Stories: The Brain-compatible Way of Teaching Humans.

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © Renée Fuller, 1999

     My computer has an IQ of more than 200.

     I don't mind too much that the machine surpasses me in intelligence - after all, its supposed to be my servant. Of course if it were human I would suspect it of deliberately making me look like an ignoramus. In fact, the machine is so brilliant that IQ and aptitude tests are unable to measure the magnitude of its brilliance. Its IQ surpasses not just mine, but that of our greatest human geniuses. The machine, as we say in psychology, goes right through the ceiling of our standard intelligence and aptitude tests.

     How did my computer get to be so brilliant? It was fed information, bit by bit, byte for byte. And contrary to its human caretakers, the machine doesn't forget - except of course when it crashes. Unfortunately, when this same feeding method, that succeeded so well with my computer, is used to teach humans, including young humans called children, we humans regularly forget some of the bits of information we laboriously learned.


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Elementary school teachers who feed bits of information to young humans (they call this feeding, drill) frequently see something that appears similar to a partial computer crash. In humans these partial crashes are labeled ADD, ADD plus HAD, dyslexia, deficits in language and information processing, learning disabilities, etc.
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Many of our experts would have us believe that the high frequency of these partial crashes indicates that things are not quite right with the human machine. It needs repairing, or perhaps reprogramming?

     However, despite extensive repair attempts - that means extra-special drill time - humans fail to come anywhere near the test scores computers achieve on intelligence and aptitude tests. Never mind how similar we make our learning drills to the successful feeding of bits of information to computers, we humans continue to forget some of the bits. There seems to be no way to press SAVE in order to have our hard drive retain the information. To make matters worse, which information bits are retained can be idiosyncratic or arbitrary. The conclusion is all too obvious. People do not make it as computers!


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Because we humans do not make it as computers, we needed to invent them. We needed a brain that wouldn't forget all those bits of information that have become our heritage; information bits that are required for further advances in knowledge, but which exceed the capacity of our brain to retain.
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     Long before the invention of computers, we tried to make our brain act like a computer. That's why we taught our children those bits of information. And that's why our intelligence and aptitude tests were designed to see how many bits of information have been retained. We even had game shows that rewarded people who were good at remembering bits of information. But then it turned out that the most impressive of these game shows were rigged. Alas, never mind how hard our schools drilled us in phonics, phonemes, syllables, dates, declensions, grammar, spelling, chemical formulas, mathematical formulas, etc., our retrieval system had a persistent habit of failing us - of forgetting. Since we humans are so poorly designed to function as machines, we had to invent machines that could do what we can't - remember millions, even trillions of bits of information.

     But why and how, if the human design is so poor, were we able to invent a machine with an IQ (intelligence?) superior to ours?


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Could it be that IQ and aptitude tests don't measure the true nature of human intelligence? In that case our teaching and testing methods, instead of continuing their vain attempts to mimic successful computer programming, should be revised to fit the true nature of our intelligence.
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But what is the true nature of our intelligence, and how is it different from that of computers?

     As every parent knows, even a two-year old can already do many things that are beyond the capacity of computers. I don't mean walk, run and perceive, although those are important differences. I mean that peculiar way we humans construct and organize information, a way that is so very different from what my computer does so well. Curiously, IQ and aptitude tests do not test for, and therefore measure, this peculiarly human method of organizing, storing, and combining information whose end point is the creation of knowledge.

     I have called the basic unit of our human way of organizing information the story-engram. Around the age of one a child begins to learn the principles involved in building this basic unit as he/she attempts to understand (organize) the surrounding world and tries to communicate. Those first attempts begin with the naming of some important person or thing. English teachers would say the toddler has discovered nouns. By age two, the toddler has added verbs to his/her nouns. This noun-verb combination makes it possible to express a causal relationship.


