Sunday, January 10, 2016

Story Teaching

Quick post thinking about Dan Willingham's post on The Privileged Status of Story, which I got to via Dan Meyer's post Study: Implicit Instruction Rated More Interesting Than Explicit Instruction

What constitutes a story?
"The first C is Causality. Events in stories are related because one event causes or initiates another. For example, "The King died and then the Queen died" presents two events chronologically, but "The King died and the Queen died of grief" links the events with causal information. The second C is Conflict. In every story, a central character has a goal and obstacles that prevent the goal from being met. "Scarlett O'Hara loved Ashley Wilkes, so she married him" has causality, but it's not much of story (and would make a five-minute movie). A story moves forward as the character takes action to remove the obstacle. In Gone With the Wind, the first obstacle Scarlett faces is that Ashley doesn't love her. The third C is Complications. If a story were just a series of episodes in which the character hammers away at her goal, it would be dull. Rather, the character's efforts to remove the obstacle typically create complications—new problems that she must try to solve. When Scarlett learns that Ashley doesn't love her, she tries to make him jealous by agreeing to marry Charles Hamilton, an action that, indeed, poses new complications for her. The fourth C is Character."

At the end, Willingham challenges us to incorporate these C's into lessons. In particular, the most important C, Conflict. "Teachers might consider using 10 or 15 minutes of class time to generate interest in a problem (i.e., conflict), the solution of which is the material to be learned."

I think this is compatible with several MTBoS approaches, in particular & obviouly, 3-Act lessons.

Character - my biggest question after my first read was who are the characters? Not in a heavy handed Life of Fred way, but in the story. I think it must be teacher and students for us. We resolve the conflict, after all.  Probably one of the inherent advantages of inquiry teaching is making the students the central characters. Not that we teachers can't be involved - I think we have to be ready to jump in, too. But we can't be Deus Ex Machina everytime, and let the students know there's always an out.

Math lessons are well set up for storytelling otherwise, I think.

Causality - why does this work is a great basis for an investigation. Add up the digits - if that's divisible by three the original number was, too. What? How could that work? Look - these three centers of a triangle are always on the same line. Why on earth...? Of course, if we make it out that knowing the fact is more important, we're killing the story. This is historically a great spark for mathematical developments as well. While I was writing this Sam Shah posted this image which got my mind wandering, making me go off and do some GeoGebra.

Conflict - I have no idea if this is unusual, but I try to get good math arguments going every chance I get. I usually refuse to be the authority. ("Is this right?" What do you think? "I think so..." Well, let's ask the class!) Plus anytime I ask for an answer, I always ask if there are any other answers. And when the students propose answers, there's a chance for a math argument. It also makes me think of Chris Luzniak and his Math Debates.  Even whether a particular topic is math can be a great argument. There's a course I start with Sudoku, and the last question is, were we doing mathematics? I have never had a class agree on this answer.

Complications - is there anything more mathematical than this? Oh, that worked. What if we added this? Could we do it still if we didn't know that? Messing around with conditions is prime mathematical behavior. And if the problem is problematic enough, this happens by itself. I could solve it if I knew that, now how do I find that out? Or you're trying all the cases and get to one where the freak out lives. Or you're practicing the very mathematical habit of mind of trying to find counter-examples to your own idea.

Where I think these C's might be helpful to me is in being more intentional about the type of math the students are working on, and using this structure to help design how I'm going to try to get my lead characters to find the problem.

For my first math for elementary teachers tomorrow, I want to create the conflict for my students between what they know about elementary mathematics and what they need to know. I loved Graham Fletcher's progression of multiplication, so I'm going to try to use that in contrast with their native ideas about teaching multiplication. (Also such a nice synthesis of understanding to model for them.) In the past I've mirrored mathematics development in children and schools, starting with number concept and building up. This will essentially be going in reverse, but will hopefully be a more obvious need to know that will motivate the deconstruction on supposedly simpler topics to follow. Wish me luck!


  1. Yes! Storytelling rocks!

    In calculus there are definitely characters (other than the teacher and students): Archimedes, the scientists in the 1600's who needed calculus for their work, Newton, Leibniz, Cauchy, ...

    In precalculus, I'd like to know more of the stories behind the original development of trigonometry (among other things).

  2. At least some of this reminds me of early encounters with solving Rubik's Cube from a completely naive perspective. You can get one layer complete without any great difficulty, but quickly you hit conflicts: to get more cubes placed (other than pretty much randomly), you have to UNDO properly placed cubes, at least temporarily. This is about as conflicted as it gets when it comes to solving a puzzle (or so I think just this second). And if you follow some of the standard algorithms for solving layer by layer, this only gets worse, then better, then worse, then better, until the final moves make such a mess that it looks like you can't recover, but if you've done everything properly, reversing all those mess-up moves (after interposing one move) get you to the finish.

    The psychology is pretty fascinating. I imagine we could generalize this to other problem-solving situation, and hence we could be thinking about how to plan some lessons that toy with this sort of structure. It definitely makes for some intriguing story-telling, don't you think?

  3. From the "Aesop" corpus:

    The orator Demades was trying to address his Athenian audience. When he failed to get their attention, he asked if he might tell them an Aesop's fable. The audience agreed, so Demades began his story. 'The goddess Demeter, a swallow, and an eel were walking together down the road. When they reached a river, the swallow flew up in the air and the eel jumped into the water.' Demades then fell silent. The audience asked, 'And what about the goddess Demeter?' 'As for Demeter,' Demades replied, 'she is angry at all of you for preferring Aesop's fables to politics!'
    So it is that foolish people disregard important business in favour of frivolities.

    Or, perhaps the fabulist, as he was after all a storyteller, meant: when the narrative kicks in, there's no resisting it. I like how you apply these 4Cs to lessons, John. The conflict can be a bit like Dan Meyer's headache -> asprin, can't it: some mystery needs to be set up; we have to work against our instinct to explain, to always make things as easy as we can.

    And I agree with Sue, there's a big place for explicit story too. (Today we read Blockhead! - a picture book about Fibonacci. Tomorrow we'll return to it and dramatise the part where some of the people are too attached to Roman numerals to accept Fibonacci's foreign Hindu-Arabic numerals.)

    How are you bringing out that contrast between your students' native ideas and what's needed? What are their native ideas? Are they thinking more in terms of algorithms?

  4. Thanks all for fabulous comments.

    @Simon -I want to address how it went in another post... dangerous given my inconsistent blogging. I think what came out is that they knew they didn't want to teach as they were taught (mostly) but don't know what to replace it with. I brought out the contrast by sharing Graham's work, and they responded with "yes, please. Where are the others?"

    @Michael - Working with David Coffey and inspired by JK Rowling, we'd thought about story and learning before... but I like coming back to it.

    @Sue - I love the historical aspect to math, too. I think I need to be more consistent or intentional about bringing it in.

  5. Love this idea of story telling John. I recently finished reading the book "Weekend Language" and it does a great job laying out the importance of storytelling while presenting. While reading it I was continually making connections back to teaching. Thanks for sharing this and reminding me to be a storyteller.