Teaching Management by Telling Stories

By Harbin, James; Humphrey, Patricia | Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Teaching Management by Telling Stories


Harbin, James, Humphrey, Patricia, Academy of Educational Leadership Journal


INTRODUCTION

"He (Jesus) did not say anything to them without using a parable." Mark: 4:34

Storytelling is one of the world's most powerful tools for achieving results (Guber, 2007). It is particularly appropriate for all students of business as Pheffer and Sutton (2006a) stated "when used correctly, stories and cases are powerful tools for building management knowledge" (p. 67). Yet, far too few business professors use this learning tool to its fullest potential. Part of the problem may be due to the profession being dominated by left-brain thinkers. A larger part of the reluctance may have to do with the image that the moniker of storytelling conjures up. For many, it's a mental picture of kindergarten teachers with their children gathered around them on the floor and then reading the words and showing pictures from a book. But, you know what? It works! It works for people of all ages, not just small children. One doesn't' have to be trained in drama, go overboard with theatrics, show pictures, or dress in character. One simply needs to relay a story to the other person. Stories suck us in as children and as adults. Story telling plays an important role in the learning process.

In today's university technology-laced teaching environment, professors are sometimes guilty of overlooking the most obvious and effective teaching tool of all. Even in my relatively short span as a management professor (30+ years), I have seen classrooms go from chalk and blackboard, to one filled with so many electronic gadgets, instructors are confused which ones go to which ones. Professors act like Nintendo players moving around with all the electronics. In today's technology-laced teaching environment, the merits of blogging, vlogging, moodleing, podcasting, wikiing, and tweeting (whatever those are) are touted as the instructors' tools of tomorrow.

It is safe to assume that all professors have wondered on occasion "just how much are my students taking in?" Maybe even more importantly, is the question of "how much are they retaining?" I have to admit that for many years at the start of my career, I thought my teaching role consisted primarily of transferring facts, explaining concepts, or developing technical skills. Throughout my career, in all my courses, I did try to incorporate appropriate examples. Then several years ago, my students began writing comments on class evaluations like the following:

* "he can relate the course really well with different real-life stories"

* "good story teller"

* "excellent lecturers, the best I've had, very interesting and it was like story time!"

* "he has many stories and examples that pertain to the curriculum"

* "like the way he applies the chapters to real life stories"

* "stories and examples reinforced the material"

Now, I will be the first to admit that not all my student reviews are that complimentary, but it did open my eyes to the impact that my stories were having on students and their learning. I will also admit that some classes are more attuned to storytelling than others. I teach organizational behavior, business strategy, and business ethics, all of which are, or can be, filled with stories. But whatever the class, there are opportunities to use stories as a teaching tool.

It is one thing to acknowledge from a common sense approach that storytelling is a powerful communication tool, but it is a lot more convincing when there is research evidence to back it up (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006b). Osborn and Ehninger (1962) found that in storytelling the listener is not a passive receiver of information but is triggered into a state of active thinking. The listener must consider the meaning of the story and try to make sense of it.

Kouzes and Posner (2002) found that storytelling results in the listener being more engaged; their attention and interest are fostered. Borgida and Nisbett (1977), Zembe (1990), Wilkens (1983), and Conger (1991) all found that information is more quickly and accurately remembered when it is first presented in the form of an example or story, particularly one that is intrinsically appealing.

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