Using storytelling in Philosophy teaching videos

This is an essay I wrote for the course Understanding learning in the online environment, which is part of Edinburgh’s MSc Digital Education.

garden path

Video has long been used to support classroom teaching. However, it is only in the last ten to fifteen years that educators have been able to easily produce and distribute their own videos. These videos, which are created to support the teaching of both online and on-campus students, can then be quickly and easily distributed to a global audience, whether through video-sharing platforms such as YouTube, or via online learning platforms such as Coursera.

This new venture into video has required additional technical skills for those of us working in education. Perhaps less obvious has been the need to develop our media literacy skills as we shift into new modes of discourse. As video producers, we have to think about how to shape educational content to suit the affordances of the medium. What works? How can we maintain interest for the viewer? How should text and images be used to support what we are saying? What tone of voice should we adopt: more formal, or more conversational?

It is tempting to believe that these questions can be answered by referring to what works in face-to-face teaching. However, there is good reason to think that this may not be the case. A shift to video often means re-working content, sometimes from the ground up. For instance, Guo (2013) found that video lectures often work better when they are cut into chunks of 6 minutes or shorter. This is markedly different from the length of a typical in-person lecture, and seems to be a consequence of the medium as much as human attention spans. Writing about a different context of broadcast journalism, Hudson and Rowlands (2007) highlight that a news story will be presented differently depending on whether it appears in print, online, on the radio, or on television. The medium is to some extent dictating the content of what we see, hear and read in the news.

As a learning technologist working with MOOCs and other online Philosophy courses, I have found that video requires changes in approach to the techniques used in the classroom. In this essay, I focus on the technique of storytelling, and ask how it might be integrated into the production of philosophy teaching videos.

What is a story?

Alexander (2011, p.5) provides a summary of answers to this question, beginning with the notion of events that follow an expected structure. Most familiar is the triangular structure described by Gustav Freytag (1896). This is a sequence of exposition or introduction, followed by rising action, a climax, falling action, and a denoument. The “Freytag triangle” is sometimes reduced to the simpler codification of stories as having a beginning, a middle and an end. There are variations on this, such as McKee (1997), who describes a five-step sequence of inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution. In any case, the notion of connected events happening in sequence is central to our idea of what makes something a story.

Radio producer Ira Glass (2004) identifies two building blocks of a story: the anecdote and the reflection. The anecdote is the sequence of events as described above, while the reflection is a pause in which we examine what the anecdotes mean. Stories, or at least good stories, are often seen as sequences of events that carry a meaning. Alexander (2011) writes, “Some story definitions appear to reflect a frustration with other media — hence the argument that stories are objects (books, movies, documents, etc.) with meaning. This definition opposes a story to a pile of data, or a document that is difficult to parse, or an experimental work that is challenging to grasp.”

Finally, Willingham (2009) defines a story somewhat differently to the approaches discussed thus far. He refers to 4 C’s that work together to make something a story: causality, conflict, complications and characters.

Storytelling in Philosophy

Philosophical works are not typically written as narratives of this kind, though there are notable exceptions. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, (1998) for instance, is written as a first-person narrative, describing a series of events and ideas that occur to a central narrator. The thought experiments used in moral philosophy, such as Foot’s famous “trolley problem” (1978), often take a narrative form. More generally, any battle of ideas can be told as a story between two conflicting characters with opposing positions; see, for example, Wittgenstein’s Poker (Edmonds and Eidinow, 2001), which draws out a dramatic element to a philosophical disagreement between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper.

Looking at the study of philosophy in education, we can see stories being used as a stimulus for thought. A story is presented and philosophical methods are then applied to it. The Philosophy For Children (P4C) methodology involves teachers presenting stories to engage their pupils, and then inviting the pupils to pose philosophical questions about the events in the story (Nickerson et al., 1985). These questions can then be discussed with reference to the stimulus material. In higher education, Philosophy Through Film (Litch, 2002) is based on a university course of the same name in which philosophical issues are discussed with reference to films such as The Matrix and The Seventh Seal. A variation on this idea is used in the recently launched podcast Hi-Phi Nation. Produced by Vassar professor Barry Lam and aimed at a popular audience, the podcast uses stories as a hook to explore complex philosophical ideas and debates.

So we have two broad categories in which stories can be used in philosophy. In the first, stories are a vehicle through which philosophical idea are explained. And in the second, the stories are not explicitly philosophical but they are used as a springboard into philosophical thinking. This shows that storytelling can have a place in the teaching of philosophy.

