Having had a long commute over the past 4 years, I listened to many audio books. At first, I felt like I was cheating. It was definitely easier than reading but was I getting as much out of it? This question, along with my time in the Peace Corps teaching where there was no school and no books. Where most of what I learned could not be found in a book, started me thinking back to how people learned before books, before the printing press and before writing.
Humans have always learned best from stories and storytelling. I think we all remember listening to stories and many of you now read some of those same stories to your own children. Stories with lessons. The Boy Who Cried Wolf is one I often have to tell my 6 year old and I recite Green Eggs and Ham every time my girls refuse to try a new food. Try it and you may I say.... I also remember bible stories from youth group when I was young.
When we listen to a story, our brain is taking those ideas and concepts and trying to imagine or create images of what is happening, just as if we were seeing it or had seen it before. Like a memory. Images make the imagining even easier. That is how the brain retains the information/lesson and is able to recall it and make a decision based on it when they see or experience a similar situation.
That is how we evolved and it helped us survive and thrive and build culture and community and values. These stories can use analogies, add context and relationships to concepts that are often difficult to grasp if you've never experienced them before. These stories, context, relationships and analogies were often personalized for the audience making them more valuable.
The learner could then easily visualize and then practice on their own and get immediate feedback and make corrections and try again, improving each time after getting feedback initially from the story teller/teacher/coach and once confident enough, from their peers. Each of their peers may have had a different set of stories, contexts, relationships and analogies to share with each other and could share different aspects with each other. And the story grows, and the confidence and competence grow...and the learning continues.
The stories were eventually accompanied by drawings and paintings on cave walls, then tree bark. Storytelling combined with images, bringing stories to life. (Stories, sermons, plays, opera, Radio shows and silent movies turned to television and the movies of today). This was a game changer for learning. We had the images now that went along with the story so our brains did not have to go through the effort of visualizing it in our minds. It also brought consistency. When we listen to something, each of us has a unique image in our minds. Now the image was the same for all of us and that helped to build better understanding and tighter communities. Many ancient conflicts were caused by different interpretations of the same stories. I wonder if consistent imagery may have prevented some of those from happening. Maybe today?
Long ago those images evolved into sounds and letters and writing the stories down allowed them to be told far away from the storyteller and long after they died. Now if you could read, YOU were a storyteller, spreading the word. It was a tremendous benefit of course, but not as good as the original storyteller. They could still tell the story but most likely did not personalize it to fit the audience needs with context, relationships and analogies.
When we read, it is similar to listening to a story, but there is an added layer. It is much easier for us to turn language into images in our brains than text. There is a translation that needs to take place in our minds before the imaging part can begin. By ages 10-12 this translation is nearly automatic but it is still there and can get in the way with new words, or reading difficulties such as dyslexia.
Those letters then went on a printing press and those stories could be spread far and wide and populations learned to read and the storyteller lost importance in the developing world. The storyteller is still very important to a large part of the world who cannot read and do not have electricity for radio or television.
In education today, there is very little storytelling, very little personalized context, relationships or analogies and even less practice and feedback. We put learners into classrooms and expect that they all learn the same things, at the same pace without personalization. And since they are all hearing the same things, they can't share different experiences and help each other grow. Practice is limited and typically saved for home and feedback even more limited.
You can do well if you learn to memorize what to write down on the periodic tests, but by the time you have to apply it in real life, you don't recall much of what you wrote on the test so long ago. And you can pass each year, even if you only remembered 70% of what to write down on the test. Those 30% gaps can add up quickly and make it harder to learn and harder to move ahead. Knowledge gaps can be very stressful for learners and when stressed or threatened, the learning part of the brain shuts down. When learners are scared, stressed, frustrated or threatened at all, they aren't learning.
We need to go old school with designing learning. We need to go back to storytelling, personalized with context, relationships, analogies to add value for learners and include continuous opportunities for practice and feedback. The more frequent the practice and feedback, the faster the learners will become confident, build competence and move from curiosity to mastery.