The Basic Theory of Learning with Stories

by Jan Stewart

Copyright © Jan Stewart. All rights reserved.

This article has been reprinted from the Team Management Systems website. Please visit for further information or to contact the authors direct.

When a person listens to a story, both sides of the brain are working. The left brain is processing the words while the right brain is actively filling in the gaps. This is the reason why it is so important to read to children, to allow their brains to imagine the story rather than using television and films for all their learning. Good story writers carefully choose visual, auditory, kinesthetic and olfactory words to give the story depth and to stimulate the right brain to enrich the meaning of the story and store it in the memory for easy recall.

The information in the story can also be captured at the second attention level as the brain searches for a deeper meaning. At this level, the right brain is often favored as relationships and patterns are developed. Processing can be in either the Beta or Alpha state but it is an unconscious process - that is, we are not aware that we are doing it. The second attention level is where the story is reformulated to have personal relevance. Sometimes the story stays at this level and causes unconscious behavioral change, or it can rise into the first attention level through an "A-ha!" reaction.

It is vital that the story, myth, legend or whatever is chosen, is selected carefully. Ideally the story should be easily understood at the first attention level but stimulate a search for a deeper meaning at some time in the future.

The following extract from Nelson Mandela's book, Long Walk to Freedom (Mandela, 1995) illustrates exactly how this process works.

The audience became more and more quiet as Chief Maligqili spoke and, I think, I became more and more angry. No one wanted to hear the words that he spoke that day. I know that I myself did not want to hear them. I was cross rather than aroused by the chief's remarks, dismissing his words as the abusive comments of an ignorant man who was unable to appreciate the value of an education and the benefits that the white man had brought to our country. At that time, I looked on the white man not as an oppressor but as a benefactor, and I thought the chief was enormously ungrateful. This upstart chief was ruining my day, spoiling the proud feeling with wrong-headed remarks.

But without exactly understanding why, his words soon began to work on me. He had sown a seed, and though I had let that seed lie dormant for a long season, it eventually began to grow. Later I realised that the ignorant man that day was not the chief but myself.

The Chief's speech stayed with Mandela for years before the search for personal meaning began which eventually burst into his consciousness.

If you would like to delve further on this topic then How to Influence Others at Work contains a whole chapter on this theory.

Perhaps, you would prefer to go straight to some stories which have been carefully crafted with this theory in mind? Aesop's Management Fables is full of stories of all genres to use on training workshops. The examples range from managing change to delegation.

Recommended reading:

Copyright © Jan Stewart. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Jan Stewart is a freelance writer and columnist. She is a master trainer in Team Management Systems and was, for eight years, a TMS Product Development Manager and program facilitator.

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