Classroom practice - Don't just talk at them, spin a ripping yarn

14th February 2014 at 00:00
The plot structures of classic novels and Hollywood blockbusters can help you to enthrall students rather than switch them off

When I was at school, we had a history teacher who would "sound into our ears". It worked like this: he told us to open our textbooks to a certain page and instructed us to copy either from our books or from the board on which he had chalked up what was written in the textbook; he would then speak the words monotonously from the text and we were expected to write at the pace by which he "sounded into our ears".

Inevitably, we got bored. We misbehaved, throwing things at each other and out of the window, including on one occasion a fellow student. Our teacher blamed us but was it really our fault? As a poacher turned gamekeeper, I am certainly not proud of my behaviour, but I don't think that we were to blame for our wandering attention. I did not normally find it difficult to pay attention when being spoken to at length.

I would listen, totally absorbed, to the television historian AJP Taylor as he delivered lectures to camera without the visual gimmicks of today's TV historians. He, too, was sounding into our ears, yet for some reason we listened.

I have since worked out that the difference between AJP Taylor and my history teacher was what they were saying and how they were saying it. Both spoke at us, but the great AJP was a master storyteller, whereas my teacher was not. AJP told a tale, while my teacher regurgitated dry facts.

Sounding into ears is not the issue, then; teacher talk can be a good thing. What is crucial is how sounding into ears is constructed and delivered. Stories are key to that delivery.

Professor Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia agrees. In his book Why Don't Students Like School? he writes: "The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories." Willingham suggests structuring lessons - not just history lessons but all lessons - using stories based on the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications and character.

In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov makes a similar point. He recommends use of "the hook": a brief story that "captures what's interesting and engaging about the material and puts it out front". Easier said than done, say many teachers. Not everyone is a natural storyteller, nor do many have the time to turn every lesson into a narrative.

Help is at hand to make the process easier. In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker suggests that there are really only seven story structures. Teachers can take his findings and create a five-minute presentation or a whole lesson plan based on one of the following structures.

1. Overcoming the monster

(Little Red Riding Hood, James Bond, Star Wars)

This structure worked for me as a motivational tool, with the upcoming exam as the "monster" to be overcome. However, it would also be good for classes on the history of the Second World War, when the Allies took on Nazism.

2. Rags to riches

(Cinderella, Pygmalion, Superman)

This could be a great way to explain the invention of penicillin: a discarded, mouldy Petri dish is the unlikely beginning for the miracle drug that eventually saves thousands of lives.

3. The quest

(The Odyssey, Treasure Island, The Lord of the Rings)

An explorative narrative is perfect for maths and science - for example, a quest to uncover component parts of compounds used in a poisoning, or an attempt to calculate the speed and location of a prison escapee.

4. Voyage and return

(The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Time Machine)

This structure is ideal for explaining movement from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Your lesson could look at multiple, differing sources reporting a well-known historical event and then try to find a "most likely" explanation for what happened.

5. Rebirth

(Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden)

The perfect narrative for discussions of inequality, such as gender issues in English lessons or civil rights in history.

6. Tragedy

(Macbeth, Anna Karenina, Bonnie and Clyde)

A story that ends in death, either of a person or an idea, would be good for lessons exploring businesses that go wrong or states that collapse, such as the Soviet Union.

7. Comedy

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, Jeeves and Wooster)

This narrative could be used to tell stories relating to quantum physics: confusion and uncertainty reign supreme, but you have the possibility of tying it all together in a grand, unifying theory of everything.

But what if the whole idea of creating stories makes you feel uncomfortable? Or you believe it to be too time-consuming, yet you agree with Willingham and others that lessons based around conflict work particularly well? All is not lost: the art of rhetoric is the perfect alternative option, and you can easily build it into your planning. Structure your lessons around these five key parts according to ancient Greek education.

1. Invention

First consider ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos is about your credibility: why you are a suitable person to teach this particular content. This will be bound to why you think the subject you teach is important. Pathos is about creating a shared emotion between you and the class. You should pay particular attention to creating the right emotional charge at certain points in the lesson. "Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events," writes John Medina in his book Brain Rules. Finally, logos is the use of reasoning and logic in thinking about the topic at hand, which will ensure clarity, something that comes ninth in John Hattie's list of successful teaching strategies in his book Visible Learning.

2. Arrangement

Order the lesson according to the basic six parts of oratory. The exordium, or "hook", is something that catches students' attention, but is also central to your narrative. Prothesis is presenting the history of what you are talking about. Partitio, or division, is when you make the points that are uncontroversial and then the points that are contested. Confirmatio, or proof, is stating your thinking. Confutatio, or refutation, is refuting any opposing argument. Finally, peroration is summing up the arguments and leaving your students with a strong impression of why the content matters in general and should matter to them personally.

3. Style

Low, medium or grand? Low style is "down with the kids" - use it sparingly. Medium is probably the best for day-to-day teaching, but every now and then you should unleash the grand style of great oratory to lift the class to a higher level.

4. Memory

If your talk is drawn from memory, rather than always read from a textbook, your credibility is enhanced. Natural memory is knowing your stuff; artificial memory is like an actor remembering a speech.

5. Delivery

Voice, gesture, posture, use of space: without these performance skills being used to the full, the most well-considered examples of teacher talk can fall flat.

No one is claiming that storytelling or rhetoric is easy, but research suggests that using either or both is essential to ensure that when you talk, your students actually listen.

Martin Robinson was a teacher and assistant headteacher in East London for 20 years. His book Trivium 21c: preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past was published in 2013.

What else?

Whatever you do, don't act like one of the lads.

Talk is not cheap, but it can be hugely valuable.


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