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The power of storytelling as a teaching tool
From:
Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua' Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua'
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Wyomissing, PA
Tuesday, February 13, 2024

 

The New Testament contains several stories that Jesus used to answer some of the questions his followers asked him. Referred to as parables in the Bible, the stories served as delivery vehicles for Jesus’s moral teachings to the Christian population at large. Given the universality of their lessons, one actually doesn’t need to be a Christian to recognize the power of the parables.

A couple of decades ago, I had a personal experience that has since deepened my understanding of why storytelling is one of the best teaching tools, and why Christians consider Jesus to be the best teacher of all time.

I have always been a curious person, which means that I have wondered about all manner of things throughout my life. Quite unfortunately, I am also shy by nature, and in my youth, that bashfulness often stopped me from asking the questions that came to mind. I particularly regret the numerous opportunities I missed to gain enlightenment from some of the excellent teachers I had during that period.

The cure for my malady came from a story I heard in a classroom. At the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, where I obtained my MBA, the professors seemed to spend a good deal of every class session cajoling students to ask questions. I often wondered why they bothered. The business school was filled with supremely self-confident students who were some of the most brilliant people on the planet. They didn’t look to me like individuals who would be shy about asking any questions they had on their minds.

I was quite wrong. It turns out that in the midst of fellow brainiacs, academic superstars are sometimes equally afraid to ask questions, for fear of looking unintelligent. Our professors knew this fully well, hence their constant efforts to elicit questions during classes.

In a finance class one day, our professor recounted a story from an academic conference he attended a few years earlier. According to him, during a presentation by a professor from another school, one elderly man in the audience kept interrupting with questions. He said that some of the man’s questions were so basic that after a while, a majority of the audience started showing visible signs of irritation. Having noticed but being unbothered by the reaction, the man kept his questions flying.

At the next recess, our professor joined a small group in a hallway for some casual conversations. One person inquired about the identity of the man who had been making such a “nuisance” of himself in the room. Another attendee who happened to know him gave the answer. The elderly man was none other than Franco Modigliani, the Nobel laureate in economics and a longtime professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Every jaw dropped as soon as the name was mentioned.

Later at lunch, another attendee, who also knew Professor Modigliani, told our professor and others at the table that the elderly professor likely knew the answers to the questions he was asking, but posed them anyway. According to this attendee, he had heard stories elsewhere about Professor Modigliani’s habit of interrupting presentations at conferences. Over the course of his long teaching career, Professor Modigliani had learned that no matter how straightforward a question looked, there was always someone for whom the answer was not readily obvious. His tendency therefore was to ask questions in such group settings on behalf of others who, for fear of embarrassment, might be reluctant to do so.

The story made a huge and instant impression on me. I realized that the affliction that caused me to miss so many learning opportunities in my youth was a more common problem than I thought. It was the catalyst I needed to overcome my fear. With my newfound courage, I began to ask questions in all sorts of venues, and for the remainder of my time at Tuck, I spoke up in class a lot more than I would have in my prior incarnation.

It does seem as if the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction for me nowadays, to the point where I can’t stop asking questions. Whenever my family and I are in an unfamiliar city or place, I find myself constantly asking for directions. Someone would give us a set of directions to follow, only for me to ask for the same information from another person just a couple of minutes later.

My wife and daughter always wonder aloud why I don’t exercise a bit more patience and try to follow the earlier instructions, at least for a while. They know my Tuck story so whenever they ask, I tell them it’s the “Modigliani effect” at work. My questions may seem unnecessary to them, but to me it is better to ask than risk walking or driving several minutes in the wrong direction before realizing and reversing course. That wastes time and energy. We have had a few instances where that has actually occurred, after we followed directions from people who seemed trustworthy. Over time, my family has come to understand that there’s a method to my madness.

I have no doubt that I would be a lot smarter than I am today if I had learned to ask questions sooner. With age, I have become even more aware of the complexity of the world and life, and so the questions keep coming thick and fast. Weirdly, many of them seem to pop up deep in the night when I’m trying to sleep, and I end up tossing and turning. Some questions bug me for days. It appears that the only way I can free myself from their clutches is to explore them through writing. It is a shame that I no longer have access to the academic environments filled with brilliant educators that I could pose some of these questions to.

I sincerely hope that any young person who reads this story will take some inspiration from it. Knowing what I know now, I also think that each and every one of us should make it a habit of sharing our stories. That one simple story I heard in a classroom has had an enormously positive impact on me.

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