2018-19 IBSC Action Research

Boys and Stories: Pathways to Learning

View video tasters and posters from the IBSC Action Research workshop block at the 2019 IBSC Annual Conference.

For thousands of years, people have used stories to process and make sense of the world around them. Kendall Haven (2007) refers to people as “homo narratus or story animals” (p. 124), learning from and through stories. Stories connect us to one another, and help us to learn about our history and ancestors. We tell our own stories to transform ourselves, inspire others, and help define our own identity. When we listen to other people’s stories, we develop empathy, understanding, and a tolerance of difference and “otherness” — we begin to recognize the world from multiple perspectives.

Stories have always held a strong appeal for the human brain. Research shows that when we listen to a good story (one that includes elements of struggle and conflict, and triumph over adversity) our brains release oxytocin, which in turn increases our capacity for empathy (Zak, 2014). Empathy helps people ‘‘gain understanding, through narrative, of experiences they do not share and characters they do not know’’ (Shuman, in Haven, 2007).

Research also shows that when we learn through stories, we have much better retention of content and recall of key ideas (Zak, 2014). By attaching emotions to things that happen, by using pathos in the telling of the story, we create what Nick Morgan (in O’Hara, 2014) calls “sticky memories.” Stories encourage deep learning through establishing significant links and connections. In the world of business, storytelling is recognized as a strategic tool, one that often determines with whom we choose to do business (Gallo 2016).

With an array of digital tools at our disposal, we live in a new “golden age of storytelling.” Creating digital stories through blogs, podcasts, film, and other visual media has never been easier. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram make sharing these stories with wider and global communities possible. In a learning environment, digital stories appeal to a diverse range of learning styles and encourage audience engagement and participation. Digital stories allow boys to comment, share, and even create their own content and ending.

Crafting our own stories or hearing other people’s stories engages many 21st century skills. Storytelling encourages creativity and hones communication skills, such as writing, editing, presenting, processing feedback and constructive criticism. Drafting and documenting stories develops research skills, analysis and synthesis of information, and critical thinking. Learning about other people’s stories cultivates empathy, tolerance, and understanding of diverse and different groups of people. Discovering other people’s inspirational stories encourages optimism and resilience. Reflecting on our own stories enables us to find meaning and make sense of our lives.

Research projects in this cycle could use stories to develop any of the 21st century skills outlined here. Boys could craft and share their own stories electronically, on paper, or through performance in languages or visual and performing arts. Pastoral or life orientation programs could use stories to explore racial diversity, cultural identity, and “otherness.” Deep learning and understanding might be achieved through the teaching of stories across a variety of subjects. For example, history relies on many powerful stories that offer opportunities for critical thinking and reflection; science teachers might use eco-fiction to teach concepts and ideas; and information technology lessons could encourage boys to tell the “right” stories on social media, learning good digital citizenship. Possibilities abound — offering relevance to all teachers across all grades.


Gallo, C. (2016). The storyteller's secret: From TED speakers to business legends, why some ideas catch on and others don’t. New York: St Martin's Griffin.

Haven, K. (2007). Story proof: The science behind the startling power of story. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited

O’Hara, C. (2014, July 30). How to tell a great story. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/07/how-to-tell-a-great-story

Robin, B.R. (2008). Digital storytelling: A powerful technology tool for the 21st century classroom. Theory Into Practice, (47) 3, 220-228.

Zak, P.J. (2014, October 14). Why your brain loves good storytelling. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling.


Contact Amy Ahart, IBSC chief operating officer, at ahart@theibsc.org with any questions about the application process.

Contact Margot Long, IBSC Action Research coordinator, at longma@stjohnscollege.co.za with questions about the research topic or the action research process.