The Power of Story: Touching the Heart of Learning

The importance of stories and storytelling has been understood and worked with since the beginning of recorded history. The great spiritual and religious teachers of the world have used ‘story’ as a way of passing on their spiritual truth. When asked why he spoke to the people in parables, Jesus answered that this was the way for the mysteries of heaven to be known (Matt: 13:10-35).  Zen and Sufi stories today are well loved and used for their wise and succinct messages.
Anthropologists have long observed the importance and popularity of stories in every culture. Joseph Campbell, through his extensive study of world mythology, states that our cultural myths work upon us, whether consciously or unconsciously, as energy-releasing, life-motivating and directing agents.
The traditional and very important role of the storyteller was to preserve this rich mythology. Not just a source of entertainment, the wealth of stories taught moral and history lessons to the adults and children alike, and kept (and still keep) complex traditions alive. The indigenous people of our own country confirm the importance of stories in keeping their culture alive and healthy.

Wholistic value of stories

Stories have a quality or ‘power’ that can touch our ‘souls’, touch our hearts – they seem to be able to reach us, move us, heal us, on many levels. Many prominent psychologists today are understanding the story as a way of exploring the unconscious and a tool for making us ‘whole’. In his writings on Re-visioning Psychology, Hillman stresses the importance of experiencing myths “working intrapsychically within our fantasies, and then through them into our ideas, systems of ideas, feeling-values, moralities, and basic styles of consciousness.”3  C.P. Estes, in her book Women who run with the Wolves, recognises the healing power of storytelling, describing stories as ‘medicine’.4 Twelve-step recovery programmes, and the new discipline of journal therapy, understand and work with the transforming, wholistic power of storytelling.

Storytelling involves three main components: the story, the storyteller and the story listener(s). One way of studying another culture is through listening to the cultural stories. One way of getting to know another person is by listening to their personal stories. Storytelling is part of all of us, it connects us with each other. It is an integral part of being human.


Whenever men have looked for something solid on which to found their lives,
they have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial imagination.2


Joseph Campbell

<p>Imagination and Learning

Storytelling as a pedagogical technique works with the more expressive, imaginative ‘way of knowing’ or form of intelligence. Until recently this ‘other’ way or form has lacked epistemological support as a valid ‘intelligence’. But the last twenty five years has seen a cognitive revolution of such major proportions that modern learning theories now incorporate anything from two to eight intelligences or ‘ways of knowing’.5

It is beyond the scope of this article to examine any of these learning theories in detail. However, central to a rationale for the importance of storytelling in any learning society, is the acknowledgement of a more holistic view of the realm of human cognition, and, in particular, imagination as a way of learning and knowing.
Einstein believed so strongly in the education of the imagination that he recommended children be told fairy-tales, and more fairy-tales!

The story form as a pedagogical model– the revival of old wisdom!

In his book Teaching as Storytelling, Egan, a Canadian educator, claims that imagination is the most powerful tool for learning that children bring with them to school. However, to date there has been very little research focused on it because, according to Egan, it is so difficult to grasp, difficult to research. He states that the dominant learning theories that have profoundly influenced modern educators have almost entirely ignored the use of children’s imagination as a teaching and learning tool.

Egan then presents a new planning model for teaching and learning based on principles that use and stimulate children’s imagination, using the story form as a central teaching tool. According to Egan, “the story reflects a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world and experience”.7 His aim with his story-centred curriculum is to reconstruct curricula and teaching methods in light of a richer image of the child as an imaginative, as well as a logico-mathematical thinker.8

Steiner Education, one of the largest independent school movements in the world today, also acknowledges the importance of the child’s imagination in learning and uses a story-based curriculum for most, if not all, subjects. Steiner described imagination as “a new beginning, a germ or seed drawing upon the future” (in comparison to cognition, an ‘end product’) and urged teachers to bring to the child as many imaginations as possible to help with continuous, holistic growth and development.9

It seems important to acknowledge here that both the above models, although ‘new’ to the modern Western world, are drawing on the wise and ancient art of storytelling. With a growing knowledge of the rich history of storytelling throughout cultures worldwide, it is now understood that the above models are not new discoveries but, hopefully, timely revivals!

