Extract from The Exam Class Toolkit: How to Create Engaging Lesson That Ensure Progression and Results (Continuum). This section is a snapshot on using stories in the classroom.
The following story was emailed to us recently. At first it may seem just like a
funny story, but if you read between the lines, it raises several interesting
questions. Can you spot them?
An old Maori man lived alone at his family home out in Ruatoria.
He wanted to dig his kumara garden, but it was very hard work.
His only son, Hone, who used to help him, was in Paremoremo prison.
The man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.
Kia ora e Hone,
I am feeling pretty bad because it looks like I won’t be able to
plant my kumara garden this year.
I’m just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot.
If you were here, all my troubles would be over.
I know you would dig the plot for me.
A few days later he received a letter from his son.
For God’s sake! Don’t dig up that garden, that’s where I buried the BODIES.
At 4am the next morning, Gisborne C.I.B and the local police showed up with a search warrant and dug up the entire area without finding any
bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the man received another letter from his son.
Go ahead and plant the Kumara.
That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.
Listening to the stories of Holocaust survivors is always inspirational, but today (Tuseday 25th September) was more enlightening than usual.
Along with colleague Rosie Sheldrake, I took a group of Year 9 students to an oral history event at Essex University, in memory of the late Dora Love. The original plan was to give students access to quality material for a Holocaust project that we would define later, however, as the day unfolded, we decided to hand over the whole process of project design to the students – something we have not done before.
As teachers we strive to perfect our practice by observing colleagues, reading good literature as well as communicating with other enthusiasts at conferences, workshops and online. We also seek out new resources whenever the opportunity arise or wherever we may be in the world. We generally know what to look for because it tends to be within the boundaries of education, however, have you ever considered exploring ideas from ‘big business’ with your classes to get them to remember more and for a longer period of time?
Make it stick: can marketing strategies help teachers?
A Sixth Form student once told me a story he’d read in the Guardian:
A guy in the midlands, Sam Jones, had a 1957 Harley Davidson in his garage which he took out for a spin every summer. The rest of the year he’d polish and maintain the bike until the next summer. Last year Sam decided to buy a side cart so he could take his wife for a drive as well so he phoned Harley Davidson USA to try to get hold of an authentic 1950s version of the cart. They said that there were no such cart available but they could build one at a cost. Money wasn’t really an issue for this guy so he gave them the model number which they required to match the side cart to his model. Three days later a sales rep from Harley phones and asks for the model number again as it was incorrect. A few hours after the conversation there’s another phone call, this time it’s a different person from the company. The man introduces himself as Stan Hendriksen, CEO for Harley Davidson Inc. USA. He asked if Sam could check that the model number was correct and if he could read it out to him over the phone? Sam did so whereby the CEO asked if he could lift up the saddle and see if there was any text there. Sam found this to be a rather odd request but so was the whole phone call but he did what the man asked him. Sam lifted the saddle and inscripted into the metal at the back of the saddle read the message:
‘Happy 40th Birthday Elvis, from you friend Johnny Cash’.
Sam sold his Harley Davidson after much media interest for $4.7 million.
The question is of course whether this story us true? Maybe, perhaps not. I searched online for the story but I never found it. Yet, I remember the story almost word for word. Why did I remember this story so vividly? Think about it: why do we remember some facts and information and why do we quickly forget others? As teachers we know our syllabus inside-out, we know our audience well and we are great communicators. So, the goal is clear, the audience is identified and the format of our lessons is clear. Yet, the design of the messages we are trying to put across is far from obvious as not all students remember the core message, the ‘Golden Nugget’, of our lessons all the time. There are infinite ways to teach a topic but which one will stick and what skills will they take with them?
The brothers Chip and Dan Heath have explored the idea why some things stick and why some disappear in their brilliant book Made to Stick. They believe that the main reason why people, such as teachers, fail to create effective, memorable – ‘sticky’ – messages or lessons is because what they call ‘The Curse of Knowledge‘. This refers to the notion that educators and presenters of information sometimes fail to see that abstractions, the wealth of knowledge which they have and which makes sense to them, may not make sense to the students. In order to ensure that their their lesson become memorable and therefore ‘sticky’, according to the authors, we need to consider six simple principles which the Heath brothers call SUCCESs:
Simple: Stripping off everything so that only the core remains. Think of this as a sentence so profound that someone could spend a lifetime learning from it. Well, you get what we mean,
Unexpectedness: Get interest using surprise and get students to see that there is a gap in their knowledge. Fill that gap by providing insight.
Concreteness: Make it clear so that everyone, no matter who they are, understand what you mean.
Credibility: This will ensure students believe in what you have to say.
Emotions: Make sure students care and feel something about your idea, message, topic and about learning new or improving current skills.
Stories: By telling stories or embedding your ‘golden nugget’ in a story, students learn to remember them easier as the internal simulator kicks-in. Stories can also inspire students to act which helps them understand complex issues better.
Ok let’s see how these six principles can work in the context of the classroom.
