This past weekend, I attended the Teaching Professor conference in Boston and was able to hear two gifted plenary speakers discuss their views on teaching and learning. Dr. Stephen Brookfield started the conference by discussing how one becomes a “mindful teacher” by utilizing whatever is needed to get students to learn, no matter how strange or outlandish. Dr. Kenneth Alford kicked off the second day of the conference by discussing strategies for working with unprepared students and outlined different ways to motivate students in the digital age. Despite their disparate topics, both speakers were engaging and helped to inspire the audience of professors in attendance.
As I reflected on their presentations, I thought about what made their sessions so meaningful and powerful. Clearly, both individuals were enthusiastic and entertaining and the content of their presentations was informative and coherent. These are necessary ingredients to a strong presentation, but, sadly, they aren’t always sufficient enough to carry the attention of a large audience, especially a discriminating and critical group of academics. As I think about Dr. Brookfield and Dr. Alford’s presentations, it’s the stories that resonated with the audience. In addition to sharing salient points and research that translated directly to practice, the presenters shared their stories of success and failure in the classroom. They outlined their experiences and discussed how they learned from their foibles. The stories of humanity won the day.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of stories lately. I recently finished reading Think like a Freak, a book written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner which offers to retrain the reader’s brain using their theories of “freakonomics.” Whether my brain has been retrained or not remains to be seen, but I definitely remember the stories they offered in support of their theories. Whether they were discussing how they motivated terrorists to purchase life insurance or how Zappos offers their employers money to quit their jobs, it’s the stories that I remember. It’s the stories that bring value to the subject matter. And it’s the stories that made the content more meaningful.
This morning, I presented with two colleagues on different strategies we’ve employed on campus to foster innovative pedagogy with faculty. Rather than provide a stodgy presentation where we just shared impact data, we decided to tell stories. For each of the different initiatives we’ve attempted on campus, we told our stories of success and failure. We discussed the background that lead to each individual project and the characters who played instrumental roles in the projects. It might not have been the most traditional academic presentation but it really resonated with the folks in attendance. The presentation was a clear hit.
There’s something elemental and primeval about the story as a form of communication. It harkens back to days of cave dwellers sharing their tales of survival and passing down their oral histories across generations. In a lot of ways, the story is one of the most basic forms of instruction. Whether we’re working in online or face-to-face learning environments, we need to remember the power of the story. Don’t be afraid to tell your story. It might be the most critical conduit that connects to some students.