Cognitive tools: Story

Why are stories important in teaching history and social studies?

Central to this approach is the idea that teaching successfully requires us to engage the feelings of our students in what we want them to learn. In general, this may seem like a claim most teachers would agree with

But this approach asks you not only to engage the students’ feelings, but also asks teachers to begin by finding within themselves some emotional connection with the topic. Our aim here is to show that this idea isn’t as odd as it may initially seem and, in fact, when considered for a few minutes, may well come to seem obvious common sense.

And this is where stories come in. If we look a little deeper we can see why stories are universally used in all human cultures, and why we use them all the time, even at times when we might not recognize we are using this most ancient and powerful of all cultural inventions.

So what kind of “tool” is the story? Well, it’s the kind of tool that enables you to understand how to feel about events. Stories shape experience and knowledge into forms that uniquely can establish their emotional meaning. That is, stories don’t simply convey information and describe events, they shape their contents so that we will feel good or bad, joyful or sorrowful—even if only in small degrees—as we hear about them. No other form of language can do this.

If we were to tell you about a generous and skilled doctor, and add, “It was a hot day and the doctor dived into the water,” you may feel a small pleasure for her. But when we further tell you “the water was crowded with hungry sharks,” you may feel some regret or distress. The story could continue with the information that she was trying out a new shark repellant, or that she was risking her life to save a child who had fallen in the water. Your feelings about her diving into the water would change depending on the subsequent events. You would know you have reached the end of the story when you know how to feel about her diving in and about the other events — in this case our feelings will also be significantly shaped by whether the doctor later had or was lunch.

When people write about the use of stories in teaching history they most commonly refer to historical fictions, imaginary stories set in some past events, and discuss the many ways that stories can be used, and their potential educational power. Here we will be ignoring the use of fictional stories entirely—not because we don‘t think they can’t serve good purposes in teaching history or social studies, but rather because there are many fine books and articles about this. Here we want to focus on a different use of the story, though inevitably we will also refer to some fictional stories. But in general we want to focus on the use of stories to shape content of any kind, true or fictional, into emotionally satisfying forms.

When a father asks his daughter, “What’s the story on the new soccer coach?” or the mother asks her son, “What’s the story on the new teacher?” the parents are not asking their children to make up a fiction. They are asking them to select events from their experiences and shape them to bring out their emotional meaning, to help the parents know how to feel about the coach or the teacher. Or when the editor asks a journalist, “What’s the story on the fire downtown,” the editor isn’t asking the journalist to invent a fiction, but rather to shape the events and facts into a form that will most attract the interest of the paper’s readers. We constantly use the story form to shape events, to tell our friends about something that happened in the office or an adventure on holiday. This narratizing is a central human skill, and those who do it well have both a satisfying ability to clarify and sharpen meanings for themselves, and have an important power in being able to convey information and meanings to others. This power can be greatly valued in all walks of life. It is also one of the great skills that can make teachers most effective in educating, and it is a skill that can be learned by simple practice—in ways such as we will demonstrate in this section of the website. (You can read more about stories and their roles in teaching by clicking here).

So stories do two important things at the same time for teachers; they can communicate information very clearly and effectively, and they can engage the emotions of the students in the knowledge being learned.

Give me a few quick example of how I might use stories in teaching history or social studies.

1. [coming soon]

How else can we employ stories in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ history and social studies capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “story” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

Some concluding words about stories

When the teacher begins to plan any lesson, it would do no harm to ask, like the newspaper editor, “What’s the story here?” That is, how can I present the topic in a manner that brings out its emotional meaning and engages the students’ imaginations? We can’t be mesmerizingly successful at this all day every day, of course, but it’s a question that can help us to be a bit more imaginative ourselves, and find what is emotionally important about the topic for ourselves as well as the students. We are reminded of Egan’s Teaching as story telling (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). The theme of that book, as of this section of this website, was to show that thinking about lessons and units of study as good stories to tell rather than simply as sets of objectives to attain, can help to bring some extra energy and interest into teaching and learning.