Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

When Narrative Matters More Than Fact

A teacher argues that helping students analyze the stories they care so much about is more effective than pushing pure fact-checking.

The Atlantic

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Photo by Juan Medina / Reuters

When I was in high school, one of my history teachers was also the football coach. “Coach Mac,” we called him. For a right-brained creative like me, history was often a toss up. There were certain parts of the curriculum that I loved, but I loathed (and was generally inept at) memorizing dates and obscure facts. But Coach Mac taught us history through football plays and storytelling. Through a series of Xs, Os, and arrows detailing their paths, Coach Mac told stories of Roman invasions, the Crusades, Genghis Khan, and the rise of Stalin. I sat in the front row, took copious notes, and was a star student every day in that class.

Because of Coach Mac, I became a history minor in college. And yet, if you asked me dates and details of these events Coach Mac and my college professors taught me, I could not tell you any of them without the aid of Google. The truth is, history stole my heart not because of the facts, but because of the stories.

Joseph Campbell famously said that there are only two stories in the whole world: Hero takes a journey and stranger comes to town. As an English teacher, I enjoy telling my students this nugget of wisdom and challenging them to defy it. They never can because, although stories are powerful, they are also simple. There are certain constructs, rhythms, and traits to a well-crafted story. Stories, at their heart, are either about heroes on a journey or strangers coming into a new setting.

For many Americans, Donald Trump is a hero on a journey; for others, he is a villainous stranger who has come to town. No one knows how the story will play out, but to deny that the country is in the midst of a fascinating rising action, to use a literary term, is to admit that you’re not paying attention.

Like many educators, I am appalled at the wealth of fake news that floats around social media and the power it has over young people who do not necessarily have the skills to interpret it. Many adults are worried about how to best teach strategies for interpreting fake news, and many of those strategies seem to surround the idea of fact checking. And although classrooms like mine should place a strong focus on helping students navigate the evolving world of the internet and social media, to be critical consumers of media, and to develop a general desire to seek facts above fiction, to concentrate solely on fact checking is a naive approach to the problem.

Just as it was for me so many years ago in Coach Mac’s class, narrative, both fiction and nonfiction, will always be more alluring than a collection of facts—for better or worse—because narrative is rooted in the human experience. People want to connect with characters, want to see a plot develop to its end, and want to engage in the fascinating layers of conflict.

Explaining to someone, however accurately, that Donald Trump didn't help save 2,100 jobs with the Carrier deal, but rather 850, and that he may have actually had very little to do with it, or that the deal may have negative implications for the economy and job growth down the road, means virtually nothing to someone who has lost a job and gotten it back. To this person, there is a clear narrative that resonates: Trump is the hero. Telling someone whose only image and interaction ever with a woman wearing a hijab is through negative stereotypes on social media that five of the last 12 Nobel Peace Prize winners were Muslim means little to someone whose mind has generalized such a character as the villain.

Facts (or the lack thereof) mean very little to people caught up in storylines. The best way to teach true understanding is not by teaching students facts (although that is still a valuable lesson); it is to teach them to analyze, as one does with elements of narrative.

When I was growing up in a small town, my only contact with Latinos was with two men who worked with me in a local restaurant. I was a waitress, and they worked in the kitchen. These men were a little more flirty with me than is probably appropriate for grown men to be toward a 17-year-old girl. They sometimes made me uncomfortable, and because of that, I began to develop a perception about all Latinos, based solely on these two men. The story I crafted from this experience, regardless of the facts, was that Latino men were inappropriately flirtatious toward women. Facts and statistics would have meant very little to changing the story in my mind about what it meant to be a Latino man. My facts were wrong, but my story was what mattered to me. If I saw anyone I perceived as a Latino man in public, and I was alone, I would feel myself become anxious. How could facts in a moment of fear for a 17-year-old girl make any difference? It would be equivalent to telling someone who is afraid of flying that more deaths occur by car than plane.

But what did change the story for me was moving to Southern California. There, I joined a sorority with mostly Latina women who became my new “sisters.” I worked on campus as a telemarketer, surrounded by Latinos who became my family. Because I was living away from home, one of my new friends invited me over for dinner most Sundays, and on those days, her father cooked the best carne asada I have ever eaten and welcomed me kindly into their home—creating a new image of Latino men for me. I went on dates with several Latino men who treated me with kindness and respect. Ultimately, truth is subjective. What was true for me at 17 was not true for me years later. The narrative I had crafted as a teenager suddenly seemed ridiculous, and not because someone presented me with facts, but because I understood much more of the story. I had analyzed various characters and could now understand how false my perception had been.

Obviously, it is unlikely that every single small-town young person like me will have the experiences I had. But it is possible to emulate such experiences in the classroom.

Now is the time for teachers to teach students not only to be critical thinkers who question the validity of facts, but also to analyze narratives. That is what Coach Mac did in his classroom through his football plays. When a certain Roman general marked as an X on his chalkboard acted in a way that developed the plot of the story, Coach Mac would ask the class, “Why do you think he did that?” We didn’t have Google then, but even if we had, he wasn’t asking us to simply look up the facts; he was asking us to analyze what had taken place thus far, how X had behaved up to that point, and what the possibilities were for X’s next actions.

When living in California, the storyline of Latinos-as-villains no longer made sense when I analyzed as Coach Mac had taught me. And even if students can’t go to California as I had, a teacher can still expose students to various types of characters and plotlines from many perspectives, both fictional and real. Teachers can—and do—ask the same types of questions of those narratives that Coach Mac asked of me and my peers of historical ones.

It is a human endeavor to create and tell stories. From the caves of Lascaux to oral-storytelling traditions around the world, humans have sought ways to share truth as they see it, to develop narratives in ways that makes sense for each individual. Young people use social media to tell stories and share their perception of truth, and it is also on these platforms that they seek truth.

I was lucky enough to move to a new place and experience other cultures that changed my perception of some people, but others don’t take such leaps. Young people have opportunities to use the global space that is social media to broaden their perceptions and be critical analysts of false narratives. It is up to adults to teach students these skills.

Adults can teach students about unreliable narrators, about character motivation, about the need of any good storyteller to create conflicts and obstacles. Just as I explained recently to the students in my creative-writing class who are writing 10-minute plays, a good storyteller should plant minor obstacles in the beginning of the story that will indicate what the climax will be. So, as critics of stories, students might have noticed, as I did, that Donald Trump planted seeds of a treacherous media and rigged elections early on as minor obstacles in his story, so that as his story progressed those conflicts and the people who enacted them became more and more like the villains, while he became more and more the hero. Because I am a storyteller, I could see the plot unfolding. I want the same skills for my students because facts aren’t enough when it is time to understand the difference between a hero and a villain.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is a high-school instructional coach. She is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and the founder and CEO of Curio Learning.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for The Atlantic

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published January 9, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

Make your inbox more interesting.

Get The Atlantic Daily email