MATH AND SCIENCE THROUGH STORYTELLING? Hmmm, REALLY?
When I started my storytelling practice in 2009, I used to go to a Montessori school once a week to tell stories to students of Grade 1 and 2. The head of the school gave me a well-laid out curriculum and my job was to find and tell stories for each topic. This was the beginning of my love-affair with the story-based learning model. In this article, I will share my learning from some of those early experiences and how it has shaped my thinking as a storyteller and story-educator today.
The objective behind those story sessions was two pronged: to introduce concepts in EVS, Maths and Language through stories and to slide in Value Education through these sessions and not relegate it to a separate class period.
WHAT MAKES STORYTELLING TICK?
In my very first session, I chose to tell the story of ‘The Lion and the Mosquito’. The story would be a trigger to talk to the children about the food chain and multiplication tables. Along with this, there would be discussions on some of the values contained in the story.
When I had finished narrating the story and asked the class what they thought of the story, one of the students stood up and said, “So the spider is the real king of the jungle, isn’t he?” Another girl said, “It’s not always possible to be the best, Aunty.” “Someone will always be better than you, right?” I stood there, amazed at how children, only six and seven years old, drew these conclusions almost immediately. My job as an educator was done. I only had to channel the discussion in the right direction and be a facilitator. It was a fantastic feeling to know that a connection was made!
We moved on to talking about the food chain – I used the story to explain to them the difference between producers and consumers, food webs and so on. Children understood the terms quite easily because they were able to associate it with a character in the story.
In another session, at the end of the story, ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein, I taught the class a small poem called ‘Mary Had A Little Seed’, that was set to the tune of Mary Had A Little Lamb. The poem was about the life of a plant from the time it is a seed to a full-size tree. In singing it, children understood the process of germination and growth.
When I went back for the next session, something remarkable happened. At the end of the story, a six-year old boy, who was an attentive listener but who hadn’t spoken much until then, got up and declared that he a poem to recite. Instantly, he came up with a four line poem to suit the story, similar to the one I had taught the class the previous week. He did not come prepared for he had no idea what story I was going to tell, which meant he made up the poem on the spot. He continued to do this at the end of every story, from then on.
YES, IT REALLY DOES THINGS TO THE BRAIN! HERE’S PROOF!
So what made the girls raise a relevant question about the spider, make a pertinent observation about being the best or the boy come up with the poem instantaneously?
“Storytelling is both a way to prompt questions and conversation. For teachers, questions are the single-most influential teaching practice because questions determine which mental processes students engage in, which points of a topic students can explore and which modes of thought students learn.
In addition, research suggests that “Conversation—students discussing, arguing, orally creating ideas—enhances learning.” Pamela J. Cooper
The science behind storytelling gives us some answers. There is a tremendous amount of validated studies in the field of Neuroscience that tells us the importance of a narrative-based approach to learning. Scientists have found this:
- When information is presented in the form of pure data, the two areas of our brain – Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area are stimulated. These language processing parts of our brain and they ‘light up’ when we are given some input to process. No other activity takes place.
- When information is presented in the form of a story, many areas of the brain ‘light up’. Researchers at Emory University discovered that when their subjects were exposed to rich, detailed metaphors in a narrative, the sensory receptors in the cortex lit up. Similarly, when words describing an action were presented, the motor cortex lit up.
Jennifer Aaker says, “Research shows our brains are not hard-wired to understand logic or retain facts for very long. Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories. A story is a journey that moves the listener, and when the listener goes on that journey they feel different and the result is persuasion and sometimes action.”
Dr. James Comer (1995), Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, puts it well: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” When a educator uses a story to elaborate on a point, not only is he or she making an attempt to promote neural activity but he or she is also building and nurturing a special relationship with the learner, through the medium of story. The process of storytelling involves the three elements: the story, the storyteller and the listener, form a special bond, also called the Storytelling Triangle.
A story, chosen and told well, has the ability to put the whole brain to work without the listener actually realising it. This makes them engage with the content using all their senses. Most importantly, they connect emotionally with the topic through a story and learning takes place almost seamlessly.
I have experienced this ‘magic’ every time I have used a folk-tale, a fable, a myth, a legend and sometimes even a personal story in a classroom. Whether’s it’s a group of students in primary school or a room full of corporate executives, stories are the perfect vehicle to send small nuggets of ideas through. Like Mary Poppins sang, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!”, stories are the sweet coating that help us swallow the hard facts contained in text-books and PowerPoint presentations!
Citation: Cooper P. 1995, Communication fo the Classroom Teacher. Scottsdale, AZ: Gorsuch Scarisbrick, Publishers.