Stories: They CAN (and do) Change Lives

By Shlomo Maital


As a Ph.D. student I was taught that serious academic research involves either a mass of mathematical equations (theory) or a database with at least 50 subjects, generating tables, T-tests, least-square regressions and other such stuff.

   It took me a long time to understand that truth often lies not in N=50 but in N equals one, or less than one – in a powerful story.   Here is an example.

     In 2009 Michelle Obama, on her first trip as First Lady, visited London with Barak Obama. She visited Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, a London state (or public) school for girls, about three-quarters of whom are eligible for free school meals.

   According to The Economist she told the girls:

“I’m standing here…because of education,” Mrs Obama said. “I thought being smart was cooler than anything in the world.” And unlike many luminaries asked to rouse pupils, the First Lady kept in touch. Mrs Obama invited the girls to see her again in 2011 when she visited Oxford University. There, she told pupils: “All of us believe that you belong here.” One year later a dozen pupils flew over to the White House.

       Her message seems to have worked. In a paper published on July 1st, Simon Burgess, an economist at the University of Bristol, analysed the school’s exam results in the years after Mrs Obama’s visits. The 15- or 16-year-olds sitting their GCSEs did much better than girls in the previous year. From 2011 to 2012, for example, the boost was equivalent to each pupil moving from 8 C to 8 A grades. Those improvements were much bigger than the average increases in performance across London state schools, suggesting that the effects were specific to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.”

          So my advice to countries, school systems and even parents:   Tell stories. Find role models your kids admire. Tell their stories, if you can’t bring them in person. When people understand that the impossible is actually possible, because other ordinary people like them have done it, they become inspired.  

         Great aspirations begin with individuals believing that they can. Stories of others who did   are helpful in instilling this belief, as Michelle Obama and the London school show.

   And by the way – I (and many others?) have the strong feeling that Michelle should have been elected President, rather than her husband.