Atanu Dey On India's Development

Tell Me a Story

Tell me a good story and I will listen with wide-eyed childlike wonder. Tell me a good tale and I will learn the lessons that humanity has accumulated over the ages. Spin me a yarn and I will consider you my teacher. There is no more effective way to make me understand what the truth is about the world.

The stories we tell each other reaffirm to us our shared humanity. The best ones are the ones which have been told over millennia, have evolved organically, have encapsulated the wisdom of thousands of tellers of tales.

The quintessential story is The Mahabharata composed long ago in our part of the world. “What did my sons and the sons of Pandu do, O Sanjaya, when they assembled together on the holy field of Kurukshetra, eager to do battle?” the blind king Dhrtarastra asks Sanjaya, and thus beings the Bhagavat Gita, the story within a story whose enormity is matched by its complexity. Listen and you will learn.

Listen to the world’s epics, for one has to listen, not just read. The human voice is essential for over evolutionary time our brains have evolved for extracting meaning from what we hear. Listen to all the great epics such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharat, the Odyssey, and Illiad.

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Each of us is intimately familiar with our own story. Is it not that knowing which leads us to know ourselves? And if I were to tell you my story, and you were to listen, would you not also know who I am? So to know the world, we need to listen to the stories of the world. There are an infinite number of stories, told and retold, over the thousands of years that humanity has found a voice. We humans are the tellers of tales, spinner of yarn which weave dreams.

To know is to know the story. To be able to convey meaning, you have to be able to tell a story. To teach is to be able to tell a story which makes sense to the listener, the student. To learn is to be able to listen to a story and extract meaning from it. “Once upon a time …” is the beginning of the process of teaching and learning. “Thus have I heard …” is how the communication of wisdom begins.

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For ever since I can remember, I have associated learning with stories. Since childhood, my best teachers have been those who have had the gift of telling a good story. My grandfather was one such. In high school, our English teacher was another master of tales.

When I was struggling with the formulation of my PhD thesis, my advisor told me, “Tell me a story. If you can tell a story which is interesting, you have a PhD thesis.” It was indeed that simple.

Can you tell a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Can the beginning make me wonder about something, which you expand on in the middle, and by the end, you have taught me something that I did not know? If so, you have created a story which is an original contribution to the sum total of human knowledge. You have a PhD thesis.

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He holds him with his glittering eye
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child :
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone :
He cannot choose but hear ;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

I have learnt a lot (I think) over the years. But only a very small part of it was during my years of formal education. The majority, I believe, I learnt outside the classroom. Of that, I am convinced that I have learnt a lot from TV and radio. It is easy to understand why this is so.

The best TV programs are those which aim to entertain first, and then inform. To inform you have to first hold the audience’s attention. That is what public TV (US mainly) programs such as Nova did. The creators of those programs know how to capture your imagination. Like the ancient mariner who stops the wedding guest and makes him “listen like a three year’s child,” those programs force you to pay attention and you learn without meaning to.

My TV teachers are numerous. I explored the Cosmos with Carl Sagan; I learnt the Connections which bind the history of science and technology with James Burke; I learnt of creatures great and small and of our place in Nature with David Attenborough; the list goes on. Philosophy, science, technology, history, economics, art, music—there is hardly a subject that I did not learn about just from watching TV. And from listening to radio.

TV and radio did more for me than all the time I have sent in classrooms. Why? Because TV and radio told me stories. And I was interested in the stories because they told me interesting stories. Without intending to, I learnt. And therein lies a lesson.

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If I were in charge of designing an educational system, my focus will be firmly on gathering the best stories and telling them to anyone who wishes to learn. There is no subject on the face of the earth which cannot be told as a story, and most importantly, as a combination story of mystery, drama, thriller, adventure, and even love.

School will be a place where you go to listen to stories. You would have to drag children away from school to get them to come home. The stories will be so entertaining that you feel happy, and relaxed and excited, and without your knowing you begin to know.

Behind every known fact of the world, every scientific discovery, behind every advance in medicine and technology, every progress in the arts, is a story the principal characters of which are people. And people are connected with each other. Learning their stories and their connections teaches us the connections that exist in the world. We can only comprehend the word as a connected whole. Parrots can be taught to repeat a set of disjointed facts but that has nothing to do with comprehension. Humans needs stories that make sense to comprehend the world.

The stories I would tell would be connected to each other. They will be hyperlinked. Reading one of Tagore’s poem with a reference to the monsoons of Bengal, you move to the story of how the monsoon weather pattern encircles the globe; or you could move to the history of Bengal and its culture and people; or from weather pattern you could move to learn about global climate change, and then to global warming, then to energy and resource use, to industrial revolution, to the economics of global trade, and so on.