Personal stories of the ‘power of story’

It was in the early 1970s that I was first introduced to storytelling. I was privileged to work in the Steiner school system where my teaching style was greatly enriched by their story-centred curriculum. I also delighted in reading about traditional cultures that wove stories into every aspect of their lives, for all ages of their community. This encouraged me to further experiment with working with the ‘power of story’, both with my own children and in my work as a teacher.

One of my most successful experiences as a parent was a story about a handmade doll called ‘Cloudboy’ that helped to wrestle my youngest boy (at the impressionable age of five) out of the clutches of the commercialised ‘Masters of the Universe’ warrior dolls. I used the power of story to fight the modern commercial ‘monster’ that encroaches relentlessly into our homes and private lives. Cloudboy then became my son’s closest companion and was part of our family life for many years – he even features in the family photo album. He is still in our home (even though my three sons have left to explore the world), waiting for some grandchildren to come and play with him.

Through my passion for storytelling, I have also been running storytelling workshops/groups for teachers and parents for the past 15 years. I once had a young doctor attend one of my storytelling courses, and in the introductory session, when it was his turn to say why he had enrolled, he told the group that for six years he had been at University studying medicine and his mind felt like a ‘dried up prune’. He had come to Storytelling in the hope that his mind would become ‘like a juicy plum’ again. This same doctor now has a reputation for being wonderful with children. He keeps a story-bag in his surgery and to help relax his little patients he pulls out a story prop and tells a story about it – all the while preparing the child for their injection!

Stories are a spiritual thing – they live higher – they have a link to the universe – they don‘t belong to just one country. 
Maria Msebenzi

Turning “stones into bread” with stories

Most teaching programs can be brought to life by starting the lesson with a story. In my own teaching experience I have used stories in a hundred different ways, from setting the mood for a local geography camp for 12 year-olds (to the South Ballina sand-dunes), to teaching the letters of the alphabet to my eldest son when I home-schooled him for a year. For this I created a story for each of the 26 letters inspired by their shape – eg a mountain story for the letter ‘M’, a snake story for the letter ‘S’, etc. It is interesting now to observe his passion for writing and poetry at the age of 25, even though his main profession is surfing!

One of my first successful teaching experiences was using ‘story’ in a series of knitting lessons. I had only had one lesson previous to this with the class in question, and I found them the wildest group of 8 year-olds I had ever had to teach! There were 23 children in the class, and 17 were boys. I wanted the children to first make their own ‘bush’ knitting needles – using dowel rod sharpened at one end with a pencil sharpener and sanded smooth, then a gumnut glued on the other end. However, I was concerned that they would start fighting with the knitting needles, and/or think that knitting was ‘uncool’ and not be interested in joining in the lesson.

After much thought (and a sleepless night) I made up a story about two ‘magic sticks’ that were found by a boy who was always very bored and up to no good. These magic sticks (after a series of incidents in the story) helped this boy make many amazing things, and whenever he had them with him, with the help of a ball of wool, he was never bored again. This story captured the imagination of every member of the class and they couldn’t wait to make their own ‘magic sticks’ and then knit amazing things with them. The knitting lessons for the rest of the term then became the favourite time of the week.

Researching and storytelling in Africa

Recently, after several years’ part-time work in Africa, I completed a cross-cultural research thesis that investigated ways to collaboratively redevelop the storytelling skills of a group of South African teachers. These traditional skills had been lost and/or damaged because of the Apartheid regime, and because of the general ‘Western’ influence on African culture. Through various experiences in the action research spirals, the ‘power of story’ became evident in the action research process itself (separate to the ‘power of story’ in the content of the storytelling courses). The use of ‘storying’ as a research tool was an unexpected discovery.10

On field visits to the schools, the staff and children, who had not made any move towards connecting or conversing with me (some were very cautious of the ‘white woman’), would gather round, wide-eyed and attentive, when I was telling stories. This happened even in situations where the staff and/or children had little or no grasp of English. Storytelling became the bridge. It helped cross the culture gap and eased me into new situations. It became a tool for breaking the ice when working with new groups – adults and children alike. Telling stories seemed to transcend cultural differences and boundaries.

