Great Teaching. The Power of Stories

Across many subject domains, very often the challenge for students is to understand and remember sets of ideas where there is a sequence of events or steps, where there are causal links between one set of events and other sets and where complexities arise from the multiple possible paths that events can follow.

  • How climate change flows from excessive carbon emissions
  • How humans came to exist on a planet orbiting a star
  • How poets convey the realities of war through imagery and emotions conveyed in the language and structure of their poems.
  • How fossils of sea creatures can be found half way up a mountain
  • How we can derive and use equations that can tell us how objects  will move in the future
  • How in 1854 John Snow came to understand that cholera was water-borne.
  • How Scrooge’s character and behaviour reveals aspects of Victorian attitudes.
  • How a loudspeaker works.

In order words, very often we are dealing with curriculum stories.  

This is fortunate and not entirely coincidental because, as Daniel Willingham explains in Why Don’t Students Like School (pp66-75) in a sub-section entitled ‘The Power of Stories’:

 “‘The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories -so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material.” 

Willingham goes on to suggest that a very powerful way for students to engage with many ideas and also to remember them is for teachers to consciously harness the power of stories in the way lessons and lesson materials are organised.  (He explains this via a lovely exploration of Star Wars and the way we make inferences as the story progresses.)


He suggests that stories can usefully be described to have four features – four Cs:

  • Causality: through stories, we develop an understanding that events are not random; they connect; one thing causes another.  It’s a well-understood notion to the extent that we seek out causality  – we’re thinking about it as stories unfold.
  • Conflict: stories very often involve a protagonists needing to overcome difficulties in pursuit of a goal; there are competing forces at play; challenges to overcome.
  • Complications: the sub-plots and subproblems that make up a story are what give it depth and add interest.
  • Character: good stories have strong characters where their qualities become evident through their actions; we deduce their qualities rather than having being told.

According to Willingham, with these properties in mind, stories yield several important cognitive advantages:

  1. They are easy to comprehend: because our experience of stories leads us to seek out causality, to make connections, to anticipate and refer back – all leading to thinking and memory-making. We do this more naturally with story formats than with others.
  2. They are interesting: story formats register higher levels of interest than other formats because we are invited to make inferences – we don’t like to be told all the details or to have too many spoilers!  Just as we enjoy doing puzzles that are in the sweet-spot of difficulty (not too hard, not too easy), stories have that effect too.
  3. They are easy to remember: this is for two reasons: 
    • the medium-diffculty inference we need to make force us to think about meaning – which is essential for good recall.
    • their causal structure supports memory if we remember one part of the story we are likely to remember other related parts.

Willingham goes on to give some examples from history and statistics showing how story structures can support the teaching of specific topics.  It makes so much sense. If we’re engaging students in learning, we should try to identify the story that we’re trying to tell: the sequence of events, the causal links, the sources of conflict, the complications and, where relevant, the “characters”.

This needn’t be taken too literally – it depends on the subject  – but, for sure we should be inviting students to understand the story-like structures we’re dealing with in all the examples given at the top and for them to use them to re-tell the stories.

How does a loudspeaker work?  There’s a goal.  There are some challenges and complications. There’s a whole sequence of causal steps:  this happens because this happens which then makes this happen… so that if we find that this has happened, it means that this must have happened.  We’d need to get the steps in the right order for the causal links to make sense.  

I think that a major implication for teaching is that instead of checking for students’ recall of bits or isolated information, we should be checking that they can tell the whole story.  If you asked someone to show you that they could remember and understand the Star Wars/Loudspeaker/Cholera story, you’d need to generate an opportunity for them to tell you the version of the story they’ve remembered in as much detail as possible.  That means asking them to run through ideas in a more extended fashion; we probe, we ask further questions, we look to see if details are missing, we try to see if certain narrative connections have been made.  That’s how we should teach a lot of our curriculum stories.

A lot of the ideas here relate to the elements of explaining well as I outlined in a previous blog series.  There I used this example of Brian Cox explaining the idea of entropy as time’s arrow. He’s basically telling a story:

And here’s a student showing they’ve understood coastal erosion by re-telling the story through an animation:

(If you want further inspiration for the power of stories, I’d recommend reading Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines where he explores the role of story-telling through song in Aboriginal culture.  )



  1. I have a picture of my grandson annotated with “and suddenly”. We used to read him stories and he would listen and be watching out for the rise in tension and be it a new or old story had the uncanny ability to chip in at the correct moment put his hand over the book (which he could not read then) and say “and suddenly”.

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  2. My son told me I was strange yesterday when I made up a short story about the shopping I needed to buy so I wouldn’t forget anything. I was driving at the time so couldn’t write a list and explained to him that I always do this when I need to remember something. In the story, some corned beef fell into the butter so I had to use kitchen roll to remove it – you get the idea. I didn’t forget anything which goes to prove the power of stories!

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