No subject is immune to learning from a good tale. The electron has a story associated with its discovery. It is not so important to know what the exact amount of charge an electron has, as to know who figured it out and what an ingenious method he used and what were the principles involved which made the discovery possible.

Statistics can be extremely dry. But not if you start with the story of gambling and how odds had to be calculated. Start off with the mystery of how they (whoever they are) figure out how many people there are in a country without having to count every one? Tell them of the mystery first, then add the drama of the importance of solving the mystery, then relate the adventure that was the process of trials and errors, and then the thrill of finding out.

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It is easy to tell stories these days. And people like good stories well told. That is why the movie industry is so huge. Tens of millions of dollars are spent in crafting a two-hour tale of wonder and magic, and then these are watched by hundreds of millions of viewers.

Hollywood (and its numerous wannabe’s) mostly turn out frivolous mindless junk for sure. But it is still an industry which uses the most advanced technologies to entertain.

Education must have at its core stories if it has to teach effectively and efficiently. The technology exists and the talent exists. We just have to be smart enough to bring it to those who need to learn.

I have come to the end of my tale. Perhaps a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

  • http://www.adityaathalye.com Aditya Athalye

    “If I were in charge of designing an educational system, my focus will be firmly on gathering the best stories and telling them to anyone who wishes to learn.”

    count me in atanu…

    “The stories I would tell would be connected to each other. They will be hyperlinked.”

    that is the way i’ve observed the brain works… its power is multiplied by its ability to make connections… the central premise of most of the exams/courses my team has conducted is making connections between apparently unconnected phenomena…

    eerily echoes with what Vaclav said… “Education is the ability to perceive hidden connections between phenomena.”

    “It is easy to tell stories these days.”

    it is indeed… http://www.rocketboom.com does just that on a less than shoestring budget…

    “Education must have at its core stories if it has to teach effectively and efficiently. The technology exists and the talent exists. We just have to be smart enough to bring it to those who need to learn.”

    yes building a teaching + learning community is the big challenge…

  • abey

    All of the best learning comes from stories. It gives a “face” to anotherwise dry drab text. Count me in too!

  • http://the-redpill.blogspot.com Kiran Varanasi

    I weaved two stories for teaching computer graphics. One is a space journey to the moons of Saturn. The other is a murder mystery. It’s been a lot of fun.

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  • http://www.drmalpani.com Dr Malpani

    Very true. However, learning how to tell interesting stories is an art and craft which need to be learned and practised ! The good news is that there are lots of books which will teach you how to do so ! A good place to start is – The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling by Annette Simmons

  • little Ram

    What an amazing thought! I particularly liked your idea of explaining apparently dry stuff like probability using stories. Also hyperlinking the stories is a real breakthrough innovation.

    I have a little book by Mir publishers on the Speed of Light- a part of the Popular Science publications. It really got me involved with the early debates on the concept of a ‘speed’ for something like Light. It was fascinating to read about the way scientists exchanged thoughts and commented on papers, and in letters to ulitmately come up with the structure of modern theories. More than the ultimate result, the thought processes leading to the same were conveyed beautifully in the anecdotes and stories behind these. I can therefore relate to what you are saying.

    Still, with technology facilitating storage, retreival and transmittal of data; search devices and tools of computation, graphics display, so much could be done to enhance the learning experience!

  • http://swapnakrishnan.blogspot.com Swapna Krishnan

    Well said.

    “But only a very small part of it was during my years of formal education. The majority, I believe, I learnt outside the classroom. Of that, I am convinced that I have learnt a lot from TV and radio”

    Totally agree with you here. I would add novels to this too. I’ve learnt a lot from novels,almost as much as from TV and radio given that I’m an avid reader.

  • Sudhir Chukkapalli

    My TV teachers are numerous. I explored the Cosmos with Carl Sagan; I learnt the Connections which bind the history of science and technology with James Burke; I learnt of creatures great and small and of our place in Nature with David Attenborough

    I have also thoroughly enjoyed watching them. I think, if we can translate them in Indian languages and make them widely available, we can fill some of the deficiencies of our(Indian) school system.

  • http://onlyvoid.blogspot.com Shivani

    One of your best posts :) Really enjoyed reading it. And I remember one post of yours – in which you had stated how one needed to go into the most complex details to understand and state the concept with greatest of simplicity.

    And it is this simplicity – which brings me back to your blog again :)