Learning and Teaching with Storytelling 


There is an increasing amount being written about the power of storytelling as a way to teach and to learn. From the “short bursts” of information on social media to the rise of the personal essay, everyone seems to be in on the movement to learn how to communicate by creating a compelling narrative. Still, storytelling is an ancient art, older than recorded history itself. The ability to pass a story down through the generations is a key component of transmitting culture. Just consider the epic poems of ancient Greece, the hadith in Islam, and even the lore of your own family.  

We often speak of the “above the water line” aspects of a culture that we can experience – language, art, music, dress, architecture and so on. We speak less about the stories that are transmitted, and what they might really mean to someone trying to understand culture. Indeed, stories may be one of the most meaningful ways of quickly understanding what lies “below the water line” in a culture. Why is this?

Stories are allegories, and allegories transmit context – One of the key steps to becoming culturally competent is to understand the “context” of a culture: values, beliefs, assumptions, non-verbal gestures, history, traditions – things that cannot often be explained in a direct or explicit manner. Stories are full of allegorical information (think of the parables in Western religious scripture or the words of Confucius), and as such they are a rich vehicle for transmitting the diversity and depth of a culture’s context.

Characters help us create better generalizations – Often, we struggle with the contradictory information we come across in a new culture. Behaviors seem to be arbitrary, and we encounter different variables that make it hard for us to understand what may really be important in that particular culture. Though they are not an absolute portrayal of the culture, characters in stories represent a potentially important set of data points, like the importance of such traits as collectivism, hierarchy, formality, etc.

We listen better to stories – There is a great deal of research around cognition and understanding that shows how people listen more attentively to a well-told story than to facts, figures, reports and logic. While the latter all have their place, it is important to remember that the listener matters, and that if our goal is to communicate, we need to add the element of story to the other aspects of presentation that we may have already mastered. Those who listen to the stories of a culture – no matter how unrealistic the characters or adventures may sound – can learn important lessons about the values and beliefs that hold sway.

Humans have evolved telling and listening to stories. Learning to harness the power of storytelling can help you learn about other cultures, and teach others about your own culture.