Why have Flip video cameras become so popular recently? Sure, they’re fairly cheap and pretty portable but that’s not the reason why they sell so well. Their popularity lay in the simplicity of the camcorder itself : point, click and flip. That’s all you have to do to film and transfer to you PC ready to upload to Youtube. How does ‘simple’ translate to education and, more importantly, to your lesson? In order for students to understand, learn and remember what you teach them you must strip away the abstractions and provide a clear explanation. For example, in Business Studies all students understand the basics of the concept ”recession’ thanks to the credit crunch’ without you having to explain global economics. It’s simple, the country is not doing well, people are getting laid off and (!) Wollies closed down, enough said. Whatever you’re about to teach them think about what the core message is and what’s in the way of that core. It is a matter of breaking down those barriers to learning and teachers are very good at doing just that. However, we can learn to utilise ‘simple’ more often and directly in a day-to-day basis with students.
This isperhaps one of the most powerful aspect of ensuring that your teaching stick with students over a longer period of time. Now you could of course dash into the classroom screaming like a banshee and that would probably be unexpected behaviour from you (if it isn’t then you’re under a lot of pressure…). The best way of making something unexpected is to grab students’ attention and show them that there’s a gap in their knowledge. You essentially ‘tease’ them into wanting to find out more, but of course surprise doesn’t last so we must hold their interest and then finally fill the gap in their knowledge by providing them with insight. Let us look at a couple of examples of how a seemingly low impact story can reveal something completely unexpected.
The Car Park
I played this clip and students came into the classroom. It took awhile before they realised what actually was taking place. The video clip of a seemingly uninteresting car park suddenly change and students begin to infer what they already think they know but also asked questions about the clip. I used this video to discuss what makes something ‘significant’ in history.
Thinking Skills mysteries are also ideal. The ‘Paul Tibbets’ mystery below begins by asking students what they think about the man they see in themovie and then provides them with suprise and later insight whilst constantly asking them to reason what they believe and if/why they have changed their opinions of Tibbet.
Teaching skills can sometimes be a difficult task, especially if you want students to understand the core of the skill itself as this can sometimes be be perplexing and too abstract for young adults. An excellent way to get students understanding skills is to provide them with examples and activities that are not only relevant but show them that the skills actually matter in reality and not only in their exams. Take a look at the clip below. This example makes ‘inferencing’ source material more concrete and encourages students to consider the way they view photographs beyond the classroom.
[This selection of images were provided by Terry Haydn, Senior Reader at the University of East Anglia].
The Cafe Test
Another example of making students see that skills will be useful later in life is to set them a challenge that could potentially happen any day. In a nutshell:
You’re sitting in a cafe sipping on a nice cup of tea when suddenly Paul Tibbets walks in and sit by the table opposite you. You know Tibbets to be the pilot in charge of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. You look over at Tibbets, he’s drinking an espresso so he’ll only stay in the cafe for a few minutes… here’s your chance to ask him a question! What will you ask him?
Of course, if you want to make it even more concrete then you do a brief role play where you get one student to be Tibbets, or even better get your Head Teacher to act wise and sophisticated 😉 It is always interesting to see how nervous they get when having to think on their feet!
A great example of getting students to believe in your message is to discuss the importance of developing skills and so that they can understand and gauge the accuracy of information and then use content on the Internet as an example. Take a look at this video clip from a lecture by Alan November where he discusses ‘Who owns the websites your kids look at’:
Although using statistics is one way of making, let’s say, an argument more credible they can sometimes become vague and lack that important ingredient for student to make them believe in them. One way to make certain they believe in what you tell them is to explain the statistics you use in a more ‘sticky’ way. For example telling students that the UK lost 1 million people at war over the last 100 years may seem staggering but if you instead say that if you divide that up across the century that would mean 1 person dying every 48 minutes.
This may seem like the most straight forward principle to do as it deals with how we feel. However, it is not simply empathy we need to tap into but something more powerful, that is, challenging students to want to feel and understand what you are telling them – like becoming part of a story.
The Loan Photograph
The Loan Execution
This is an intriguing mage as it does not provide evidence about ‘guilt’, and students are left wondering about the story behind the photograph. As the truth behind the photograph still remains unclear i.e. why the man on the left was executed, issues dealing with war crimes or rules of engagement, it is an ideal enquiry activity and we can provide them with current discussions about the nature of the image.
Prize-winning photograph in Sudan
This shocking image of a little Sudanese toddler and vulture brings up many reactions with students. Initially they ask questions about where this happened, and what happened next but eventually the crucial question arise: Why did the photographer take this image?
Discussions can become rather heated when students begin to explore the background of the photograph and about Kevin Carter, the photographer who took this photo. Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature photography in May 1994 the same year the photo was taken. Two months later he committed suicide.
Stories are perhaps the most powerful tool we have as teachers as they bring together information and knowledge and makes sense of it all – if told well. Stories can open up complex and abstract ideas and concepts and provide students with something to hold on to which will help them remember and understand. Let’s look at an example of a story that does just that.
The Teszler Story
The following talk has been taken from Ted.com, one of our favorite websites. This story deals with several issues and can be used in many subjects and for different reasons and is truly remarkable. Perhaps the strength of the story lay with the notion of the powerful lone ‘individual’. Students love the story about Mr. Teszler.
The principles mentioned above are useful and they work to help students remember and understand. We are not saying that we must plan our lessons according to these ideas, not at all and in fact we are already using some of these naturally anyway. However, it’s worth exploring them further.