Storytelling in the classroom

David Gooblar argues in his recent Chronicles article, “Narrative in the Classroom,” that we need to utilize both “paradigmatic” and “narrative” modes in our teaching, as they are complementary in students’ learning. The paradigmatic explanation is to prove or verify, while the narrative explanation is to illustrate or leave visual impression in minds.

Despite its potential shortfall (being too abstract with less specifics), the narrative explanation certainly has its merit to be used more in teaching. Our brain is wired to remember things better when we hear a story that we can relate. No wonder why storytelling has been the powerful way of teaching in human history. Deeper learning often occurs when students can connect the subject with other information and synthesize them in a broader context. The narrative explanation can be helpful for both teachers  and students.

In science, we generally train our students in the paradigmatic way. They would prepare a standard 12-minute oral presentation, well-organized poster, or 45-minute-long comprehensive dissertation defense talk following the well prescribed procedures. Yet, we sometimes witness that they stumble if we ask whether they can sum up the essence of their work in few minutes, even worse, for lay people to understand the importance of the work.

Few years ago, I asked the graduate students in my seminar class to prepare their research presentations in storytelling format, with a time limit of 5 minutes. My students were surprised at first, but quickly took on this challenge. They converted their 15-minute standard research presentations that they were preparing for the upcoming actual conferences to 5-minute stories, for general public. As long as they could maintain the essence of their research, they had absolute freedom to choose whatever format they preferred. The result was stunningly successful. A student composed a song and performed it with a ukulele about the isopod’s life in the ocean, other student wrote his study of arctic benthic organisms in a short mystery novel, while other student made a short touching prose about sinking phytoplankton to the abyss of the ocean. The presentations became the climax of our class.

Once students acquire basic knowledge, then they should have an opportunity to practice and demonstrate it with others. The process of contemplating about implication of their knowledge and about how to communicate and convey what they know to others is tremendously helpful for deeper learning for them.


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2012 Spring MNS 191 Class

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