In my prior life before becoming a teacher, and before the days of ‘Master Chef’, I worked as a chef in a busy restaurant on the coast. Most of my days were made up of early starts and late finishes – the dreaded ‘split shifts’. I had a very young son at the time (2 – 3 years old), and I lived with our extended family: my mother-in-law and sister-in-law (who was about 11 years old at the time).

It was an exciting time for me being a father of a young child, and as any parent knows, the first years of a child’s life are full of many milestone moments which are priceless to witness.

Well as you can well imagine, being a chef working split shifts meant that I did indeed miss many of those moments. I would wake up early and head off to work long before anyone else in the house had risen, and arrive home long after the family had gone off to bed; to be greeted by only the remnants of the day’s activities which compounded the feeling that I had missed out on something special.

This was in the early 1990s, which was just before the internet became easily available to households, long before the days of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Yes, these were the days before everyone’s private lives were plastered over the internet, and so it wasn’t easy to catch those lost moments.

It was at this same that I acquired my first computer, an Apple Centris 610. In these days word processing on a computer was a novelty, so I managed to set up a mutually beneficial system with my sister-in-law. I taught her how to use the computer and Microsoft Word, and in return she typed up a dairy entry each day which outlined the family’s activities for the day. My sister-in-law became a better writer, and I was able to get a glimpse of some of the wonderful things that my young son had been up to during the day. Although I was still missing out on these events, these diary entries helped to keep me connected with my family.

Immediately each nigh upon my return home after a long day at work I would eagerly read about the events that had happened during the day. Although exhausted by the day’s work, I was totally engaged, because I had a burning curiosity to know what had taken place during the day. This was important news to me, and so it had me hooked. News is big news, especially when its personalised, and the better the story the more likely you will be hooked in to reading it, which is hopefully how I have managed to hold your attention up until this point.

So where am I heading with this story? Well, it is not so much the actual story here, but rather the story itself and the way it is told.

The story, and particular parts of the story such as the ‘touchy-feely’ bits can help you to focus your attention and commit information to memory. Sounds like science fiction right? But it is actually science fact. There is now significant research which shows that specific components of stories can actually trigger the release of specific hormone chemicals which in turn affect our behaviour and memory. These studies illustrate that our brains ‘lights-up’ with a story just as it would if we were experiencing the real thing. Chip and Dan Heath phrased this so aptly in their book ‘Made to Stick’ suggesting that stories are “flight simulators for the brain”.

This experiment by Dr. Paul Zak demonstrates how parts of the brain respond to specific parts of a story, and what happens when this triggers the release of hormone chemicals into the bloodstream.

Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of StoryTelling 2012

And this study by NYU Langone Medical Center / New York University School of Medicineexplains how the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream can help to dampen ‘background noise’ and increase brain function.

“Oxytocin has a remarkable effect on the passage of information through the brain,” says Richard W. Tsien, DPhil, the Druckenmiller Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Neuroscience Institute at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It not only quiets background activity, but also increases the accuracy of stimulated impulse firing. Our experiments show how the activity of brain circuits can be sharpened, and hint at how this re-tuning of brain circuits might go awry in conditions like autism.”

Daniel Willingham the author of ‘Why students don’t like school’ suggests that psychologists regard stories as “psychologically privileged” because the brain treats them in a superior way to other types of information.

Willingham points to a study in which 209 7th and 8th grade students were tested on texts about Marie Curie and Galileo using two different information delivery methods – One in a standard text book format and one in story format. The students’ comprehension and memory was tested immediately after reading the material and then one week later with the results showing a clear positive result for the story method.

These are difference scores, so taller bars reflect a greater advantage for the narrative version. The advantage of the story over expository was significant in all conditions except the Curie passage at the short delay. http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/storify-make-science-tell-a-story

So if we can tap into Fraytag’s Pyramid (Dramatic Arc) then we will have a narrative which can potentially bring about an acute focus of attention at the start (release of cortisol) followed at the climax and conclusion by a release of oxytocin to help cement the memory of the learning.

