Teaching with Narratives

Let me tell you a story…

Everyone enjoys a good story.    Stories fire up the imagination, they engage our attention and help us make sense of our world.   And not telling stories may be why so many people have a hard time understanding math, science, or even things like history.     The funny thing is, as teachers we know the stories that are interesting – that is part of what being an expert in the subject matter entails – CONTEXT!

In a classroom a lot of emphasis is put on methods and facts, and not always about creating a framework for understanding.    Many teachers use scaffolding techniques.   These are a variety of things that support learning, varying from classroom organization to how feedback is given.    A teaching narrative gives student’s additional tools for recall and for when it is appropriate to use certain skills.

For example, a story I tell in class when teaching about solving story problems:

“One time I was taking an astronomy test.   Now the question was to determine how long the sun would continue to fuse hydrogen, given certain facts.   Now I worked for about 20 minutes, then came up with the answer:   5 MINUTES.   Not 4.5 billion years, but 5 minutes.    I looked outside and since the sky wasn’t dark, I knew I had made a mistake somewhere in my calculations.”

I tell this because I want my students to think about the reasonableness of their answers.   My students usually remember to include units in their answer,  as well as writing “my answer doesn’t make sense” when they come up with something weird.      I LIKE that story.

I’ve fallen prey to looking at the question “why do I need to know this?” as a question that is challenging the authority of the teacher or the validity of the field of knowledge.    This may in fact be the intent of the questioner.   It is also an excellent opportunity to tell a story and provide reasons and to fire up the imaginations of those people who don’t have a framework for understanding yet.   The only wrong answer I can think of is “because I said so.”    I don’t want to play into someones anti-authoritarian bias.    Give them a reason, even if they wouldn’t like it.   I’ve told students before “You know, you probably won’t use this directly.   But this does show you how to categorize, how to use a formula, and how to think critically.   All of which you will need to use.”

In short, being a good storyteller is a helpful skill for a teacher.

Now go out there and change some minds.

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