TITLE: Storytelling as a Source of Insight AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 09, 2014 5:40 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Last week, someone tweeted a link to Learning to Learn, a decade-old blog entry by Chris Sells. His lesson is two-fold. To build a foundation of knowledge, he asks "why?" a lot. That is a good tactic in many settings. He learned a method for gaining deeper insight by accident. He was tabbed to teach a five-day course. When he reached Day 5, he realized that he didn't know the material well enough -- he didn't know what to say. The only person who could take over for him was out of town. So he hyperventilated for a while, then decided to fake it. That's when learning happened:
As I was giving the slides that morning on COM structured storage (a particularly nasty topic in COM), I found myself learning how it it worked as I told the story to my audience. All the studying and experimentation I'd done had given me the foundation, but not the insights. The insights I gained as I explained the technology. It was like fireworks. I went from through those topics in a state of bliss as all of what was really going on underneath exploded in my head. That moment taught me the value of teaching as a way of learning that I've used since. Now, I always explain stuff as a way to gain insight into whatever I'm struggling with, whether it's through speaking or writing. For me, and for lots of others, story telling is where real insight comes from.
I have been teaching long enough to know that it doesn't always go this smoothly. Often, when I don't know what to say, I don't do a very good job. Occasionally, I fail spectacularly. But it happens surprisingly often just as Sells describes. If we have a base of knowledge, the words come, and in explaining an idea for the first time -- or the hundredth -- we come to understand it in a new, deeper way. Sometimes, we write to learn. Other times, we teach. We can help our students benefit from this phenomenon, too. Of course, we ask them to write. But we can go further with in-class activities in which students discuss topics and explain them to one another. Important cognitive processing happens when students explain a concept that doesn't happen when they study on our own. I think the teach-to-learn phenomenon is at play in the "why?" tactic we use to learn in the first place. The answer to a why is an reason, an explanation. Asking "why?" is the beginning of telling stories to ourselves. Story telling is, indeed, a source of deeper insight. -----