Monday, January 04, 2010

It's Storytelling, Stupid!

Clay doesn't stop. Luckily the blog entry he just wrote -- “You Suck at Photoshop”: Paragon of Creative Project-Based Learning -- fits in perfectly with where I want to continue from my last post (which was spurred by a previous post of his: Barbarians with Laptops).

It's about the importance of narrative in the teaching/learning process.

Okay, You Suck at Photoshop isn't "a grand narrative" (one of the three essential elements of teaching according to Michael Wesch (see my previous post)). But the format could be used to help convey one, incorporating "disciplinary knowledge" into a funny story with a good hook. And Clay showed us an example of a teacher, Lynn Hunt of UCLA -- a "sage on the stage" -- presenting a compelling introduction to the Enlightenment -- by telling us a good story. It's "chalk and talk" but effective. (See his blog post: New Tech Teaching Habits.)

The power of storytelling is often lost in the ongoing debates over:
  • teacher-centered vs. student-centered learning
  • content vs. process focus
  • traditional vs. progressive
  • "sage on the stage" vs. "guide on the side"
  • disciplinary knowledge vs. 21st century skills
Two theorists who consider storytelling at the constant heart of intelligence and teaching and learning are Roger Schank and Kieran Egan. Both have been around for a long time and are still producing work, e.g., see:
-- and both deserve wider audiences, if only as interesting voices from the margins to test your own ideas against.

Roger Schank

The best historical introduction to Roger Schank is probably via the website. You might read his article "Information is Surprises" (1995). Especially note the comments by other people at the end -- re him, not that article. I particularly like this one:
W. Daniel Hillis: The Roger Schank I knew was a thorn in everybody's side — constructively so. The interesting thing about Roger Schank, something he shares with Minsky, is the fact that he's produced an incredible string of students. Anybody who's produced such a great string of students has to be a constructive pain in the ass. He's always taken an adversarial stance in his theories. He doesn't just say, "Here's my theory." He says, "Here's why I'm right and everybody else is an idiot." He's often right.
Okay, now that you're primed for someone quite opinionated (I like that phrase: "a constructive pain the ass"...), go watch this Jan 2009 video, filmed in Barcelona where he is helping to open a new Institute for the Learning Sciences (as part of their Business Engineering program*) -- based on a Story-Centered Curriculum. He goes through everything wrong with existing schools and describes his ideal school:

In summary: "Every curriculum should tell a story... and the story should be one that tells what the life of the future practitioner is like (and it should involve lots of practice)." As he says, teaching doesn't mean talking -- people aren't good at listening -- we listen to be entertained, not to learn. Learning happens as a result of being hooked by good stories -- and by practicing goal-based scenarios that are fun or obviously useful.

Here are my notes on Roger Schank's 1999 book, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence, a thought-provoking read for teacher-librarians as it's about stories, learning, and information retrieval (out of the brain, not the internet) --and so relates to fiction, non-fiction, and tagging/cataloging. (Google Books makes a lot of the book available online, as well as the foreword by the literary critic Gary Saul Morson.)
Teaching is the right story at the right time.

Good stories with lots of information allow listeners to derive their own conclusions.

We do not remember a whole story, but only the gist, indexed in different ways.

Listening is hard -- stories usually just trigger stories back and forth -- how does new learning occur?

Creativity is the adaptation of old stories to new purposes -- it arises not from the void, but from the drawer. And the drawer is only full by virtue of intelligent indexing over time -- the collecting of lots of stories in the brain. Understanding is the process of index extraction -- figuring out what story to tell.

Find an anomaly -- ask a question -- get a story. Anomalies are when we don't know the answer. When we have no story to tell, we look for one -- by asking ourselves questions.

Curiosity is about recognizing anomalies and having the ability to take pleasure in exploring them, which leads us to the value of the search process itself and to prefer answers that lead to ever more questions.
Or as Schank says on page 231: "Learning to explain phenomena such that one continues to be fascinated by the failure of one's explanations creates a continuing cycle of thinking that is the crux of intelligence."

Re the failure to listen to failure, see this recent Wired article - Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. The importance of having a broad input of stories -- and a broad audience -- is highlighted:
When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. (That’s because, unlike the E. coli group, the second lab lacked a specialized language that everyone could understand.) These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism.
[bold added]
This is similar to something a former PhD student said about what he learned from Schank (quoted by Schank in his four-chapter preview of his upcoming book:
You taught me that often our theories get so complex that it takes a specialist with years of training to understand them. When we get our theories this distant from everyday life and everyday people, it is awkward explaining what we do when in conversation with our family, friends, the press, and even upper level executives, etc. You taught me to test to see if what you are doing matters and is of interest to the everyday person seeking distraction and some entertainment, but not entirely brain dead, with some curiosity left about life and what others think.
In other words, can you make an interesting story out of it?

