Team Management Systems

The Basic Theory of Learning with Stories

By Jan Bentley
Copyright © Jan Bentley. All rights reserved.

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The theory behind learning and encouraging behavioral change with stories is complex and, as with all matters regarding the working of the human brain, there is still much research to be carried out before it is fully explored, understood and explained. In brief, stories are taken in and understood at the first attention level. This first attention level occurs when the brain is in beta state. The diagram link below shows the four basic brain states.

Brain States

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.

For stories which have been carefully crafted with this theory in mind, Aesop's Management Fables is an excellent resource full of stories of all genres to use on training workshops. The examples range from managing change to delegation.

Copyright © Jan Bentley. All rights reserved.

Jan Bentley (formerly Stewart) is a freelance writer and master trainer for Margerison-McCann Team Management Systems. Jan is the coauthor with Dick McCann of The Half-Empty Chalice and Aesop's Management Fables.

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