostering learning in a transformative way, such as entering into the stories of others, listening to the stories of peers, and creating a story together through problem-based or community learning. Harter has also found that if she can integrate concrete experiences into a course, students come alive and see the value of what they’re studying.
Storytelling has value in online courses, too. Moore mentioned how an instructor can incorporate narrative in a digital environment. “Online tools such as VoiceThread and bulletin boards provide spaces where students and faculty can share stories that not only support or provide another view of the course content, but also increase empathy between classmates,” Moore said, “which is sometimes lost when moving to an online environment.”
Storytelling is applicable across contexts, from communication to economics to French. “The learning experience has a role for narrative sense-making, irrespective of discipline,” Harter said. “There is a role for making sense of disciplinary traditions in the form of case studies, in the form of ‘how does this economic principle apply to rising gas prices that are connected to what’s going on in the Middle East?’ How can we think about those principles from a concrete, lived, storied standpoint? That’s what’s powerful.”
The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of promising new approaches to instruction. OII provides a variety of services to academic units and faculty, online programs and students, as well as additional initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our home page for more information.