Storytelling and Teaching

On the heels of an off-colorful  joke that would make a nun blush, Andrew Stanton states in his recent TED talk: “We all love stories. We’re born for them.” As I got deeper into his talk I thought, wow, this has Dan Meyer and his 3 Acts brain-child all over it. Not the joke part. But Dan’s funny too. Think “lesson” when Stanton says “story.”

Exceptional Lessons Make Promises

Stanton shows a scene from his new movie, John Carter, and then states:

What this scene is doing, and it did in the book, is it’s fundamentally making a promise. It’s making a promise to you that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time. And that’s what all good stories should do at the beginning, is they should give you a promise. You could do it an infinite amount of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as “Once upon a time … “

Great teachers make promises! They’re great story tellers.  They’re raconteurs. They hijack their students’ attention without permission in order to take them to a place of new understanding.  They coax out the reluctant and enthrall the engaged. Shouldn’t we all promise to lead our students somewhere that’s worth their time? When the promise is direct and obvious, the buy-in is easy and strong. When the promise is tenuous, so is the buy-in.  Doesn’t this sound like Meyer’s Act 1 hook?

Stanton goes on to describe “the clues to a great story”:

Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.

Oh, yes, I want my audience to work for their meal. In fact, I’m having to train myself to quit doing the work for them and to be “less helpful,” as Dan Meyer suggest all teachers do.  An intriguing opening (visual, video, story, joke, anecdote), coupled with the correct lack of information, launches a lesson. Exceptional teachers are experts at organizing this absence of information and prey on the fact that students are inherently prone to filling in this void, if we let them. The struggle for piecing it all together is the cornerstone of Act 2.

Stanton goes on to discuss a story’s conclusion, similar to Meyer’s Act 3:

When you’re telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short-term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long-term? Have you constructed honest conflicts with truth that creates doubt in what the outcome might be?

Dan Meyer is a Jedi Master at negotiating the terrain of motivating students with perplexing math scenarios, much like Andrew Stanton with movies.
Want another dynamo at setting the bait? Dave Burgess is a colleague who’s genius at hooking kids in the social sciences.  I’ve seen him get students to spend a Saturday walking 20 miles to the beach to understand the increase in societal mobility that accompanied the invention of the automobile.  Check him out, and another TED talk.
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