At our workshops, Jon and I typically tease the audience with imaginary swag. We don’t have any — no pens, no mugs, no stickers. If we did, our swag would be T shirts that said “Story First!” on the front, and each workshop participant would get one. Alas, no T shirts either…

So we believe that good history teaching starts with storytelling. We believe that because we’ve observed it and tried it ourselves. Jon cited Natalie Wexler in his blog post last week. She believes it, too, apparently on account of the work of Daniel Willingham. Willingham is a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia who writes about reading and education. After reading Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap, I read Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? to see what the fuss was about.

Mid-Range Puzzles Engage The Mind

What’s great about Willingham’s book — and it is great — is that he explains why stories work. What motivates children (and adults) to learn new things is puzzles in the midrange. If your brain has nothing to figure out, it gets bored. And if the puzzle it confronts appears irresolvable, it grows frustrated and avoidant. But get the puzzle in the midrange, where it is challenging enough to stimulate but tractable enough to provide a satisfying resolution, and the brain gets jazzed. 

It turns out not to matter what the puzzle is about. It just isn’t true that “relevant” content will motivate our students. On the contrary, a puzzle-less curriculum on a high-interest topic will be inherently less engaging for students than an appropriately challenging one on a topic completely foreign to them. 

So what do midrange puzzles have to do with storytelling? Willingham’s theory about why stories work — why they’re so engaging and memorable — is that they typically consist of a series of mildly challenging puzzles, all driven by the question: what happens next? A well-told story, with enough information and coherence to make the next action predictable without being completely obvious, will engage and stimulate the brains of our students. 

And, it turns out, the puzzles we think about become the contents of our memory. One of the reasons stories are so memorable — as opposed, say, to lists, arguments, or descriptions — is that they keep us thinking. When we audit a story, we’re constantly anticipating, trying to figure out what comes next, and we’re constantly relating prior events to subsequent ones. That active reckoning during storytelling is preparation for later recall. 

According to Willingham, one of the crucial differences between proficient and struggling readers is that good readers know more, and so understand more of what they read. Likewise, acquiring a critical mass of historical narratives is crucial to historical thinking. The more we have loaded into long-term memory, the less taxed our short-term memory will be. That’s important, because short-term memory is fixed and fragile. The more we can store and chunk — like the events in a story, or a story itself — the more we can actively and effectively think about things. Once you know your story, then you can ask and answer Questions Two through Four. Story first!

Finally, as teachers, we’ve all been encouraged to build on our students’ prior knowledge. New learning sticks to old, like velcro. The challenge for history teachers is that we want to introduce our students to people they don’t yet know, who lived in times and places different from their own, who had ideas about things that frequently seem unusual or even bizarre to us. 

Story Form = Mental Velcro

The most startling idea I found in Willingham’s book is this: telling stories about strange people and times and places actually does build on the background knowledge of our students. It recruits their knowledge of narrative structure. As Willingham explains, stories are “easy to comprehend” (67-68). We all get the format: one thing leads to another. Our students have been hearing and practicing this form since they could make sense in language. If we start from what they know — how stories work — we can then relate the foreign and distant to the local and personal. Those historical people — they’re people like us, doing things with and to each other, just like we do. The story form is the velcro. 

Willingham adds a bit of advice for storytellers in all disciplines: don’t give away too much or too little. Since storytelling is essentially a puzzle exercise, it’s important to omit enough information so that the listener or reader has to do some mental exertion to fill in the gaps, to infer what’s missing. (Relentless inclusion of detail is a good way to put your audience to sleep.) But it’s also important to include enough information so that the listener will be successful in making those inferences. When you ask a listener, implicitly or explicitly, to make an inference about what happened next, make sure to give them enough information to make a reasonable one. 

Notoriously, we all suffer confirmation bias. We latch onto evidence that supports our assumptions and beliefs and discount evidence that contradicts them. So maybe I like Willingham because his argument about narrative fits ours. On the other hand, Willingham has lots of experimental data to support his conclusions. Likewise, Jon and I have lots of years of practice and revision in the classroom under our belts. Anyway, if you do manage to convince us that storytelling isn’t the foundation of successful history teaching, we promise to change the slogan on our T shirts…