Why should teachers need to entertain their students? Because storytelling is the access point for all learning. As Rudyard Kipling said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Language, history, science, even math problems all tell narratives. If we can identify these stories for children by teaching in stories and encouraging stories from students, we improve their level of understanding.
From her masters thesis for Simon Fraser University in June 1997, Lindsay M. Brown points out: “Qualitative and quantitative evidence overwhelmingly suggests that narrative – reading, but also and especially oral storytelling -increases IQ, creativity, memory, and concentration.” She states what many believe to be the reason storytelling improves retention: “Neurological research appears to show that reading or listening to narrative produces intense frontal lobe activity in the form of mental visualization, which in turn enhances the development of neural dendrites, particularly in children.”
Mark Turner in his much cited 1996 study The Literary Mind, identifies the narrative or narrative thought as a significant contributor to brain development. Storytelling, according to Turner and other researchers, influences everything from eye-hand coordination to empathy to cultural understanding. Storytelling is a brain function that requires all parts of the brain to communicate with each other. Frontal, parietal, temporal and even occipital lobes come into play when telling a story. This brain communication forms new neural pathways in early childhood and leads to advanced problem solving skills in later years. This engagement of all the parts of the brain develops invaluable brain plasticity and new neural pathways.
A University of Chicago study done with support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Brain Research Foundation released in July 2010 indicates, “there may be limitations to the remarkable flexibility for language functions displayed by children with brain injuries.” The study found, “The children with brain injuries produced shorter, less complex stories than typically developing children.” Although the children in the study showed similar vocabulary and sentence comprehension abilities compared to their normally developing counterparts, they were missing the vital ability to communicate complex ideas in an engaging form. Storytelling promotes higher thinking and communication among all parts of the brain.
It might be enough to say that storytelling is good for us as individuals, but storytelling has a deep cultural value. It is the glue that holds groups together. When we refer to weaving a tale or spinning a story, we are using the metaphors of foundation. Weaving fabric for a garment or a spider spinning a web for a home are indicative of how we perceive the value of the narrative. Telling stories is foundational for any culture. We look to cave paintings to tell us the stories of primitive humans, Homer lays the groundwork for Western culture and Shakespeare provides a quantum leap in the development of the English language. Culture exists only in our stories.
We all love stories and this is especially true for children. From story time at the library to telling stories on stage in the school play, kids love a good yarn. As teachers it’s important to understand how to tell a story and especially how to elicit a story from a student. Telling stories engages the community of learners by promoting the Homeric experience. We bond with our stories. If we are to engage our students in a profound experience, we must become great storytellers and great listeners of stories.