Oral Narrative & Memory – An Evolutionary Story

This blog post is based on the short talk I gave at the #CogSciSci meeting at Westminster School on Friday 31st May 2019.

I’m going to make an emotional, but hopefully rational argument as to why oral narrative (the telling of stories) is the most powerful way to impart new information to our students in the classroom.  Or put another way, high quality teacher talk is great and we should not look to limit it in the classroom.

Humans are unique in their evolution of language. That’s not to say that other animals don’t communicate with sounds and gestures, but humans alone have developed the ability to use their tongues to make such an array of sounds. Indeed the word language comes from the latin for tongue, lingua.  Human language is also modality-independent; language can be transmitted by speech in different languages, signs, gestures and written symbols with the same meaning conveyed and understood in the language centres of the brain. This modality independence is again, as far as we know, unique to homo sapiens of animal species alive today.

Paleoanthropologists debate about how human language developed and diverged from primate communication, and there are some wonderful theories such as the “Festival Origin” (emotional chanting for a celebration) or the “Putting Baby Down Origin” (that working mothers needed to call out to reassure their increasingly large but helpless offspring that they were still nearby). There is of course no record of human speech within the fossil record since the soft tissues involved have not survived. The time, and mechanisms of origin of language will therefore always be debated. However a minimum age of around 350,000 years, the time of Homo Neanderthalensis, has been proposed as the time required for the diverse range of phonemes found on the planet today to have diversified. Whilst others argue that language evolved much earlier around the time of Homo Habilis, 2,000,000 years ago.

Evidence of early human writing does exist in the archaeological record. The earliest true writing tablets survive from Sumeria around 3500 BC, whilst the earliest written counting to have survived is the Lebombo Bone a baboon bone with 29 notches carved into it which may have been used for counting days in a lunar calendar. Radiocarbon dating places the bone at 35,000 years old. Cave paintings, and rudimentary lines drawn on rocks have been found which have been dated to 78,000 years ago.

However, even the earliest estimates of crude human writing and the latest estimate for the arrival of human speech leave a gap of more than 200,000 years. That’s a long time, but perhaps not a surprising one. Anyone who has witnessed the relative ease with which a child learns to speak compared to the difficulties in learning to read and write cannot argue that written communication is a natural and implicit method of transmitting information for humans.

So for hundreds of thousands of years, early humans communicated and passed information to each other by talking. Look at this artistic impression of early humans sitting around a fire. What do you think they might be saying to each other?


Maybe on the right, the mother is telling her young children about the dangers of the water; the need to look out for crocodile-like creatures, of the need to not stray too far in without supervision in case of drowning. She checks that they remember not to eat the red berries that grow on the path to the water. In the center, a village elder has brought some foraged foods, some roots perhaps, that he has learned are rich in calories and plentiful during the cooler winter months. He is telling the younger man where to find them and how to dig them up.  On the left, two men skin an animal killed in a new type of trap that they have developed and will tell the tribe about after eating. They use the stone and wooden tools they learned how to make from their parents. The tribe will eat meat today and more often from now on, if others can learn how to make these traps.

For generations information such as how to stay safe, how to hunt, how to make tools, what foods to gather and when, and what plants and berries are poisonous has been passed from generation of early human to the next.  Not learning the oral stories would have been costly.

Pre-historic children who could not learn which mushrooms and berries are poisonous would not be able to make the mistake a second time. Prehistoric new parents who believed their children should learn life’s dangers by discovering them for themselves soon had no children. Prehistoric non-conformists who did not listen to, or participate in the traditions of the hunt, preferring their own ineffective progressive methods were subsequently shunned by the tribe and found themselves without mates.

The ability to learn and listen to orally transmitted stories would have been selected for in the human gene pool for hundreds of thousands of years. Those who could not learn stories would win prehistoric Darwin Awards and remove themselves from the gene pool. Life would have been difficult and dangerous enough that discovery learning in the young would have been lethal.

