Story-Telling and Teaching

‘Sir you are a wonderful Story-Teller, We have learnt so much from your stories’. This is a statement which one of my students made in last alumni session. Although I enjoyed the appreciation but it kept me thinking, Am I justifying my role, when someone recognizes me as a storyteller?’ This question is trying to affect my thought-process for past some months now. Its not the first time this idea, ‘a storyteller overpowering a mentor’, has crossed my mind, but some recent events have aggravated the image to a clear digital type.

We belong to a culture, traditionally, where ancient knowledge was passed to next generation, not in ink but shruti and smriti (listen and remember). Which means knowledge was inside mind and a guru recited it to a disciple and he grabbed it by just listening. This was ofcourse ancient Vedic knowledge which was the essence of life. With the deterioration of knowledge transfer system and gradual decline in guru-shishya parampara, even the written form of The Vedas were no good and they gave way to Upnishads. Upnishads were not transalations of Vedas but discussions and commentaries as recorded and written probably on orders of Kings. Upnishads can certainly never match the wisdom hidden in Vedas but, yes they are easy to understand and give a clear version of an expert. Most popular of them, The Gita, or Gitopnishad, the song of God, or a commentary by Shri Krishna in a battlefield with his disciple Arjuna. With the passage of time it also became clear that even Upnishads were difficult to understand, hence story telling emerged. Bible is full of stories, so are Puranas. Famous Panchtantra was specially written in form of stories to teach values of life to students. Dante’s work of Inferno and Divine Comedy written in 14th century is a marvellous work on story telling.

Human mind grabs more things when it concentrates on it with involvement of most of his Gyanendriyas. With the decline in the power of concentration, new methods of teachings evolved, story telling being the most popular. Puranas, our ancient books about gods are full of stories. We have learnt many things about life, truth, salvation but from indirect method i.e. story telling. Now when we talk about religion, we remember stories, depicting power, strength, honour, austerity, self control, renunciation, courage, hostility, character building and what not. But, ultimately they are stories. Written to convey some message, they teach us something, and inculcate some values in us to develop our Vritti, which later on develop Sanskars.

The longest story written and heard being the Mahabharata. It is a huge compilation of stories narrated by sage Vaishampayana (pupil of sage Vyasa) in Naimisharanya in front of King Janamejaya and thousands of sages. Original text, known as Jaya, consisted of 8800 verses which by the time became Mahabharata was compiled into 100,000 verses. People really had time to listen to that long story.

Ancients knew about the power of story-telling. Probably this is the reason, they re-wrote knowledge in forms of stories. Stories are easier to understand, infer and remember. Sometimes it becomes difficult to question a statement of knowledge, a definition, a mantra or a text. We can’t relate with it and moreover we do not understand its practical use and implications. In case of stories, we understand the perspective in which what decision was taken, how it was formulated and what implications it bear. We relate to it and try to implement the same or similar way, next time we face a dilemma. We put ourselves in the shoes of the doer and sometimes even try to figure out a new dimension to it.

I remember a presentation I attended last year where two of my colleagues presented a paper on art of storytelling and its use in marketing strategy making. They demonstrated how marketing gurus try to connect a brand with a storyline and influence the mind-set of customer so that next time when he finds himself in that situation, he assumes the obvious answer will come from the story he saw in a commercial.

In management schools, an important aspect of teaching is using Case Study. Now when I attended a session on case study last month, I kept on thinking, what’s new in this? We learn from our own mistakes, and we learn from others mistakes. We learn from books and we learn by understanding the situations others are going through. Even while teaching a very rational subject like Computer Science, when we connect it with story, it gives a conceptual clarity. Most dangerous thing will be absence of clarity, which generates fear. If we want our student to explore, experiment and innovate, we need to make him free from fears.

The only problem I see in story telling is that it is sometimes deep-rooted. It enters in our subconscious mind so firmly that we stop thinking, which means we connect a concept with a story and we assume it is the ultimate truth. We all have experienced it in religion where a story sometimes becomes the goal (Advait-wadis or Monoist often criticise this). I experienced it myself in that workshop where some questions or topics had fixed references to cases. Every member of audience was unanimous in voicing this case but most of them had no clue about any other case or reference so they could recite. This way stories might create a small obstacle in their own path of self-learning.

I believe a teacher has to strike a right cord while using a case or a story to teach an important concept. No doubt it is an easy way but it has to be handled properly. If we consider the phrase ‘story telling’, we see a story and a definite end, which may be a climax or an anti-climax but it has a definite end. Hence our mind draws a conclusion with every story and links it with the situation in the story. When we have a definite ending, we have a line segment not a ray, which expands. Idea is to understand a concept using a situation, see what others did in this and explore what you would have done. So no story it should be a saga which continues.

Mr. Devesh Lowe,
Assistant Professor
JIMS Rohini

Leave a Comment

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>