Expert tells faculty that storytelling opens channels of communication

Some College of Education faculty learned recently about the importance of storytelling in their teaching and in their research as well.  Credit: Jim Carlson / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Some Penn State College of Education faculty learned recently the importance of storytelling in relation to their teaching as well as humanizing their research.

Micaela Blei, a former teacher and professional storyteller who has been associated with National Public Radio's (NPR) The Moth, told a group of educators at 3 Dots Downtown in State College that teaching is something on which they have a viewpoint and a point of view.

“And that is shaped by the places they’ve been, the things they’ve done and the things they’ve learned,” Blei said. “Being an educator of any kind is a madly personal act. It is a caretaking profession unique to a lot of other professions. 

“Teachers have been taught before they teach — always. So, you could train to be a nuclear power plant engineer but you have never been inside of a nuclear power plant until you become a nuclear power plant engineer, right? But we all have our experiences of school. We all have our experiences of teachers. We all have our experiences of learning, even outside of the classroom,” she said.

Research is similar, Blei explained, because faculty have a personal point of view, personal things that have shaped them in regard to what they find interesting and in which academic direction they may choose.

The art of storytelling is what can help humanize research, according to Jason Griffith, assistant professor of education. 

“When we start getting into methodology and theory and things like that, we miss the kind of impetus, the kind of causes and the real-world takeaways, as well as inspirations or the stories that sort of bring us to our work,” Griffith said. “What brings us to do the research we do is often more interesting than when sometimes it's presented in an academic way.”

Story is a way to connect on a human level, according to Griffith.

“We crave a story and a story is a way to make our arguments and encapsulate information and a much more kind of engaging way than just doing those things alone. I think it also broadens our audience,” Griffith said. 

“If we're going to AERA (American Educational Research Association) or we're going to an educational conference or we're publishing for an academic journal … we're writing for other academics who are steeped in this academic language. By taking those findings or those inspirations or those challenges and putting them into story form, I think it delves into realms of advocacy … we can advocate for that, we can talk about why our findings are important,” he said.

Griffith, whose specialty is language and literacy education, works with research that relates to teacher education, and he said a lot of teachers aren’t reading academic journals.

“If I can take my findings from a research study and story those in a way that a classroom teacher might understand — like, let me tell you how this research might impact this former student that I had and how it might inform a different approach — that might be something that they can connect to and actually apply,” he said.

Rose Zbiek, head of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, said telling stories is something that people do naturally.

“The idea of refining a story to connect with someone else can be at the heart of relationships,” she said.

“In teaching, the stories we tell about ourselves connect us as people to our students, colleagues and communities. Our willingness not only to tell our stories but also to listen to others’ stories helps us to see situations in different ways," said Zbiek.

Zbiek also said the formal papers that faculty write about their research have aspects of storytelling, as they connect with their audience and inform what is the change or new knowledge or insight that they want to share. 

“In addition, the stories we tell that go beyond the elevator version of our scholarship help us to form collaborations and form partnerships,” she said.

Blei, who staged a College of Education-sponsored presentation of The Moth (dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling) in 2016, provided attendees with a couple of stories of her own. She also oversaw various helpful exercises and offered guidance on how people telling a story can get their listeners to see things from their perspective.

The college’s commitment to storytelling was enhanced when former Dean David Monk and his wife, Pam, donated an estate gift of $1.5 million that eventually will be for the development of a Center for the Story.

“That's exactly why this event took place,” said Griffith, who explained that pre-activation money for the center has come from donors. “I think the idea is that we generate events using this pre-activation funding, get more faculty involved in these types of things, and kind of build a community around storytelling."

Griffith teaches Telling Research Stories, a graduate-level course about how to disseminate research in a public fashion. 

“It’s what I might call public pedagogy, so when an academic with a Ph.D. who's conducted studies does a podcast or a documentary film or an infographic, there are different ways to take research findings and get them to a broader audience of practitioners. We look at kind of the role of story as an agent of that,” he said.

Sharing stories on the human level was what Griffith and Zbiek wanted to have happen at the recent downtown gathering.

“It just kind of takes us to a different part of our brain and I think it opens up different channels of communication, which was one big part of the purpose,” Griffith said.

Last Updated February 10, 2020