Have you ever noticed, when you teach, that the moment you start sharing a personal story with your students, they instantly snap to attention? You understand the value of stories. But some teachers don’t insert many stories into their lessons, because they’re worried that they don’t have gripping stories to tell, or that they aren’t good storytellers. So maybe it’s worth identifying which kinds of stories are effective in making ideas stick. The answer is this: virtually any kind.
The stories don’t have to be dramatic, they don’t have to be captivating, and they don’t have to be very entertaining. The story form itself does most of the heavy lifting — even a boring story will be stickier than a set of facts. Several times in the book, we’ve seen the power of a story to keep students engaged — remember the “Safe Night Out” entrepreneurial story, used to teach accounting (pp. 107109)? It was so effective that it made students more likely to major in accounting. Or recall Cialdini’s story of the race to solve the mystery of Saturn’s rings (pp. 8082). Just a few pages back, we discussed the tale of the petting-zoo food thief. None of these stories were Oscar material, but they were irresistible to students.
Stories can be useful for discipline as well as academics. Greg Kim, a ninth-grade English teacher at Eagle Rock High School, used a story to reach an unruly student, whom we’ll call John. John was a well-meaning student who just couldn’t seem to stop socializing or horsing around in class. Kim talked to him several times and tried to explain that his behavior was disrupting the class and endangering his grade. Often, John would take these talks to heart and change his behavior — for a few days. Making matters worse, on the rare days that he did behave well, John would say, “Aren’t you proud of me? I was good today.”
Kim said, “I tried to talk to him about consistency, and how he needed to be focused every day. But John looked at me, confused. . . . In his mind, being good sometimes was being good always.” Kim struggled with the problem of how to get John to understand the need for consistent behavior. He tried analogies like “one step forward two steps back.” But all he got from John was a blank look.
Later, Kim was discussing the situation with another teacher who had taught John in English class the previous year. The teacher had similar problems with John and, indeed, the only time John had shone was when he wrote a personal narrative about how he’d lost thirty pounds. Suddenly, Kim realized what he should do:
“The next day I spoke to John about his behavioral inconsistency and compared it to a friend of mine who had struggled with weight loss. The friend had decided to go on a diet and exercise regimen to lose weight. The first day, he was good. He ate right and exercised, but the second day he broke his diet and didn’t exercise. The next day he was good, but the following two days he was bad again. And so it went, on and on. I told John that my friend would beg for my approval by letting me know he was good on the days that he was, but weeks later he had somehow gained weight. I told John this story and asked if he knew what the problem was. He laughed and said the answer was obvious. With a big smile, John said, “He didn’t stick to his diet every day.” I stared at him and watched the realization engulf him, and his smile became thoughtful.
This conversation was about three weeks ago, and while John isn’t perfect every day, the ratio has reversed and he is consistently focused most every day.”
John couldn’t “see” his behavior, couldn’t understand why it needed to change, until he was confronted with a story that made him see things in a different way. Continual nagging didn’t change him — a story did. Stories have a unique power to engage and inspire. How can you harness that power to make your lessons stick?
The above is an excerpt from the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Excerpted from Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath Copyright © 2007 by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chip Heath, co-author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He lives in Los Gatos, California.
Dan Heath, co-author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, is a Consultant to the Policy Programs of the Aspen Institute. A former researcher at Harvard Business School, he is a co-founder of Thinkwell, an innovative new-media textbook company. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.