User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Storytelling Is Not Lecturing; Lecturing is Not Storytelling

with 36 comments

I sit in the lecture hall with 10,000 others waiting for my new teacher to speak. I look at my cell phone and silently groan that this in going to be a long hour; as long an hour as an hour can be as is typically the case when I listen to a lecture.   She begins, “Let me tell you about Uncle Willie.”  I take a deep breath of relief and settle in to hear her story.

I came at the age of three to Grandma and my Uncle Willie in this little town in Arkansas. Uncle Willie was paralyzed on the right side. My grandmother and Uncle Willie owned a little store in town, and they needed me and my brother to work in the store. So Momma taught me to read and write, and my Uncle Willie taught me to do my times tables. He used to grab me by my clothes and hold me in front of a potbelly stove, and with a slur attendant to his condition, he’d say, “Now, Sister, I want you to do your foursies, your sevensies, your ninesies.” I learned my times tables so exquisitely even now, 60 years later, if I’m awakened after an evening of copious libation and told, “Do your twelvsies,” I’ve got my twelvsies.

I was so sure that if I didn’t learn, my Uncle Willie would grab me, open the potbelly stove, throw me in, and close the door. Of course, I found that he was so tenderhearted he wouldn’t kill a fly. One day my Uncle Willie died, and I went to Little Rock where I was met by one of America’s great rainbows in the clouds, the black lady who led the children into the high school in the late fifties in Little Rock.

She met me and said, “There is somebody who is dying to meet you.” She introduced me to this handsome black man in a three-piece suit.

When I met him, he said, “I don’t want to shake your hand. I want to hug you.”

He then said, “You know, Maya, the State of Arkansas has lost a great man in losing Willie. In the 1920s, I was the only child of a blind mother. Your Uncle Willie gave me a job in his store, paid me 10 cents a week, and taught me to do my times tables.”

I asked him, “How would he do it?”

He said, “He used to grab me like this…”

Then I knew he was talking about Uncle Willie.

He said, “Because of him, I am who I am today, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, first black mayor in the South.”

I look back at Uncle Willie, that crippled, black man in the South where lynching was the disorder of the day, I have no idea the range of his influence. But I know that when it looked for me like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore, God put “a rainbow in the clouds” in the form of Uncle Willie.

I tell you my stories not to brag but to tell you about all of rainbows in my clouds.  You are the rainbows in somebody’s cloud.

. . . Maya Angelou tells the 10,000 educators who sat at her feet at the recent ASCD conference.  I exaggerated at the beginning about the expected boredom.  This would have been the case if the speaker started to lecture to me.  I knew Dr, Angelou would tell us stories and read us poetry.  She is a master of storytelling, poetry, speaking, and teaching; and the energy in the room was palatable as she spoke to us. I am a strong advocate against the use of lecturing for teaching which I discuss in detail in Who Would Choose a Lecture as Their Primary Mode of Learning? This does not mean I am against an educator standing in front of a group of learners to give procedural directions or to tell a story to teach a concept.  I have been challenged by colleagues because I really like TED talks but many of the best TED talks tell a story.  One of the most popular Ted talks of all time was Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight who told the story of her stroke and insights about the brain due to her her stroke. So what is it that makes stories such powerful teaching?

Stories are different. Stories have everything that facts wish they had but never will: color, action, characters, sights, smells, sounds, emotions–stuff that we can easily relate to. We can imagine ourselves doing, or not doing, or having already done, what the story describes. Stories put facts into a meaningful, and therefore memorable, context.  (

Brain Activity: Lecture versus Storytelling

Your brain on story is different than your brain when it is receiving any other form of information, including straight facts and data. There are proven intersections between neuroscience, biology, and story we cannot ignore. The threads of stories that we read, hear, watch, and click on affect us intrinsically. And tempt us as well. ( It’s in fact quite simple. If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens. When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.  (

What follows is a graph of a student’s brain activity during a given week.  The student’s brain activity, the electrodermal activity, is nearly flat-lined during classes.  Note that the activity is higher during sleep than during class.


So what happens to the brain when being told a story?

We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found [that] “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our exiting experiences.  That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate, a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust. (

So my advice for teachers is that next time you feel the need to convey information via a lecture, create or find a story that illustrates those concepts and tell learners that story.  Matthew James Friday in his Edutopia article, Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters describes the benefits of storytelling in the classroom:

  • Inspires purposeful talking, and not just about the story — there are many games you can play.
  • Raises the enthusiasm for reading texts to find stories, reread them, etc.
  • Initiates writing because children will quickly want to write stories and tell them.
  • Enhances the community in the room.
  • Improves listening skills.
  • Really engages the boys who love the acting.
  • Is enjoyed by children from kindergarten to the end of elementary school.
  • Gives a motivating reason for English-language learners to speak and write English.

Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 20, 2013 at 2:16 am

36 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” Please be careful with the ‘ideas’.

    Rob Vanderwildt

    November 12, 2013 at 9:10 pm

  2. Thank you. That was a lovely Maya Angelou story, and a great lesson about the power of story telling.


    June 8, 2014 at 8:39 pm

  3. Story telling of the Dreamtime is how Australian Aboriginals passed down traditions of creation for the past 40,000 years, these stories helped to preserve the understanding of inter connectedness … Stories bring people together, they are one of the biggest gifts in life xx


    June 8, 2014 at 10:14 pm

  4. I loved this! I only wish more professors and teachers would use this method instead of simply spewing facts and information. I loved the use of the graph to illustrate just how powerful storytelling can be in terms of activating the different parts of the mind.


