The New Science of Smarter Schools

Angus Fletcher

What if schools trained only half our intelligence?

What if the half that schools neglected was the half that innovates technology, revolutionizes science, and nurtures democracy? What if it was the half that helps guide emotion, increasing empathy and courage while calming anxiety and anger? What if this half could never be replicated by artificial intelligence (AI)?

And what if a way to train the missed half of our intelligence had already been developed? What if it had been tested and validated by some of the globe’s most cutting-edge and high performance organizations? What if it was just waiting to be introduced into classrooms, from third grade through college, helping future generations of students outthink machine learning algorithms?

In Storythinking: The New Science of Narrative Intelligence, I make the case that these what-ifs aren’t science fiction. They’re our world now.

1. Schools train only half our intelligence.

More than 90 percent of what is currently taught and assessed in schools—from elementary classrooms through MBA programs—is logic: math, memorization, deduction, critical thinking, semiotics, interpretation, data-driven decision-making, induction, dialectic, design thinking, divergent thinking, statistics, algorithms, sense making, themes, arguments, representations, identities. But logic has, for the past 500 million years, existed as only half of biological intelligence. The other half is narrative. Unlike logic, narrative is low-data, allowing it to operate in volatile and murky environments. And unlike logic, which computes correlations, narrative is capable of causal speculation and counterfactual conjecture, enabling it to hypothesize original whys and what-ifs.

2. Narrative intelligence is a driver of innovation, experimental science, and democracy.

In modern schools, narrative has been reduced to a means of communication: storytelling. But narrative operates in the brain as a mechanism of cognition: storythinking. Storythinking enables us to craft novel plans and strategies, making this half of our intelligence a core driver of new technologies, art forms, medicines, businesses, social movements, and scientific hypotheses. And because narrative is not right or wrong, but rather individual and branching, it’s a mainspring of democratic ingenuity and adaptability.

3. Storythinking can help students develop independence and real-world problem-solving.

For decades, educators such as Anna Craft have warned that school is decreasing creativity, reducing students’ effectiveness at practical problem-solving and increasing their propensity toward anger and anxiety. The core driver of this situation is the emphasis that modern schools place on standardized tests and right/wrong, logic-based tools of assessment that, when used in excess, promote passivity to conventional expertise and institutional authority. The remedy is to enrich schools with more of the complex, open-ended problems that characterize life outside the classroom. Those problems stimulate “possibility thinking” and other kinds of narrative intelligence, building self-efficacy and empowering students to invent independent answers to real-world challenges.

4. Storythinking training is inexpensive and publicly available.

Students of all levels, across the world, have access to effective, low-cost resources for training storythinking; two of the most time-tested are literature and history. Literature and history are generally employed in modern schools to teach interpretation, critical thinking, and other logic-based skills—but we can also use them, as many generations of humans have, to develop narrative intelligence by engaging the brain with complex, open-ended problems. Such problems can be found across our global library, from ancient Athenian theater like Sophocles’s Antigone, to Chinese novels like Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, to Iroquois tales like the Story of Deohháko, to modern American memoirs like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

5. Storythinking can improve our mental health and wellbeing.

In the brain, narrative and emotion are tightly linked. The same content can generate empathy or anger, courage or anxiety, depending on its narrative method. By diversifying our storythinking, we can improve our mental health and boost our mental wellbeing—more effectively than by relying on techniques like mindfulness and meditation.

6. Storythinking makes humans smarter than AI.

AI runs on the NAND/NOR logic gates of the computer’s arithmetic logic unit (ALU), and as logicians from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell have proven, NAND/NOR cannot process narrative. This means that no AI will ever invent a plot to take over the world—nor will an AI imagine new ways to solve poverty, disease, or war. AI is limited to random-logical processes such as brainstorming, idea blending, divergent thinking, and design, none of which possess the creative power of narrative imagination. That creative power requires the physical hardware of the animal neuron, which has mechanical capacities that the ON/OFF transistors of the computer brain lack. Among those capacities is the ability to experimentally improvise system architecture. Such improvisation would short out computer electronics, but it is the basis of original human thought.

In independent trials run at U.S. Army Special Operations, storythinking training significantly and substantially boosted the ability to devise effective solutions to complex, open-ended problems. Storythinking training has also been shown to boost innovation and resilience in Fortune 50 executives in fields from finance to healthcare to technology.

If you’d like to sample that training for yourself, here are a few  exercises you can try:

  • Immerse yourself in a work of literature from a culture (or subculture) other than your own. Don’t close-read it for themes or interpret it for meanings. Don’t judge whether its characters are moral or likeable. Instead, identify something surprising in the work—and explain why it surprised you.
  • Talk with someone who thinks differently than you. Ask them to share their life story. Then speculate on how they might solve a problem that you’re currently facing. Ask them what they think of your proposed solution.
  • Imagine a small change that you can make in your life, right now. Hypothesize, in as much detail as you can, the effects of that change. How would your life be different tomorrow? In one week? In one month? In one year? In five?

Introductory exercises like these offer a gateway to a more challenging but equally straightforward narrative intelligence curriculum that can reduce anger and anxiety, promote robust and adaptive democracies, and power technological innovation and cultural growth. Right now, the curriculum is limited to special operations personnel and MBAs. But what if it was available to every student, everywhere?

That future is as close as we can storythink.

Angus Fletcher is professor of story science at Ohio State University’s Project Narrative, and the author of Storythinking: The New Science of Narrative Intelligence (2023).

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