TEACHING AT PITT: The educational benefits of storytelling


Good storytelling can make for great teaching, and an effective teacher is often a skilled storyteller. Among the many intersections between storytelling and teaching, the most fundamental is this:

Education represents transformations in students’ thinking — through discovery, expansion, revision, failure or correction. Similarly, a good story is characterized by transformation: characters change, reflect, adapt, grow, discover, succeed and fail. The processual, transformational dimension of stories can prompt students to respond positively to teaching which employs effective storytelling, and the educational benefits of storytelling are myriad.

A story can establish the relevance — personal, professional or academic — of an educational goal. Interested in emphasizing the real-world applications of your course? Tell a story taken from that same real world, which demonstrates the application. In a medical field, you might tell the story of patients and families affected by innovations in medical technology, developed with skills covered in your class. In the field of history, you might tell a story about a current event, and then tell a story drawn from an earlier historical period which helps explain the current dynamics.

Perhaps you’re in the field of social work. Can you tell the “story” (or case) drawn from social worker practice. Because a well-crafted and well-selected case-study, presented in narrative format, can help your students “see” themselves in the field, select and craft your cases with intentionality, such that “characters” in those cases reflect the diversity of your students.

Stories can also help students understand the process of academic and scientific inquiry. A “discovery” plot is a classic narrative device, in which the characters solve a mystery; an audience becomes engaged because they, like the protagonists, also wish to uncover the answer. With that in mind, consider telling the “story” of research, including, perhaps, your own.

What problem or gap in knowledge did you identify? How did you come to identify this problem, and what were its implications? What strategies for research did you formulate, and what was the process of discovery? Did other characters (collaborators) appear in your story, and what challenges did they encounter? Were there apparent failures and subsequent, surprising successes? The “story” of scientific/academic inquiry can be quite fascinating when framed as a narrative, and it also models for students some of the skills and processes they’ll be undertaking themselves.

At this point, some of you may be thinking, “I’m just not a good storyteller, though.” In all honesty, you might be right! But it’s also true that storytelling, like any skill, requires practice — you can educate yourself in the skill and art of storytelling, and then use your storytelling skills to serve your own educational goals for your students.

One evening, years ago, my brother-in-law — best storyteller I’ve had the good fortune to know — was regaling the family with his typically captivating stories. They had engaging turns of phrase, humorous surprises, careful attention to unlikely details, and an elegance in which no word was wasted.

Amazed at the seeming effortlessness of his storytelling, I finally asked him privately, “What’s your secret… How did you get to be such a good storyteller?” Without hesitation, he responded, “I practice.” I was flabbergasted. What did he mean, he practiced? Had he told the stories before? He continued that, while yes, he practiced telling them in different contexts for different audiences, much of his “practice” involved working on and revising his stories on his own time when he was alone, determining key takeaways for the audience, where to introduce the climax, what to reveal and when, which content was critical and required emphasis or embellishment, which details were irrelevant or didn’t add to the story, and what stylistic elements to incorporate.

In retrospect, my brother-in-law’s “secret” was obvious: the best storytellers are the ones who practice story telling. Over the past 10 years, I’ve spent much of my time doing just that in the world of performative storytelling, on different stages and productions in the Pittsburgh area. I’ve also listened to many, many incredible storytellers display their craft, and I’ve talked with them extensively about what makes for good storytelling. To this day, though, it’s that insight from my brother-in-law, the best storyteller I know, that sticks with me: Practice.

With that in mind, let’s talk foundational elements, tips and strategies, which may help you as you draft and practice your stories.

A well-crafted story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning captures the audience’s attention. If students don’t begin engaged, they’re unlikely to remain engaged. The beginning also establishes the premise, before moving logically into middle, narrative portion of the story. Imagine you heard a story which began, “Before, two Montrose journeyed around the pin from sunrise through sunrises, eventually ending at the next one.” What’s going on in this story? When and where is it set? What is the identity of the protagonists? Now imagine now trying to process a narrative that follows such a disorienting, context-less, essentially premise-less introduction. If your students don’t understand the premise, they’ll have difficulty following along and understanding the take-aways.

A story also ends. Avoid rambling and have a clear stopping point in mind that wraps up the story with a clear take-away. You might even draft a loose script for your final sentence.

An engaging story has “stakes” — your audience needs to care about the conflict, problem or transformation taking place. If the conflict you’ve introduced were not resolved, would it matter? Why, and to whom? If the answer doesn’t include your students, then you have some more work to do to communicate stakes.

Include only those details that drive the story forward, generate additional interest from your audience, provide important context, or add richer texture to the story. There are few things more tedious than listening to a storyteller try with difficulty to remember details that don’t matter in the first place; plan in advance which details you’ll include and discard.

A good story anticipates and attempts to shape audience response. The critical points in your story should serve a function and anticipate a particular response. Ask yourself, how do I want my students to feel at this point in this story? What do I want them to be thinking about? If you’re telling a personal anecdote, think about how the characters/people in your story (including you) felt at particular moments during the events you’re relating — were you happy, sad, angry, shocked or confused?

Don’t just tell the audience how you felt. Instead, relate the relevant contextual factors and details that led to that emotive response, and let the audience experience that response for themselves. In other words, craft the story to produce specific responses, but also be prepared for students to have divergent responses.

Some final reminders: Storytelling, like teaching, draws upon an array of skills requiring development and practice. Expect to encounter some challenges as you implement or expand the use of storytelling in your teaching. You also should plan to spend some time, on your own, drafting and practicing your stories. It’s OK to tell your stories out loud to no audience at all. Finally, periodically conduct an audit of your stories: Are they in the service of your educational goals? Then they’re stories worth telling.

Joel Brady is a teaching consultant and the program supervisor for the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative in the University Center for Teaching and Learning.