Kieran Egan

Kieran Egan argues that students have access to plenty of information - the problem is getting it into them and getting it to mean anything to them. Knowledge exists only in people, in living tissue in our bodies; what exists in libraries and computers are only codes or externally stored symbolic material.

This is where powerful stories and metaphors come in -- as tools to engage students' imagination and emotions in learning about the world.

Egan insists that students' imaginations can only work with what they know, so a great deal of content knowledge is required. He's an advocate of students becoming experts, e.g., by studying one topic throughout their whole school career (in addition to the usual curriculum). (See his new Learning in Depth project.)

Storytelling fits into Egan's larger framework of cognitive tools and theory of Imaginative Education. These cognitive tools are the things that enable our brains to do cultural work -- and he likens to operating systems or programs in the brain, forms of which are running at all times in varying degrees at all ages: the Somatic (the body & its senses), the Mythic (oral language), the Romantic (reading and writing), the Philosophic (the meta-narrative of systems in the world), and the Ironic (multiple perspectives in the mind at one time).

For more details on Egan's framework, see The Educated Mind: how cognitive tools shape our understanding (1997); for a more practical guide to his storytelling ideas for younger students, see his Teaching as Storytelling: an alternative approach to teaching and curriculum in the elementary school (1986).

Egan defines education as "the process in which we maximize the tool kit we individually take from the external storehouse of culture." For me, libraries (whether physical or virtual) are primary portals to that cultural storehouse. (As they say, knowledge is free at the library -- bring your own container.) And librarians are there with embodied knowledge to help people find the right story at the right time.

More on Storytelling and Metaphors
These next ones are NOT specifically re education and you probably know most of them, but they're some of my favorite examples of storytelling and metaphors.

* re business schools, there's a debate in the NYTimes re the appropriate metaphor for how universities (especially business schools) treat students - as customers? as products? For a really unusual business school - one that is living 21st century skills, check out KaosPilot.

And for an example of graduate schools looking for applicants with creative storytelling capabilities -- or at least competency in metaphors, see this NYTimes slideshow of images meant to prompt applicants' admission essays: What Do You See?

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Teachers, Meaningful Connections, & Mindful Information Consumption

Clay Burell has been on a writing binge over the holiday -- and there have been long conversations in the comments of several posts, which, as Clay put it, have been the equivalent of college-level credit in terms of professional development. NB: Some of my contributions are re-formatted and expanded below.

First of all, see the original Beyond School blog posts (among others):
Clay expressed his fear that we are producing barbarians with laptops and challenged people to to provide good examples of learning that effectively enhanced content and the development of important skills -- and many did. (Check out the responses of Roberto Greco, Monika Hardy, Neil Stephenson, Hellen Harding, et al.)

I cited Michael Wesch's philosophy of teaching outlined in a video in 2008 as my guiding light.

In summary, to create students who make meaningful connections we need to
  • find a grand narrative and provide context and relevance (i.e., semantic meaning);
  • create a learning environment that values and leverages learners themselves (i.e., personal meaning); and
  • do both in a way that realizes and leverages the existing media environment
Technology isn’t an end in itself -- it’s about leverage in the service of meaningful connections. So if it doesn't enhance the learning in the classroom and it's not authentic participation in the existing media environment (read: busywork), you shouldn't feel obliged to use it.

Cliff Stoll is someone who comes down squarely against computers in the classroom. See his 1999 book, High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian -- as well as his Feb. 2006 TED talk (which provides an excellent preview of how he would perform as a teacher in a classroom).

(And if you want an example of what it means to be a ruthless and natural inquirer, read his 1989 book The Cuckoo's Egg: tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage .)

Here he is talking about computers in classrooms -- from an interview in 2000:

Stoll: The one thing that computers do extraordinarily well is bring information to kids. Computers give kids access to vast amounts of information.

EW: Don't computers have a place in the classroom, then, if merely as a source of information?

Stoll: Is a lack of information a problem in schools? I've never once had a teacher say to me "I don't have enough information." Teachers say they don't have enough time. The problem in classrooms is not a lack of information. It's too much information. ......