    June 8, 2014 at 11:23 pm

  5. This how I came to love my Khmer Literature teacher back in high school; she told stories and planted moving images in my head which pretty much have stayed there and I’m sure it’s going to stay there for quite a long time.

    Sonita Men

    June 9, 2014 at 1:05 am

  6. perhaps this can encourage the teachers and lectures to be creative on their style…. coz this attention-limited-generation has lots of things on mind…. a style which sink in to the mind and heart … that leaves an impact on to them


    June 9, 2014 at 3:16 am

  7. Great piece. It reminds me of some of Joseph Campbell’s insights about myth.


    June 9, 2014 at 3:18 am

  8. thankyou.. quite insightful.. and the links are very relevant too!


    June 9, 2014 at 6:30 am

  9. Thanks for this post. I will definitely do this in my class.

    R is for Rogue

    June 9, 2014 at 7:21 am

  10. Great lesson. Thank you very much for sharing this.


    June 9, 2014 at 11:42 am

  11. This was a really interesting article! I loved the Maya Angelou story as well. 🙂

    L @ Dandelion Cabal

    June 9, 2014 at 12:14 pm

  12. This is both wonderful and fascinating, thank you!


    June 9, 2014 at 3:15 pm

  13. It was a pleasure to read this. Actually few scientists did some research and found out then each day our brain can assimilate only 3 hours of new data. With this, students classes lasting a few hours a day become pointless. But yet stories are more effective than long lectures.


    June 9, 2014 at 4:44 pm

  14. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.


    June 9, 2014 at 4:50 pm

  15. Loved this !


    June 9, 2014 at 8:31 pm

  16. Fantastic article – may I reblog on – will link back and attribute?


    June 9, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    • Of course!!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      June 9, 2014 at 11:07 pm

      • As an artist and educator interested in the links between art/ science and communications I find your blog really refreshing – thanks for letting me reblog 🙂


        June 10, 2014 at 11:21 am

  17. I love this. As a student, I cant tell you how many times Ive had to wake myself up or attempt to focus on a subject I LOVE because the teacher drones on in a lecture type format. Even the best things are horrendous in lecture.


    June 9, 2014 at 11:06 pm

  18. I agree: Stories put facts into a meaningful, and therefore memorable, context


    June 10, 2014 at 1:45 am

  19. inspiration….


    June 10, 2014 at 1:52 am

  20. Agree! Totally agree! I teach history and I have found that telling them the topic in the form of a story is always more effective than any other form


    June 10, 2014 at 2:28 am

  21. Love the point about stories and facts. As well as ” They are the currency of human contact.” It was absolutely correct in my opinion.


    June 10, 2014 at 5:20 am

  22. Reblogged this on Tracey M Benson and commented:
    Great post by educator Jackie Gerstein on the difference between lecturing and storytelling Reblogged with permission.


    June 10, 2014 at 11:19 am

  23. This is amazing work! great choice of topic! I reread it like four times! Looking forward for more work!


    June 10, 2014 at 5:06 pm

  24. I agree. As a history teacher, I try to get the students to understand that history is just a bunch of individual stories.


    June 10, 2014 at 10:50 pm

  25. From my experience as student and as teacher, as reader and as writer, I find this so true about the power and value of story-telling.
    Thanks for the reminder.


    June 10, 2014 at 11:32 pm

  26. i love how you actually delved into the brain activity. truly brilliant post.


    June 11, 2014 at 5:24 am

  27. As a university student, I found it quite interesting that brain activity was higher during sleep than during lectures! haha.

    Although, it is quite challenging in the academic world to present all the research in their fields in the story format, do you think so?


    June 11, 2014 at 9:29 pm

  28. So I wonder if the toga clad young men at Socrates feet thought, O lord, another lecture, or – Great a new story?
    I remember the stories now, lectures? All i remember is the crowded hall, the nasty seats and people who came late or left early while I sat on and wondered when the hour would be up…
    Nice post, thanks.


    June 12, 2014 at 2:53 pm

  29. What an Awesome Post! Being a college student, studying engineering and Political Science, I completely agree. I, as my career has progressed, have stopped going to classes as frequently as I used to for precisely this reason. Lectures are boring and slow. I am not challenged nor is my interest peaked which means I don’t pay attention. I now teach myself a lot of the concepts. Teachers really should take this post to heart.


    June 12, 2014 at 4:20 pm

  30. Interesting post, thank you. As a business school lecturer newly appointed from industry I was horrified to learn that I had been one of the lecturers chosen for one of her seminars to be assessed by external UK higher education auditors. My report said ‘theoretical content accurate but we suggest that stories from organisational life are not an appropriate means of transferring knowledge to undergraduate students’. I couldn’t understand that then and still can’t understand it!

    Carole Tansley

    June 15, 2014 at 7:36 pm

  31. Thanks for an interesting post.

    I think too much responsibility is placed on educators to make their delivery engaging; all they have to do is convey their passion for the subject matter and get it across clearly. It is our job, as students, to find a way in – to latch onto something we can take away. If I just going sit there bored, I may as well not show up. So in that sense, we both have a responsibility to make it worthwhile.


    June 23, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    • Thanks for providing the student’s perspective and responsibility, John.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      June 23, 2014 at 8:26 pm

  32. My favorite educators knew how to tell a story and connect it to a lesson. I am guilty myself of tangential teaching, breaking into stories to keep myself amused! Now, if only I could tell a story well enough to snag a publisher!

    Elizabeth Brown

    June 30, 2014 at 5:27 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: