Why Great Teachers Are Story Tellers

by Dan Willingham
March 28th, 2009

Just about every teacher at some point tries to trick their students into learning something by making it “relevant” to students’ interests.   You might be surprised to learn that I don’t think much of this technique.   I love cognitive psychology, so you might think, “Well, to get Willingham to pay attention to this math problem, we’ll wrap it up in a cognitive psychology example.” But Willingham is quite capable of being bored by cognitive psychology, as has been proved repeatedly at professional conferences I’ve attended.   Trying to make problems “relevant” can also feel forced and artificial, and students see right through the ruse. 

So if content isn’t the way to engage students, how about your teaching style? Students often refer to good teachers as those who “make the stuff interesting.” It’s not that the teacher relates the material to students’ interests-rather, the teacher has a way of interacting with students that they find engaging.

When we think of a good teacher, we tend to focus on personality and on the way the teacher presents himself or herself. But that’s only half of good teaching. The jokes, the stories, and the warm manner all generate goodwill and get students to pay attention. But then how do we make sure they think about meaning? That is where the second property of being a good teacher comes in-organizing the ideas in a lesson plan in a coherent way so that students will understand and remember. Cognitive psychology cannot tell us how to be personable and likable to our students, but I can tell you about one set of principles that cognitive psychologists know about to help students think about the meaning of a lesson.

The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories-so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material. I’m going to suggest that organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember.   

First, stories are easy to comprehend, because the audience knows the structure, which helps to interpret the action. For example, the audience knows that events don’t happen randomly in stories.  Second, stories are interesting and engage listeners more readily that other formats, even if the same information is presented.  Lastly, stories are easy to remember.

I’m not suggesting that teachers simply tell stories, although there’s nothing wrong with doing so. Rather, I’m suggesting something one step removed from that. Structure your lessons the way stories are structured, using the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications, and character. This doesn’t mean you must do most of the talking. Small group work or projects or any other method may be used. The story structure applies to the way you organize the material that you encourage your students to think about, not to the methods you use to teach the material.

Daniel T. Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of Why Students Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2009) from which this post was adapted.