Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tell Me a Great Story

I’ve been thinking about story. Not a specific story but the concept, the notion of story. And this notion has rattled around my cranium for some time. In a forthcoming book, I write:

"The human mind frequently thinks in terms of stories, communicates in stories, and converts new learning into stories. By framing experience, stories provide a structure for exploring and making sense of experience.”1

A couple recent publications have further stoked these thoughts. In Think Better, author Tim Hurson suggests thinking in terms of a “target future,” an “imagined future” so “powerful and compelling” that it generates motivation to achieve it.2 In other words, think of the future as a story waiting to be told, one with a climax so exciting it propels you toward its achievement.

This idea gets an extended treatment in Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years:

If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers…Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.

But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either….3

Great stories inspire. They allow us to imagine ourselves as the victorious protagonist, or they come close enough to our own experience that they feel like our own stories. I like how Jason Flom recently expressed this: “Well-constructed literature can, like a prism, bend the light of experience to reveal the kaleidoscope of colors that make up real life.”4

Stories provide a frame, a way of looking into past experience or perceiving the future. These ideas prompt me to wonder what kind of influence could framing learning as a story could have on my teaching. Research suggests that students achieve more when they are overtly aware of a teacher’s objective of a lesson. Would letting students see themselves and their learning as parts of a story have similar results? I’m going to test this out!

Beyond that, what narrative guides current educational reform efforts? It seems we hear much about data, but data alone is not an “imagined future” so “powerful and compelling” that it generates motivation. We hear shouts about technology and teachers falling behind. But by themselves, these seem like shouts of “Volvo!” as pedestrians watch cars drive by. Then there are the heated arguments over “alternatives,” such as charter schools—we need them to improve education; they are the wrecking balls of education. Here we have conflict, but still no narrative, no frame that provides meaning, guidance, and inspiration.

Have you ever started a book that had some but not all the parts of a story—a story that became mired in a character’s state but never progressed? Did you finish the book? If so, it was probably out of a sense of duty rather than a desire to turn the next page. This is where I see many of our conversations about education. We’re carrying around parts of a story, but no one has given us a frame that drives us to turn the next page. We lack a compelling climax to push ourselves forward to achieve.

Sure, this is a somewhat simplistic view. Education is complex. Within education there are schools based in communities. The schools have teachers and students, and the communities have parents and voters. We have a myriad of characters that look somewhat like a two-page spread from Where’s Waldo?, and often our efforts seem as scattered as the crowds who obscure Waldo’s location. Yet when we’ve had compelling narratives in the past, we’ve accomplished the seemingly impossible: “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Here’s the challenge: what narrative could move education forward? Most importantly, what would the climax of this narrative be? What vision would be so compelling that it motivates us to overcome the conflicts we’ll face?

Come on, tell me a great story!

  1. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 240.

  2. Hurson, T., Think Better, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 127-141.

  3. Miller, D., A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), xiii.

  4. Flom, J., “Guest Blogger Jason Flom: Unique Reading Experiences,” Prestwick Cafe (January 15, 2010), http://prestwickhouse.blogspot.com/2010/01/guest-blogger-jason-flom-unique-reading.html.


Special thanks to Kevin D. Washburn for his contribution to the Prestwick Cafe Blog!

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of Clerestory Learning, co-founder/owner of Make Way for Books, author of the Architecture of Learning instructional design model and its training program, the Writer’s Stylus instructional writing program, and co-author of an instructional reading program used by schools across the country.

He’s also the author of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain and a member of the International Mind, Brain & Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society.

1 comment:

Tamas Lorincz said...

Loved this post.
I agree that everything is part of a story and we like relaying information and seem to be able to retain it more effectively if it's embedded in a story.
I think everything is a story, even the Volvo-driver's.It can turn into a masterpiece if he drives the safest car in the world into the brick wall of the car dealership, gets out, dusts himself and walks into the sunset.
And yes, education should be a narrative that follows the storyline of fairy tales: There's conflict, struggle, trial and living happily ever after. That is, hero (student) enters the magic castle (school), finds the dragons (school subjects) with increasing numbers of heads and with their hearty fellows (peers, teachers, administrators, and parents) overcome them one by one to reach fulfillment.
The problem is Cinderella is mixed up with the seven dwarfs and the wolf is eating Snow-white and the story is told by different narrators sentence by sentence, with all of them having an axe to grind.
I very strongly believe that we should stop looking at education as a complex system, and help make learning an individual quest (story) for every learner. As learning has left the schools, education systems seem more and more determined to secure their authority by administrative means which is the last resort in any failing system let it be economic, political or educational.
I agree with George Lucas: we need more philosophers and cobblers. He also says that story tellers are teachers:
“Inherently, storytellers are teachers,” he replies. “Homer was more of a teacher than a storyteller. Our real profession is to teach, but in an entertaining way. That gets lost in the commerce of modern life, but
ultimately good storytelling is based on certain truths, insights and observations people can learn from.” (http://online.wsj.com/ad/article/wbf-lucas)

Thanks for the opportunity to think about this fascinating topic.