“But, quiet, my fair lady. I shall now tell the tale of the brave Sir Dante. This brave knight travelled great lengths to seek his justice and help his king defeat an evil wizard who had overthrown the king and sent the princess far, far away, to a land where no one had ever returned from. But brave Sir Dante was no ordinary knight, and he was certain he was the bravest of the brave knights in the real, and so he was adamant to make the king have his princess back and restore order in the kingdom. If only he’d known the hardships he was going to go through. I will tell you all, if you have time to listen to a fine story. Just bring me some soup and sit next to me…”
When writing was still a privilege of the few (has it changed, anyhow?), traditions, cultural facts, and knowledge was passed down generation after generation as stories told from the elders to the younglings. They were responsible for keeping the traditions, and for ensuring a people’s culture was not forgotten. Those responsible for maintaining the tradition didn’t do so by the mere repetition of facts – they did so through the artifice of stories. Stories are relevant to the brain, stories make it easier for you to learn, to memorise and reproduce data. Tell someone a good story, and it will stick to their minds as if they were the ones who came up with it.
It’s all related to how we create memory. It’s not just about studying hard and being cold about the facts. If it were so, rote learning was probably going to be the most effective way of learning something. Memory requires a lot of our cognition, but that can only truly be retrievable if it’s accompanied by some sort of emotion. If you want learning to last, your emotions must also have come into play. How many of us vividly remember bedtime stories we were told years and years ago? Is it just because the same stories were repeated over and over again?
If that were the case, we would also probably remember much of what we were taught at school as we are constantly revisiting a concept before going further into it. But why is it that, more often than not, that kind of information doesn’t stick? Why is it that no matter how many times we teach the present perfect, students still make mistakes using it correctly? Why is it that they struggle to use accurate vocabulary after so many lessons and repetitions of it – even when we use personal examples? Why can’t they make it part of their repertoire?
There seems to be a clear difference between being able to teach something and ensuring learning has taken place. If we truly want our learning to be memorable and retrievable, we ought to understand how learning works. From a cognitive perspective, we need to remember that new learning builds on what we already know. If we treat each point in our lessons as independent from other points that had been taught, students will treat any new learning as something that requires its own little box instead of using that to build on what they’d known. But what else?
The other thing we need to remember is that we are likely to remember anything that has triggered an emotional response, be it joy, fear, love, hate or disgust. We don’t need a lot of repetitions of things that make us feel something to learn them. Our emotions help us building learning. The reason why we remember those bedtime stories is not just the repetition, but the feeling we experienced when those stories were being read to us. The feeling of being loved by our parents, the way their soothing voice made us feel, the cuddling, and the feeling that we were so important to someone that they’d dedicate their time just to be with us. This is not part of reason, it’s all in our emotions. But it’s the glue that makes learning stick. The stronger we feel, the easier it is for us to remember things.
And now I ask you to think about the conversations you have with people who truly matter to you. This is not the same as small talk nor work-related subjects. I’m talking about real and relevant conversations about things that truly matter to you. When we have real conversations about things that truly matter to us, we feel that our opinions matter, we are way more focussed on the conversation, and we assimilate a lot more of it. Yes, we are paying closer attention to it, but not just because we have to, but because it makes us feel good. We are gregarious beings, and we are programmed to feel good when others pay attention to what we have to say.
If you think about conversation-driven lessons, teachable moments, and focusing on language that emerges in class, you’re on the right track to have real, meaningful, and relevant conversations in class. It’s much different than simply talking about what the coursebook asked of your students. This is why we usually remember a lot more of the talks we have during the coffee break of sessions than what was said in the session itself. It’s not that the content isn’t important – it’s how the delivery makes us feel.
This is yet one more reason why conversation-driven lessons make sense. They allow learners to feel they are true participants in the process, they feel they belong in the conversation, they feel valued and, consequently, remembering all that was involved in that situation is actually something they want to do. All those feelings are the responsible for creating the emotional trigger we need in a learning environment. We learn better when we feel good. If you want to find out more reasons why conversation-driven lessons make sense, you can read part 1 and part 2. And join the conversation yourself in the comments below!