Aims and outcomes of philosophy teaching videos

We can now turn to the question of whether storytelling is advantageous when used in video teaching materials. To determine the success of an educational video, we first need to establish what we might be trying to achieve with it. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but rather a statement of some possible aims for philosophy teaching videos, alongside associated learning outcomes (in brackets):

To provide an overview of key positions in a given philosophical debate and how they relate to one another. (The student can summarise those different positions and how they relate to one another.)

To explain the steps of a philosophical argument. (The student can recount those steps, and demonstrate understanding of how one step leads to the next.)

To generate interest in a topic. (The student is motivated to learn more or engage in discussion.)

To provoke the viewer by challenging commonly-held assumptions. (The student is motivated to argue why they agree or disagree with the challenge.)

Qualities of successful videos

With these aims and outcomes in mind, we can put forward some qualities we might look for in a philosophy teaching video. In particular, the stated outcomes suggest that teaching videos should be:

  • understandable, allowing the learner to follow what is being presented without feeling overloaded or lost;
  • interesting, so that the learner is intrinsically motivated to continue watching;
  • memorable, aiding a learner’s retention of the information presented.

Does storytelling enhance these three qualities? Willingham (2009, pp.52-53) provides good reasons to think that it does. First, he argues that stories are understandable because the familiar structure helps us place actions in a context, which in turn allows us to better comprehend the meaning of those actions. Second, he points out that stories are interesting because listening to them requires a continual process of drawing inferences. This process is a type of problem-solving activity, and activities such as this are known to raise interest when the problems are challenging but solvable. Finally, stories are memorable because as we draw inferences, we think about the meaning of what we are hearing. We are therefore more likely to remember the events of the story, because of the more general principle that we remember topics we have been thinking about. This is expressed in Willingham’s slogan, “Memory is the residue of thought”. In addition, the causal structure of stories provides a strategy for remembering events. If we remember one part of a story, it is likely that the following stage was caused by the part that we remember.

Our comprehension of stories – versus non-narrative streams of data, say – is in part down to their use of characters. We find it relatively easy to process stories about characters doing things, whereas it is harder to process descriptions of a thing and the various properties associated with it (Kahneman, 2012, p.29). Justifying his decision to describe System 1 and System 2 as two fictitious characters in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahnemann states that the mind is better able to grasp stories about “active agents, who have personalities, habits and abilities” (ibid.). This practice is in line with the meaningful stories that Alexander (2011) contrasts with meaningless “pile[s] of data”. This in turn echoes the work of Roszak (1994), who bemoans the modern pursuit of information, and our lost focus on the historically more significant pursuit of ideas.

Storytelling and video

This discussion suggests that storytelling is a useful pedagogical technique, but we have not yet considered why it might be especially useful for educators working in the medium of video. To answer this, we need to examine the particular affordances of video.

One important difference between classroom teaching and video is the uni-directional nature of video. At its best, classroom teaching is a bi-directional activity, with a dialogue between the teacher and the student group. In this two-way form, a teacher can both ask questions of their students and respond to questions from the class. But in a uni-directional form such as video, the teacher is unresponsive and does not interact with the class. Students cannot ask questions of the teacher, and although a teacher in a video can pose questions to their audience, the viewer is under very little obligation to actually form a response. This is clearly not equivalent to face-to-face questioning. Storytelling, on the other hand, is ideally suited to the uni-directional affordances of video. A storyteller in a video can speak free from interruption. Indeed, this may explain the long history of cinema and television being used as media for narrative work.

Is online video different from the mostly analogue forms of video that came before it? Web 2.0 stresses participation and active engagement on the part of the consumer; the exhortations of vloggers that we Like, Share, Comment and Subscribe are a frequent reminder of this. Viewed this way, one could argue that YouTube videos are an example of a bi-directional medium. However, this is only true of a subset of online video. A responsive use of video is unusual in the online philosophy courses I have seen, and the more popular YouTube channels dedicated to philosophy teaching (see, for example, Wireless Philosophy) favour a broadcast-style, uni-directional use of video.

So far, we appear to have a strong case for incorporating more storytelling into the production of philosophy teaching videos. This is a good point to pause and consider the risks of storytelling as an approach for teaching philosophy.

The first risk is that storytelling is not generally an accurate reflection of what philosophers do. Lectures exist partly to model good practice; that is, a lecturer is modeling the standard methods that have been applied by philosophers throughout history and up to the present day. And while there is some storytelling in this philosophical work, it is far from the norm. Philosophy in the analytic tradition is a process of rigorous thought, working with carefully defined terms to form arguments, draw distinctions, and establish propositions. It sometimes involves a process of abstraction that results in works of philosophy resembling something more like algebra than narrative fiction. Philosophy does involve conflict, but these conflicts are typically depersonalised; in this way, we can maintain an unprejudiced focus on the abstractions being discussed. The conflict and characters in Wittgenstein’s Poker may bring a philosophical dispute to life, but we should not confuse a recounting of this tale with the practice of actually doing philosophy. The overall thought here is that storytelling risks misrepresenting what philosophers do.