For sure, innovation and creativity would have been necessary for technological advances by adults who had learned the basics and built on this knowledge. But without brains that could learn from oral transmission of information then even new technological advances would have been quickly lost by subsequent generations.

An interesting study supports this argument. Morgan et al (2015) investigated how the making of sharp stone flakes such as those used by Homo Habilis 2,000,000 years ago could be taught by modern humans. They investigated different methods of transmitting information: a) by trying to recreate flakes when given the tools (blue bars); b) by observing an expert making flakes (green); c) by basic teaching, the tutor could re-position hands, or perform the motion slowly (yellow); d) by gestural teaching (orange) and e) by verbal teaching (red).   The graph below shows that the quality of flakes was highest when verbal teaching was used and similar graphs in the paper show that the quantity of flakes and success rate in flake production are all most effective when teaching occurred orally.

Morgan et al

The paper also showed that transmission of information along a chain (the first student becomes the teacher to the next) was most effective and longer lasting when teaching was verbal. The authors conclude that tool-making and language likely co-evolved in hominids, since without the ability to speak tool making techniques would not have proliferated and would not have been transmitted to subsequent generations. The co-evolution of tool making and language would age human language at at least 2,000,000 years old.

If this hypothesis is true, for more than 2,000,000 years our ancestors have spoken to each other and passed vital information to subsequent generations through oral communication. For more than 2,000,000 years there has been a selection pressure for individuals capable of learning information transmitted verbally.

Compared to 2,000,000 years of evolution, the brains of “21st Century Children” who happen to be born a decade or three later than their “20th Century Teachers” are essentially identical. The notion that we should change our style of teaching to suit a generation of children who happen to have iPhones is absurd. The Human brain is perfectly evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to listen to, and learn from human stories and verbal communication.

Cognitive Science teaches us that students need to forget and relearn information. That they need to actively retrieve this information from their long-term memory. That they learn better when information is dual-coded with linguistic and visio-spatial information. But these strategies are concerned with how to embed information into schema for easy retrieval. It does not tell us how to impart this information in the first instance in the most powerful way possible.

Human evolution tells us that that the most powerful way is through oral narration of stories. Our brains have evolved for millions of years to learn engaging and interesting stories that are relevant to us. High quality teacher talk that combines key information intertwined in an interesting and engaging narrative is likely to be one of the most powerful ways to impart new information. Indeed I’m finding that the #sciencestories project is most effective with my students when I read the story aloud to the whole class.

So let’s plan high quality teacher talk, stop timing how long the teacher talks for, stop placing arbitrary limits on the time a teacher stands at the front of a class. Instead let’s improve our narrative craft, learn the interesting stories so that we can engage students in the rich narrative of our subjects.

Long live the sage on the stage!

Update: On reading this post CorbynCrow pointed me towards Neil Gaiman’s wonderful poem The Mushroom Hunters. A poetic story of the first scientists (who logically were the women) I watched a video of Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer, reading it (skip to 9:40 if you just want the poem) about four times back-to-back, I was blown away by it. Then I found Chris Riddell’s illustrations of the poem, and I was totally in love.  One day, framed versions of these will line the corridor into my science department.




8 thoughts on “Oral Narrative & Memory – An Evolutionary Story

  1. Pingback: Thankful for Knowledge | Dr Wilkinson – Science Teacher

  2. Pingback: How I “Trad” Flipped Learning | Dr Wilkinson – Science Teacher

  3. Pingback: Building a teaching and learning policy from a single idea: The genius of Prof. Daniel Willingham – Reflections in Science Education

  4. Pingback: Applying Cognitive Science Principles to Practical Work | Dr Wilkinson – Science Teacher

  5. Pingback: Teaching with a Presentation — The Power of Big Pictures and Story Telling – Chat Physics

  6. Pingback: What does explicit instruction in science look like? – A Chemical Orthodoxy

  7. Pingback: Curriculum Links Part 2: Planning A Science Curriculum – CogSciSci

  8. Pingback: Building a teaching and learning policy from a single idea: The genius of Prof. Daniel Willingham – Reflections on Education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s