You certainly don’t have to be a teacher to be a good storyteller. Think about every salesman, journalist, stand-up comedian, entrepreneur and marketer you’ve ever met.

But it’s not so easy to be a good teacher without being a storyteller.

Think about this quote from Roger Schank and Robert Abelson, cognitive psychologists and experts in learning, memory and the role of story:

“Storytelling is not something we just happen to do. It is something we virtually have to do if we want to remember anything at all.”

If these powerful words are true, then we can never teach effectively without incorporating stories. Stories are the currency of our trade — the way we hook students, engage their minds and help them build understanding.

This sounds extreme. What about teaching students to solve algebraic equations? What about teaching the parts of a cell? Or the dates of the Civil War? Clearly, it’s possible to impart factual knowledge without any narrative content.

But memorizing discrete facts is not the same as learning or understanding. Learning is about organizing new knowledge, applying understanding, using it to make sense of the world — and that only happens when we integrate our new understanding within the narrative framework of our brains.

Here’s an example. In econ class, I define “consumer surplus” as the difference between a consumer’s demand and the price paid for a good. I can draw a nice triangle on a graph. I can even test students on their ability to find and label the correct shape.

But if I want this concept to stick and have meaning for my students – if I want them to remember it beyond the next test — I have to employ storytelling.

So I tell my students a story about buying a black jacket that I thought cost $80, but was marked down at the register to $20. I tell them about going online to finally buy plane tickets to Europe and finding they were half the price they were earlier in the week. I ask them to share their own stories, and they talk about concert tickets and 2-for-1 Chipotle and scholarships.

This is not just for economics or history or English class.

Mike Lampert, a nationally recognized physics teacher from Salem, Oregon, used stories to explain bridge construction, energy output and batteries, to name a few. Here’s one of my favorites:

“One story I tell them is, ‘You know I never eat my mom’s cookies.’ When you start out a story like that, they go, ‘You don’t eat your mom’s cookies?’ She would take the dough, line the cookie pan with foil, then put it into the oven. As it cooks the foil would get into the crevasses of the cookie dough. The lesson was actually about batteries. You need two dissimilar metals and a voltage… so I start the lesson telling the story about cookies. When you bite into it, the foil will react with the fillings which are a different metal and you have acid in your mouth which forms a battery. It sticks in their mind.”   – Mike Lampert

In 3rd chapter of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers, I explain how you can use storytelling to build engagement in biology, language arts, math, history and civics class, and provide specific tips for crafting relevant stories — and encouraging students to share their own.

This new video, the first in a series of six Beat Boredom videos, provides a quick look at storytelling as a teaching strategy.

In the video, I use storytelling – sharing a few mildly embarrassing stories from my teenage years — to explain normative social approval (in psych class) and the costs involved in starting a business (in econ class).

Students share a few of their own stories, too, helping to build a sense of community in the classroom.

Want to learn more about storytelling in the classroom? Order a copy of Beat Boredom on Amazon, or fill in the contact request form at