Related to this is an idea known as the narrative fallacy (Taleb, 2007). This is a cognitive bias in which we oversimplify events and their causes because we become besotted with a certain narrative. We then risk misinterpreting our data to help it fit a desired story format, and in the process, we are liable to jump to conclusions or ascribe behaviour to people with certain personality traits. This may be harmless when we are writing a story for the purpose of reader enjoyment. But it is legitimate to fear that the love of a good story could be in opposition to the truth-preserving methods associated with good scholarship. This does not cause a problem for the use of stories as a stimulus for philosophical thought. However, it is a serious risk for anyone who attempts to present philosophical debates as a story. Classic narratives take hold – the plucky underdog overcoming adversity, for instance – and our attraction to these narratives can upset the impartiality that we seek from philosophy as a discipline. Likewise, the desire for a strong narrative may distort our view of what counts as important, and what is therefore worth teaching. Philosophically valuable ideas may be ignored for the sake of ideas that fit into classic story structures, or that are associated with strong characters in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein and Popper may have had an intriguing rivalry, but their inclusion in an educational context should be determined by the value of their ideas rather than the strength of their characters.

The link between these two risks is the fear that online course providers will pursue entertainment above education. This conflict was notably covered by Postman (1985), who highlighted the “antagonistic nature of the two curriculums – television and school”. He then used this as a springboard to criticise Sesame Street, arguing that this popular TV show was focused on entertainment at the expense of more worthy educational aims.

The easy availability of video as a medium for teaching has coincided with increased criticism of education as a commodity, and the associated perception of students as consumers (Bunce et al., 2016). The argument then is that consumers are more concerned with having enjoyable rather than educational experiences. It seems extreme to deny that people should enjoy learning, but there can be conflict with the student-as-consumer in cases where learning is difficult and unpleasant. MOOCs occupy an interesting space here. The fact that MOOCs are voluntary, unsupervised and free of commitment arguably puts them closer to entertainment than more traditional forms of education.

We have seen suggestions that stories help with memory and that they can help stimulate philosophical thought. But perhaps their greatest contribution to online media is the role they play in holding attention. Audiences “switching off” is a problem for any lecturer, but when your audience is online, they can quite literally switch you off. Holding attention is therefore especially important when you are teaching to an online audience. There are extensive tricks used by online video producers competing for their place in the attention economy. Some of these, such as clickbait headlines or highly sentimental content, would detract from the loftier aims of education. Other techniques, such as animation, music and location shoots are difficult if not impossible for educators working with limited resources. Storytelling, on the other hand, is both educationally desirable and practical. The main prerequisites for storytelling are the additional skills required and perhaps the extra time required for planning.

Storytelling is not a panacea for philosophers teaching through video, and it needs to be applied to the subject with awareness of the risks I have outlined above. That said, it offers considerable potential for the online educator, or indeed anyone hoping to engage with an audience through digital media.


Alexander, B., 2011. The new digital storytelling: creating narratives with new media. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Bunce, L., Baird, A and Jones, S. E., 2016. “The student-as-consumer approach in higher education and its effects on academic performance” in Studies in Higher Education, pp.1-21, 14 Jan. Available online:

Descartes, R., 1998. Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, trans. Clarke, D. M. London: Penguin.

Edmonds, D. and Eidinow, J., 2001. Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers. New York: HarperCollins.

Foot, P., 1978. “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect” in Virtues and Vices. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Freytag, G., 1896. Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art. Chicago: S. C. Griggs.

Glass, I., 2004. “Ira Glass on storytelling, part 1”, YouTube video, from a CurrentTV interview uploaded by user Alice Maravilha Neo. Available at: Access date: 9th April 2017.

Guo, P., 2013. Optimal Video Length for Student Engagement. Blog post, 13 November. Available at: Access date: 15 April 2017.

Hudson, G. and Rowlands, S., 2007. The Broadcast Journalism Handbook. London: Pearson Education.

Kahneman, D., 2012. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.

Litch, M. M., 2002. Philosophy Through Film. London: Routledge.

McKee, R., 1997. Story. New York: HarperCollins.

Nickerson, R. S., Perkins, D. N., and Smith, E. E. 1985. “Thinking about Thinking” in The Teaching of Thinking. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Postman, N., 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin.

Roszak, T., 1994. The cult of information: a neo-Luddite treatise on high tech, artificial intelligence, and the true art of thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Taleb, N. N., 2007. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House.

Willingham, D., 2009. Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Image credit

Japanese Friendship Garden Path from entrance by Captain-tucker (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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