Storytelling In Learning: Why & How
Updated: Apr 30
Stories are incredibly powerful - and that's a power we can harness in the learning we create.
Why use stories in learning?
Because stories engage, and stories teach.
Stories get our emotions involved. We care about the characters and what happens to them. We want to unravel all the mysteries, to find out what’s really going on. Who’s the murderer? What’s the villain’s plan? What really happened that night five years ago when everything changed?
And because they engage us, stories keep us coming back. We’ll watch season after season of the same TV show - smaller conflicts are resolved, some answers revealed, but there are always new conflicts and mysteries, or that one huge question hanging over all the smaller adventures. There’s a reason the final Harry Potter book sold 8.3 million copies in the first 24 hours after its release; people were engaged in the story, motivated to return, desperate to find out what happened between Harry and Voldemort in the end.
Why would we not harness that kind of engagement in our learning? Shouldn’t we be aiming to create content that people connect with like this? When people’s minds and emotions are engaged, they learn, rather than glazing over.
And when people are engaged in them, stories actually teach, too.
Whatever your opinion of Jesus, he’s widely renowned as one of the greatest teachers of all time. And that’s in part because he’s a great storyteller; his greatest teachings are presented as stories. People can relate to and remember something much easier when it’s contextualised. He could have said to his listeners, ‘God is loving.’ But instead he told his spellbound audience a story of a father who waits every day for his wayward, rebellious son to come home; who runs to meet him when he finally spies him on the horizon; and who throws a party to celebrate his return. That gives a much clearer picture of the God that Jesus is describing.
Ideas are abstract, and so are harder for us to get ahold of. Stories encase that idea in something we can easily understand and remember. They move us, and we remember how they made us feel. Why wouldn’t we use them in learning?
So how do you actually tell a story?
Broadly speaking, you can think of a story as having 5 elements.
1. Exposition You introduce the world that your protagonist inhabits. Red Riding Hood, possessor of (you guessed it) a red riding hood, lives with her mother on the edge of the woods. This isn’t necessarily going to be happy - just ask Charlie Bucket.
2. Rising Action
Something unbalances the world, and sets the story in motion. Why is today different to any other day? Nemo starts school. Harry gets a letter from an unusual educational establishment. Jack’s mother decides it’s time to sell the cow.
As the action continues, there’s conflict. Conflict is the reason there’s a story to tell! Something is in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal. Cinderella’s sneaky and conniving family stop her going to the ball. Mulan is, it turns out, not a natural soldier.
As the story progresses, these obstacles continue and increase in intensity; the protagonist finds it harder and harder to achieve their goal. Frodo and Sam trudge through the Emyn Muil, Mordor never seeming to get much closer. Woody and Buzz end up in Sid’s possession.
The protagonist may even think that they’ve achieved their goal at one point, but they haven’t. Aladdin thinks he’s won Jasmine over, but then he gets thrown in the ocean with a weight tied to his feet. Belle and the Beast dance to Tale As Old As Time, but then Belle leaves the castle.
3. Climax This is the turning point, which changes the protagonist’s fate. Jane meets Mr Rochester’s wife and decides she has to leave. Romeo misses the letter from Friar Laurence, explaining that Juliet’s only faking her death.
4. Falling Action
The conflict unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist.
There’s probably a moment of final suspense, where the final outcome is in doubt. Christian and Satine sing Come What May at the Moulin Rouge as if the room contained only them. A resurrected Aslan releases his creatures from the curse of the White Witch, and they head into the decisive battle.
5. Resolution Conflicts are resolved, and objectives are sorted out one way or the other. We are left with a new status quo (or a restoration of the old). Luke and Leia gain new parents, while their biological father weeps behind his new mask. Katniss and Peeta both get out of the Hunger Games alive.
Sometimes the protagonist is altered because of their journey - the Very Hungry Caterpillar is now a beautiful butterfly. Simba takes his slow walk up Pride Rock, accepting that he is worthy to be king.
Of course, this is more cyclical than linear. Let’s use Harry Potter as an example again. You see these elements in the meta-narrative - the overarching story of Harry vs Voldemort. But you also see them in each of the books (the story of Harry finding the philosopher’s stone or surviving the Triwizard Tournament), and then again within the books, the micro-narratives whose cycles overlap to form the bigger story.
So how can you apply this structure to learning? We could tell you - but rather than abstract ideas, we want to show you, using stories! See our next blog for some examples of how we’ve done this.