Telling a Story vs. Giving a Lecture in the Elementary Classroom Environment
Have you ever been spellbound by a captivating storyteller spinning a thrilling tale that had you propped at the edge of your seat, eagerly awaiting the next piece of colorful imagery to pique your curiosity and tantalize your imagination? If so, you likely recall vivid impressions of that story because it stimulated your mind and your imagination in such a way that the story became woven into the fabric of your memory, and in fact into the very fiber of your being.
In Montessori elementary training, there is a huge emphasis on the art of storytelling as presented by the guide. Many of the lessons in the elementary albums are written as stories, and they are often told alongside colorful impressionistic charts for the children to view while a story is being told. And it’s no wonder! Research has shown that storytelling not only improves attention but also enhances learning.
Storytelling contributes to increased learning and retention compared to when information is delivered as a lecture. Stories are easier to remember! They have the power of conveying complex ideas in a manner that makes these ideas more easily understood. Combining the auditory input of a story in conjunction with the visual representation of a concept through pictures and impressionistic charts is a nice recipe for evoking the imagination, sparking interest, and sowing some seeds of information within the child.
Lecturing as a method for imparting information
Sometimes teachers, particularly new teachers, default to lecture as the mode for transmitting information, mostly because this is the manner in which most of us received information in our traditional education settings. A lecture is an oration of facts and information, and while some of the information may be inherently interesting to some listeners, a lecture does not hold the attention of most students. In addition, knowledge transfer is often limited because there is not a lot of engagement from the audience. Lectures don’t create a connection between people and ideas. Imparting information through lectures is not in alignment with Maria Montessori’s approach, which is to entice the children with vivid and descriptive images that evoke the imaginative powers of the elementary child.
Storytelling: A combination of information AND engagement
There are ways in which Montessori teacher trainers model for us the art of telling compelling stories that ignite a child’s excitement and encourage them to go deeper into their investigations. As we know, a story is a bunch of ideas that are shared by using colorful words and lots of vivid imagery. A story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and there are points that capture the audience’s intrigue and interest.
You want to help the children form mental pictures that will stay with them, and the images evoked from listening to stories will go a long way to help the child create mental models that will aid the child in developing a greater understanding of the universe. Information is presented with great enthusiasm and animation, and weaving factual information within a story ignites interest. The purpose of a story is to both inform and engage.
The goal of a lecture involves conveying information whereas telling a story involves producing an experience. Powerful storytelling can, in fact, produce the same effect on a person as a good movie!
If you are guiding a classroom of elementary children, I’d like for you to take a moment to reflect upon your own practice. Are you giving lectures to your students, or are you telling them stories? Part of your delivery will depend upon your intention. Do you see it as your duty to impart important information to the children in your class? Or do you see it as your responsibility to give your students an experience that will activate their minds and touch their hearts? If your intention is the former, you will likely come up against some resistance, whereas the latter approach tends to lend itself to receptivity.
Ways in which you can enhance your storytelling powers:
1. Think about what images you want to create in their minds.
When talking about different kinds of shelter that people use around the world, you can describe the kind of house your grandma grew up in, with big windows to let in the sun because it was cold where she lived and they only had a wood stove for heating. Stories with detailed descriptions (from your own life experiences, from books, from stories you’ve heard) will activate images for their imaginations.
2. Make the story your own.
Montessori teachers have stories in their albums, but that doesn’t mean that these stories should be memorized verbatim. Commit to memory the key points to the stories, and then when you tell these stories, fill them in with your own colorful adjectives and vivid descriptions.
3. Look directly at each listener.
Sweep your eyes from one side of the group to another. Make eye contact with a few students here and there when possible. Looking at your audience not only helps them feel connected, but it also helps you gauge whether or not they are interested and engaged in the story. Keeping an eye on your audience allows you to adjust your approach, or shorten/lengthen your presentation if necessary.
4. Pay attention to your voice.
Are you speaking slowly and clearly? Are you varying the tone and pitch of your voice? A varied tone and pitch will help keep children interested and engaged. Speaking in monotone can result in children tuning you out.
5. When you reach a part of the story you want to emphasize, slow down!
Sometimes we don’t notice that when we are telling stories, we are rushing through as if we are in conversation. The speed of dialogue is much faster than the speed of a story. Take care to tell your stories at a slower pace, and when you get to an important part, you can slow down even further. You can even repeat the part you want to emphasize to help cement it into their minds.
6. Keep an eye on your audience.
Keeping a pulse on the overall experience of your audience will help you adjust your speed, tone, content, and volume.
7. Don’t be afraid to bring the story to an end if the children are losing interest.
Sometimes we have been telling a story for a while, and the children become antsy. It’s okay to stop a story and start it another time, or even retell it another day if the timing wasn’t right. Don’t keep pressing through if it feels like you’ve lost your audience and cannot bring them back.
Some helpful storytelling “hooks” (a.k.a. different ways to start a story)
- “Have you ever wondered…?” (e.g. why it is colder at night? How the leaf makes its own food?)
- “Remember when we talked about…” (this activates prior knowledge, pulls up familiar imagery from the last story, and helps set the stage for the next story).
- “Today I want to tell you about…” (the parts of the plant)
- “I have something very interesting to show you/tell you about…” (these geometric solids)
- “I have a really fun story to tell you about…” (how humans satisfy their needs)
- “Once upon a time, long, long ago….” (people didn’t live in houses, they roamed from place to place, searching for food!)
- “I want to give you something new to think about today.” (Have you ever considered why some particles like each other and some particles do not?).
- “What do you think would happen if…” (I applied a little bit of force to this can?)
- “I have a story to tell you that begins in a time very, very long ago…”(about humans who had simple tools and were just learning how to cook food with fire).
- “Today I want to show you something about…”(these red metal insets and how you can make fun and interesting geometric designs)
- “The other day I told you a story about…” (how plants came to be, then animals, then humans came to be?)
- “Let’s review what we know about…” (how to multiply on the checkerboard using a one-digit multiplier while using our math facts)
Next time you are in a lesson, pay attention to your delivery. Are you telling your students a compelling story? Or are you imparting information? If you are mostly relaying facts and figures and notice your students with eyes glazed over and losing interest, then you are likely giving them a lecture. If they are listening intently, leaning in, eyes wide and hanging on your every word, chances are you’re not only telling a story but telling a compelling story that you love. When you shift your mindset from being a teacher who gives lectures to a teacher who tells stories, you will undoubtedly see your lessons transform into experiences where the children are actively listening, interested, focused, and engaged.
Letty Rising is an international Montessori consultant. She holds an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as Montessori Elementary Teacher, Education Coordinator, and Head of School with several different Montessori communities over the years, including the LePort Schools. See More