Tell stories, not data

A close friend of mine is a teaching assistant in a well-respected school. She works mostly with disadvantaged children who have special needs and she is a wizard at motivating them.

She told me this tale recently of an incident she was involved with at school and I asked her if I could retell it here because it demonstrates how stories have incredible power and can produce astonishing results (she agreed of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be retelling it).

Her main charge at school is a boy called Daniel (not his real name) and he had always struggled with the basics. Simple arithmetic was proving to be a real stumbling block for him. Several teachers had tried to teach him the principle of adding up a column of figures and carrying over the tens into an adjoining column if the added up numbers exceeded nine.

No matter how many times they went over the principle, Daniel just couldn’t get his head round the idea – it was too abstract for him.

Then my friend (let’s call her Jane) was given the task of helping him.

Now, my friend is a genius at intuitively understanding children and their interests so she approached this issue in a novel way.

“Look, Daniel” she said “at the bottom of this column of figures is a room. This room can only hold nine people at the most so when all the numbers in this column are added together and they total less than ten, then that number of people can still all fit into the same room together so they can continue to party.

“But if the total adds up to more than nine then that extra ‘one’ it creates can’t fit into the party room and so it has to leave the room and be all on its lonesome with nowhere to go. In order to help the lonely boy, how about we create a new room especially to house him? Let’s call the new room the ‘ten room’ and we build it next door to the other room. In here, the tens can go straight from the singles room and meet up with their own friends to play with.

“They can continue partying just like the folks in the single figure room do – so everyone is happy.”

Daniel could visualise this scenario in a context he was familiar with and suddenly everything made sense to him. He lifted his head up and proclaimed proudly to Jane. “Mrs Creswell, you can go now because I know what I’m doing.”

Jane left Daniel to tackle the remaining sums by himself. When she returned and checked his sheet, Daniel had completed all the problems and managed to work out the correct answers without any further help from her. She knew then that he had intuitively grasped the principle and in future he could apply it where necessary.

This is the power of storytelling; a disadvantaged child has been able to make sense of the world because a facilitator had gone to the trouble of explaining a phenomenon using analogy and narrative.

Imagine the rush of insight Daniel must have experienced, as the secrets of the principle of addition were revealed to him for the first time. Then imagine his realisation that this knowledge has empowered him – he can solve problems for himself!

It’s no exaggeration to say that Jane may have changed Daniel’s life forever. By investing a bit of imagination into the explanation she gave him, she made Daniel realise that there are many different approaches to understanding a problem.

Is it any wonder that Jane is adored by the children in the school?

In any talk you give, be the creative facilitator – helping the audience understand the world better and empowering them to do things for themselves.  Make stories your friend and that task will become a lot easier.

1 Comment

  1. “By investing a bit of imagination into the explanation she gave him, she made Daniel realise that there are many different approaches to understanding a problem.” I think you’re conflating the experience of “Daniel” here with what should be the takeaway lesson for anybody outside of this situation who thinks of themselves as able: there are many different approaches to understanding a problem and our capabilities in conformity often disable our understanding by tying us to a conventional narrative of what is in front of us.And the frustration evident when that narrative can’t be followed along with doesn’t help its absorption. Nobody was made to do anything: that is the beauty of it. A naturally familiar narrative was easier to process and thus to generalise. So he was introduced to understanding without the confusing barriers: in this case the noisy silence of all the who-what-where-how-why you usually want to know and can find relatively easily if you get a bit more detailed in abstract from some everyday narrative. The new understanding arising here for your audience from the story and the purpose of this blog – to inculcate the idea of creative flexibility and the power of narrative – is very different to what Daniel’s immediate, important functional lesson was, which was indeed simply making sense of an arbitrary numerical column technique (because our base ten system is arbitrary, whilst having many things going for it). So the ‘she made Daniel see’ part was really disconcerting – when a sentence didn’t hinge the way you octopus!


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