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With just nouns and verbs we can communicate meaning in a nutshell, thereby giving us a story essence, a miniature story. Which is why I have named this basic unit of the way we organize information, the story-engram.
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It doesn't take long before the toddler elaborates simple story-engrams with adjectives that describe the noun, and adverbs that describe the verb. With that accomplished, he/she experiments at attaching these elaborated story-engrams to each other with connectives and simple prepositions, thereby building an ever-bigger and sometimes complicated story. She/he is on the road to becoming expert in that peculiarly human way of structuring information; building with story-engrams complicated intellectual structures that make possible the understanding and communication of causal relationships and meanings. Our toddler has become a story teller - something the computer cannot do. Contrary to those bits of information we humans tend to forget, the intellectual structures we build with story-engrams are easier for us to remember.

     Not only is it easier for us to remember story-engrams and the stories we build with them, but more important, story-engrams function as our thinking units.


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Bits of information cannot function as thinking units, that is unless we make story-engrams with them. Fundamental to human thinking is that we are story bound. Organizing the stimuli that surround us in story form is how we structure our world; how we make sense out of our environment; how we describe cause and effect relationships, and every other relationship.
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So basic is this way of organizing information to human thinking that it is difficult for us to imagine a storyless world. Try it. Can you think of something without making a story-engram out of it? Not easy, is it? Now imagine an alien who wouldn't be able to understand a story. How would we ever communicate with such a creature? But then, perhaps my computer could.

     Because story engrams function as our thinking units they can be powerful teaching tools. Quite by accident we witnessed the astonishing effects of this power in my own laboratory. We were testing out a reading system I had developed that simplifies the mechanics of reading, but has advanced content appropriate for older dyslexic students. It was gratifying to see a 100% success rate with this group. As an afterthought we tried the reading system with progressively younger as well as with progressively lower IQ students. To my astonishment everyone learned to read, whether they were four-year olds or students with IQs in the 30s. How could this be possible? The "how" took some time to find. But once found it told us much about human learning and thinking. For the "how" turned out to be the unintended teaching of how to build story-engrams.This is how the "how" happened.


     In order to make learning to read easier I had composed the stories of the first two Ball-Stick-Bird books primarily with nouns and verbs, gradually adding adjectives and adverbs. You can tell wonderfully exciting stories with story-engrams built mainly with nouns and verbs. By writing the beginning books in this telegraphic style, a style that mimics the language acquisition of toddlers, only a few words have to be deciphered before the student gets the gist of the story. She/he has almost immediate success at story reading, and story comprehension is used to help in the learning of phonic decoding. To make it even easier for students to understand what they are reading, each story-engram has its own line. In this way students can readily see the progression of the narrative as a progression of story-engrams attached to one another.
Dick the Cat (Example of Simple
Story Engrams)

     The data demonstrated that students taught in this manner not only have an easy time learning to read, regardless of their IQ or various "learning disabilities", but even more unanticipated, show an increase in thinking ability. Seeing how the language game is played, how ideas are built, our students mimicked the process. They found copying the language game works. Their communication skills soared. And this communication was not just with others, but with themselves (thinking). Our students demonstrated the power of teaching with story-engrams,and the true nature of human intelligence.

     The utilization of the powerful story-engram tool, although not labeled as such, has been successfully used in other areas of cognition. In the 1950s and '60s Catherine Stern and her collaborators used stories to teach mathematics. Her Children Discover Arithmetic is a prime example of story-engram building and its astonishing successes. Isaac Asimov (yes, the science fiction writer was also a scientist) wrote several introductory science books using the story-engram approach. And of course we all know the success of historical fiction in reteaching us the history we had forgotten after taking the exam for which we had learned numerous dates, names of kings, battles, etc. Stories help us understand and therefore remember what extensive memorization of bits of information fail to do. Often the memorization of this plethora of facts interferes with our understanding.

     Now that we live in the computer age, which gives us trillions of bits of information at our fingertips, the necessity of organizing this plethora of facts into something meaningful has become essential.


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The importance of story-engram organization is that with it we can integrate the growing glut of information into knowledge.
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This is what we can and must teach our children - how to integrate the intellectual treasures mankind has acquired over the millennia. Much of this treasure trove of information is now stored in our computers with their superior IQs, waiting to be organized into knowledge by our human brain.

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© 1999 Renée Fuller
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