Willingham suggests that for teachers to incorporate the story format into their teaching it may be easier for them to think of the narrative as more than just a story about an individual or group of people, but instead to look at it in a more abstract way:

A conflict (or problem to be solved) The complications (steps, sequences, data, parts of the puzzle) The resolution (the answer to the question)

This should provide teachers with more flexibility in the application to the learning and it fits nicely into the learning intention narrative:​

Condition Action Verb Standard
The conditions under which the student will perform the task A description of what the student will be able to do The criteria for evaluating student performance

Curiosity and Powerful Learning / David Hopkins, Wayne Craig ; Oli Knight (contributor). Mcrel (Page 18)

It is important to note here that in order to increase curiosity the story shouldn’t give everything away all at once. Good stories always hold you in suspense as to what might happen next, and allow you to develop questions and deeper reflection on the possible outcomes of the story.

The Kahn Academy who are noted for their engaging easy to follow instructional videos on a range of complex topics provides us with this good example of how this concept can be used to engage students in the learning of the very dry topic of Algebra and Linear Equations.

Trolls, Tolls, and Systems of Equations

In this first video in this series we meet a troll who won’t let us cross a bridge to save the princess or prince unless we solve a riddle which requires us to understand the concept of variables and how to solve a system of algebraic equations.

Let’s have a look at the narrative:

Fraytag’s Pyramid Exposition Rising Action – Climax- Falling Action Dénouement (Resolution)
Willingham’s model A conflict (or problem to be solved) The complications (steps, sequences, data, parts of the puzzle) The ‘light-bulb’ moment. The resolution (the answer to the question)
Kahn Academy Algebra Lesson The Troll won’t allow us to cross the bridge unless we can solve the riddle of how many $5 and $10 notes he has We know how much money he has ($5,500) and we know that he has 900 bills in total.So if we are shown the steps and formula then we can begin to solve this riddle. Plotting the information on the graph and application of the steps provide the answer to this riddle – The Troll has 700 $5 bills and 200 $10 bills
Learning Intention Components(Hopkins, Craig, Knight – Curiosity and Powerful Learning – 2nd edition).​ Condition Action Verb Standard
The conflict or problem which sets up the conditions for the learning The components, elements, information, variables, parameters, etc. which will provide the outline of what must be done and how it might be done. The desired solution or resolution which provides the success criteria for the learning intention.
Learning Intention When presented with a system of equations which includes two variables. The student will be able to use the available data to determine a method of solution, and devise a formula and action plan. The successful solution will be the accurate plotting of this information on a graph which will lead to the solution of the problem.

So as we can see in the above example the story can be simplified and wrapped around the learning intention so that the story carries the learning intention in a narrative format; and as long as this narrative still follows Willingham’s formula above (Conflict-Complication-Resolution), the story should still have the same effect on the brain.

Did my opening story for this blog post follow this pattern? Yes, it gave the initial conflict or problem (I wasn’t home to witness my son’s milestone events), followed by the associated complications, and finally the resolution (A daily diary entry written by my sister-in-law); and by making it a personal story I was drawing you in further to help ensure a release of cortisol and oxytocin in your brain.

Now getting on to the part about ‘blogging’. In the same way that I wasn’t present at the time when these events were being recorded about my young son, I am also not able to be present to tell this story to you in person; and there will be many times when you will not be able to be present to tell your story in person to your students – a child turns up late, you are ill, students revisiting the lesson, etc. So to harness the power of the story for your classes it makes sense to have a tool that can adequately record and replay your story. A video post would be the best answer, but not everyone loves being in front of the camera, and producing high grade video posts is a bit of an art form. So which tool is best suited to this task?

I have chosen to tell my personal story to you by using this blog.

I chose to use a blog for this task for several reasons, but one of the main reasons was that the information I needed to share with you was complex, and the best way to share complex information is through writing; and the ‘blog’ does writing very well indeed.

The structures and format of blogs can allow for a rich user experience by embedded images, sound, video, and hyperlinks. A good blog post would have a mixture of media to enhance the ‘audience’ experience for the reader and to convey your own story in the most impressing way.

Read Part Two of this blog post here to find out why a blog is such a useful and versatile tool for the telling of your classroom narrative.

References:

Heath, Chip and Dan (2007) Random House Publishing – ISBN 13: 978-1-4000-6428-1

http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/storify-make-science-tell-a-story

Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of StoryTelling 2012

http://www.australasianscience.com.au/news/august-2013/potential-role-love-hormone-oxytocin-attention.html

Willingham, Dan (2009) – Why Great Teachers are Story Tellers – Why Don’t Students Like School

http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2009/03/28/why-great-teachers-are-story-tellers/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcNt-36QKu8

Hopkins, David; Craig, Wayne; and Knight, Oli (2015) – Curiosity and Powerful Learning – McRel – National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry – 9780994265319

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