Learning by Doing and Storytelling

We are taught to think that all great minds think alike. While this may have worked during pre-twenty first century industrial times, this is no longer the case today. We need creative and diverse minds that can navigate through the chaos, uncertainty, and adventure of our present-day society —each individual contributing in their own unique way.

Much has been written about the failures of our current education system: high drop-out rates, the failure to engage children, flawed assessment and grading methods, and a huge talent deficit caused by the gap between what is taught at schools and what is required in the marketplace. And what about our teachers? The prevailing but saddening belief is that, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Designed for skills and expertise needed during the industrial age, our schools are “knowledge factories” that focus on conformity and mass reproduction of knowledge. Faced, however, with unprecedented rates of social change, technological advances and digitization, our schooling systems require major repair. How might we make education more rewarding for students and teachers, and better prepare them for society and the future at hand?

Creativity is confused with “the mass production of ideas.”

According to Joelle Forest and Michel Faucheux, the underlying issue of all these educational-related problems is that the system is too left-brain oriented, and over-emphasizes the mere reproduction of existing knowledge, instead of the actual creation of new knowledge and ideas. Creativity is confused with “the mass production of ideas.” On a societal level, this is problematic because creation and innovation, per definition, require the generation of new ideas and solutions. On a personal level, reproducing known facts just isn’t as exciting as going on adventurous quests for solutions, is it?

This system hinders all levels of creative and innovative thinking —both key drivers of creation, development, and growth. While cramming endless rows of words might be useful when learning another language, shouldn’t the real focus be to learn how to read between the lines (and make it fun along the way)? Why not transform schools into adventurous playgrounds? How about we start valuing a multitude of possible but uncertain outcomes over single and known certain results? Why not cultivate skills like self-discovery acuity, adaptability, and resourcefulness among our children and students? We instill and encourage creative capacity by creating schools that:

  • Facilitate inter-disciplinary learning by looking for powerful combinations of separate ideas and navigating between various fields of knowledge.
  • Foster diversity in interactions and so-called otherness; educational segregation does not serve us well.
  • Stimulate group work and deep collaboration over clear allocation of responsibilities and internal competition.
  • Learn by doing through self-discovery and putting people on “adventures”; these have to be personal development journeys as well.
  • Use storytelling to communicate and also develop new ideas.

It is well-documented that learning is divided in inter-disciplinary learning, diversity of backgrounds, a focus on group-work and collaboration, and experiential learning, which benefits the “pedagogy of adventure”. However, the last finding —pointing to the key role of language and storytelling in developing creative rationality— is something that often goes unnoticed in the discourse on educational reform.

Storytelling transcends culture and time, all the way back to our cavemen days. Over time we turned to fairy tales and myths to transfer the wisdom and knowledge necessary for survival —for many indigenous communities this is still the case today. Human beings remember knowledge when poured into the narrative of a story. Faucheux and Forest add that “most of our experience, knowledge, and thinking is organized as stories —it is a basic principle of our mind.” Knowledge transmission is but one of the benefits of storytelling. Storytelling encourages personal development in the form of reflection, improved communication skills, and social connection. Stories ignite personal reflection and establish relationships with others and with the unknown; it forces people to delve deeper within themselves to break cultural barriers, defy social differences, and unearth new experiences.

Above all, storytelling sparks imagination. It inspires us to go beyond mere data, reason, and logic, and helps us to “contextualize problems, and relativize it on meta-level, thereby stimulating radically different logics and solutions”, the study concludes. This way, using metaphors and narration, language plays a vital role in shaping new ideas.  It opens up new worlds, and invites to abandon comfort zones and delve into the unknown.

Why, then, do we confine storytelling to early childhood bedtime practice and kindergarten leisure time, in which children primarily listen passively? Nigerian diaspora author Chimamanda Adichie also emphasizes how our current stories and narratives show the lack of diversity in our present society.  She points to the danger of living “a single story”: our lives and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, yet, in many ways, we now live our lives in the presence of a single narrative. She recalls moving to the United States, and being confronted with widespread prejudice of what it means to be African. Reflecting on her own upbringing, she mentions the childhood books she was exposed to offered Western narrative. As a result, her own stories resolved around characters drinking English “ginger beer”, something that wasn’t available in her immediate surroundings.

As Adichie stresses, there are great dangers in telling a single story, yet this is what we currently do: we educate children to think alike, to conform to existing norms and dominant narratives, undermining children’s innate capacity to creative thinking and imagination. In most schools storytelling practices are practically non-existent. In doing so, we create “bright but insecure sheep”, says education critic William Deresiewicz in a recent piece.

By re-integrating story telling into our schooling methods, we can enable logic and creativity to jointly come to new ideas and greater solutions. Initiatives for this do exist but they often do so in the margins of society. We at THNK have elevated story telling as a signature strength in our curriculum. Our hope is to find ways to integrate adventurous and creative learning into mainstream curricula, and create a system of education in which story telling is rediscovered and taken to new heights.

By Menno van Dijk, Laurie Kemp

About the authors

Menno Van Dijk, Co-founder and Managing Director at THNK. School of Creative Leadership. Menno is a Former McKinsey Director, working in strategy, organizational design and operational improvement in Media, High Tech and Energy. Functional focus: growth, innovation, digital. Was leading McKinsey’s European Media practice for 7 years. Created NM Incite, McKinsey’s first ever co-branded JV with a third party, Nielsen. NM Incite helps businesses harness the full potential of social media intelligence to drive business performance and is active in 22 countries. Work experience in most European countries, US, Australia, South Africa, China and India. Has lived in Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.

Currently finalizing a MSc Environment and Resource Management (Energy Studies), Laurie Kemp attained a BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences at Amsterdam University College (AUC) in 2013. The broad nature of the program allowed her to delve into Social Systems from various perspectives: focusing on Law, Political Science and Economics. An avid idealist and globetrotter, Laurie is passionate about social and green innovation and bottom-up initiatives seeking to empower individuals and drive positive social change.


THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges. Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.

This article was originally published on THNK.org.
Main image: having a conversation from Shutterstock.com

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