: ... The problem is that the use of computers subtracts from the student-to-teacher contact hours. It directs attention away from the student-teacher relationship and directs it toward the student-computer relationship. It teaches students to focus on getting information rather than on exploring and creating. Which is more interactive -- a student and a teacher or a student and a computer? ...

Re the love inherent in classroom teaching and the importance of time with a teacher (technology aside), I can't help but re-recommend a commencement address by Margaret Edson, teacher and playwright. There's a link in this blog post (skip the first 3 min of her talk and get to the heart of it).

Umberto Eco in this interview also brings up the problem of too much information, but sees the teacher (in the role of master to apprentices) as instrumental in dealing with it.
Eco: ... These [Google] lists can be dangerous -- not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that teachers should instruct students on the difference between good and bad? If so, how should they do that?

Eco: Education should return to the way it was in the workshops of the Renaissance. There, the masters may not necessarily have been able to explain to their students why a painting was good in theoretical terms, but they did so in more practical ways. Look, this is what your finger can look like, and this is what it has to look like. Look, this is a good mixing of colors. The same approach should be used in school when dealing with the Internet. The teacher should say: "Choose any old subject, whether it be German history or the life of ants. Search 25 different Web pages and, by comparing them, try to figure out which one has good information." If 10 pages describe the same thing, it can be a sign that the information printed there is correct. But it can also be a sign that some sites merely copied the others' mistakes.
Last year Clay Shirky pointed out It's Not Information Overload, It's Filter Failure.

In that light, Umberto Eco is proposing teachers as human filters** for disciplinary knowledge and practices, teaching students to discriminate.

Frank Schirrmacher recognizes this same need to question what we're consuming in the way of information.

He talks about humans as ''informavores" in this video/transcript: Edge In Frankfurt: THE AGE OF THE INFORMAVORE— A Talk with Frank Schirrmacher.

I think it's very interesting, the concept — again, Daniel Dennett and others said it — the concept of the informavores, the human being as somebody eating information. So you can, in a way, see that the Internet and that the information overload we are faced with at this very moment has a lot to do with food chains, has a lot to do with food you take or not to take, with food which has many calories and doesn't do you any good, and with food that is very healthy and is good for you. ....
As we know, information is fed by attention, so we have not enough attention, not enough food for all this information. And, as we know — this is the old Darwinian thought, the moment when Darwin started reading Malthus — when you have a conflict between a population explosion and not enough food, then Darwinian selection starts. And Darwinian systems start to change situations. And so what interests me is that we are, because we have the Internet, now entering a phase where Darwinian structures, where Darwinian dynamics, Darwinian selection, apparently attacks ideas themselves: what to remember, what not to remember, which idea is stronger, which idea is weaker.
It's the question: what is important, what is not important, what is important to know? Is this information important? Can we still decide what is important? And it starts with this absolutely normal, everyday news.
Having introduced the metaphor of information as food, I can't help but end with a link to one of the essays David Brooks gave a 2009 Sidney (best essay) award to:

Is Food the New Sex? - Mary Eberhardt - Hoover Institution - Policy Review
Try reading it, substituting the word "information" for "food" or "sex"....
These disciplines imposed historically on access to food and sex now raise a question that has not come up before, probably because it was not even possible to imagine it until the lifetimes of the people reading this: What happens when, for the first time in history — at least in theory, and at least in the advanced nations — adult human beings are more or less free to have all the sex and food they want?
This question opens the door to a real paradox. For given how closely connected the two appetites appear to be, it would be natural to expect that people would do the same kinds of things with both appetites — that they would pursue both with equal ardor when finally allowed to do so, for example, or with equal abandon for consequence; or conversely, with similar degrees of discipline in the consumption of each.
In fact, though, evidence from the advanced West suggests that nearly the opposite seems to be true. The answer appears to be that when many people are faced with these possibilities for the very first time, they end up doing very different things — things we might signal by shorthand as mindful eating, and mindless sex. This essay is both an exploration of that curious dynamic, and a speculation about what is driving it.
[bold added]

Here we are, for the first time in history with all the information we want. It's the "Informavore's Dilemma" ***. Now we just need to develop the discipline for mindful information consumption.

** Social bookmarking is a form of discriminating filtering and Roberto Greco, with over 17,500 bookmarks on Delicious is one of my richest human filters for reading material. As a librarian, I'm impressed with both his descriptions and his tags.

*** I thought I was being clever vis-a-vis Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma", but Google tells me used it first...

p.s. Wherever I've used the word "teacher", I obviously include "librarians".

Image of Umberto Eco via giveawayboy on Flickr / Image of bento box via Cowism / Image of Google log via the Telegraph UK