Through encouraging the women to tell their personal stories of their childhood, the ‘power of story’ also helped build confidence in many in-depth interviews and discussions. Several times throughout the cycles it also helped in some sensitive moments because, without realising it, I had offended some cultural norms, or raised some complex apartheid issues.

One situation concerned my visit, as field worker, to a colleague’s school. There was the expectation that I should give constructive criticism, but the unspoken feeling was that any critical comment could affect our friendship, and stir up the complex white/black issue. However, there was a glaringly obvious situation that I felt needed feedback – fifty pairs of shoes thrown in a pile by the children outside the kindergarten door at rest-time. This took one teacher more than half an hour to sort out so the shoes would be ready for the children at home time. Instead of making any comment to my friend, I made up a story to tell the children. It was about a little boy called Tembe who had a pair of shoes that were such close friends that they always liked to stay together, even if they were off his feet at rest-time! My friend loved the story and continued telling it to the children, and from that time on the shoes on the verandah were placed together by the children in beautiful order, and the shoe-sorting teacher was able to take a much needed break!


From time immemorial storytelling has been used as a powerful educational, communication and healing tool. Today there is an exciting trend to re-awaken this age-old art form.11 Fortunately there now exists a small but growing group of educational thinkers, researchers, parents and practitioners giving due acknowledgment to the expressive, imaginative ways of thinking and knowing, and helping to revive the art of storytelling,

From my experience in workshops (both in Australia and Africa) it seems that the ‘storyteller’ in all of us is crying out to be re-woken. I hope through this article to encourage this awakening.

Happy Storytelling!

List of References:

1. Okri, B. (1996, p.22). Birds of Heaven. London: Phoenix
2. Campbell, J. (1987, pp. 4-5). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Arkana.
3. Hillman, J. (1975, p.103). Revisioning Psychology. New York: Harper.

4. Estes, C. P. (1992). Women Who Run With The Wolves. London: Rider.
5. Blakeslee, T. (1980). The Right Brain. London: Macmillan.
6. Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press;
Buck, R. (1984). The Communication of Emotion. New York: Guilford. Steiner, R. (1981). Study of Man. London: R.S.Press. Gardner, H. (1996). Probing more deeply into the theory of Multiple Intelligences. NASSP Bulletin, 80(583)(Nov), 1-7.
7. Viereck, G. S. (1929). What Life Means to Einstein. The Saturday Evening Post, Oct 26th, pp. 6.
8. Egan, K. (1988, p.2). Teaching as Storytelling. London: Routledge.

Related Websites:;
9. Steiner, R. (1981, p.5). Study of Man. London: R.S.Press
Perrow, S. (2000). Reconciliation and Renewal through Storytelling in Cross-Cultural Action Research. Paper presented at the ALARPM 5th World Congress, Ballarat.

See websites below:

World Wide Web Storytelling Studies
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Information on Storytelling Training around the World – I recommend that you look up East Tennesee State University (ETSU) for Storytelling Courses up to Masters Level! Story Guilds and Storytelling Groups in Australia
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Story Guilds and Storytelling Groups in Australia, as well as articles and interviews, story resources, and up-to-date storytelling news. The Storytelling Ring
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Information on Storytellers and Storytelling world-wide Indigenous Peoples Literature
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Central site for Indigenous Literature (world-wide) – many links available from this Storyarts (
Includes ideas for storytelling in the classroom, lesson plans and activities for storytelling across the curriculum, and audio samples of Heather Forest’s musical stories. Stories for the Seasons
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Offers seasonal and nature stories (for ages 5-12) together with an extensive bibliography on stories of animals and plants. Tales of Wonder • (
A collection of stories from 14 countries around the world plus links to many other story sites. Kid’s Storytelling Club (
Resources for helping children become storytellers, ideas for storytelling aids, presentation skills, etc. Steiner Schools in Australia
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Web page for information on Steiner Schools throughout Australia – this site is included as Steiner Schools work with a story-based


First published in byronchild/Kindred, issue 2, June 02

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