The Ancient Secret of Student Engagement


“Tell me a fact and I will learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Indian proverb.

Each year we bring our live interactive storytelling performances to over 100 elementary schools in the Greater Toronto Area. Most of the performances, regardless of the age of the audience, last about one hour. Almost invariably, after each performance, the adults in attendance express amazement at how engaged the children were during the show.

Cheryl Thornton performs at a Storyvalues Literacy Night Event in Toronto, 2012.

Many of the shows involve audiences of up to 400 children, spanning all the ages of elementary school. It is a rare thing indeed when there are disruptions and it is amazing to see so many kids engrossed and engaged with the dynamics of what is happening during the show.

What exactly is happening during the show that accounts for their rapt attention and willingness to participate? What is it about the performances that children find so compelling?

Having witnessed this phenomenon for over ten years, in literally thousands of schools, it is clear that stories speak a language children understand. By encompassing both fact and fiction, stories offer a compelling bridge to the imagination that inspires children to interpret the information they are receiving in their own unique ways, to arrive at their own creative conclusions.

In other words, the stories give them something interesting to think about. Their minds become engaged in creative thought. Once that happens, they learn. Simple as that.

Of course, for this to happen you must have the right stories and a storyteller who knows how to tell a story in a compelling way. Fortunately, hidden in the vast collection of folktales humans have created since the beginning of civilization, there  are stories that so poignantly express essential truth that, when effectively told, resonate very deeply even today.

Concerning the ability to tell a story, all professionals can benefit from learning the techniques of effective storytelling. Storytelling is an essential part of effective communication and being tasked with the challenge of engaging a classroom full of young children is no small thing. They are a tough crowd to win over and are not often shy about expressing their disengagement.  Having the ability to tell a story can make a big difference.

This is why interactive storytelling is such an amazingly powerful educational tool. A well-told story provides a context for learning that goes way beyond the mere transmission of factual information. Stories not only teach; they also embody why the information being transmitted is relevant. Interactive storytelling makes education active, creative and fun.

And that is why effective storytelling engages students. Once so engaged, the sky truly is the limit.

– Matthew Giffin