Putting Story Structure to Work (page 2)
Now, all this about movies has been a diverting interlude (at least I hope it has), but what does it have to do with the classroom? My intention here is not to suggest that you simply tell stories, although there's nothing wrong with doing so. Rather, I'm suggesting something one step removed from that. Structure your lessons the way stories are structured, using the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications, and character. This doesn't mean you must do most of the talking. Small group work or projects or any other method may be used. The story structure applies to the way you organize the material that you encourage your students to think about, not to the methods you use to teach the material.
In some cases, the way to structure a lesson plan as a story is rather obvious. For example, history can be viewed as a set of stories. Events are caused by other events; there is often conflict involved; and so on. Still, thinking carefully about the four Cs as you consider a lesson plan can be helpful. It might encourage you to think about a different perspective from which to tell the story. For example, suppose you are planning a lesson on Pearl Harbor. You might first think of the organization shown in Figure 10. It's chronological and it makes the United States the main character—that is, events are taken from the U.S. point of view. Your goal is to get students to think about three points: U.S. isolationism before Pearl Harbor, the attack, and the subsequent "Germany first" decision and the putting of the United States on a war footing.
Suppose, however, you thought of the four Cs when you were telling this story. From that perspective, the United States is not the strong character. Japan is, because she had the goal that propelled events forward—regional domination—and she had significant obstacles to this goal—she lacked natural resources and she was embroiled in a protracted war with China. This situation set up a subgoal: to sweep up the European colonies in the South Pacific. Meeting that goal would raise Japan's standing as a world power and help her obtain crucial raw materials for finishing the war with China. But that subgoal brought with it another complication. The United States was the other major naval power in the Pacific. How was Japan to deal with that problem? Rather than plundering the European colonies and daring the United States to intervene across five thousand miles of ocean (which the United States probably would not have done), Japan chose to try to eliminate the threat in one surprise attack. If one seeks to organize a lesson plan as a story, the one in Figure 10 is less compelling than the one in Figure 11.
My suggestion to use the Japanese point of view of Pearl Harbor doesn't mean that the American point of view should be ignored or deemed less important. Indeed, I could imagine a teacher in the United States electing not to use this story structure precisely because it takes a Japanese point of view in a U.S. history class. My point here is that using a story structure may lead you to organize a lesson in ways that you hadn't considered before. And the story structure does bring cognitive advantages.
Using storytelling to teach history seems easy, but can you really use a story structure in a math class? Absolutely. Here's an example of how I introduced the concept of a Z-score—a common way to transform data—when I taught introductory statistics. Begin with the simplest and most familiar example of probability—the coin flip. Suppose I have a coin that I claim is loaded—it always comes up heads. To prove it to you, I flip the coin and it does indeed come up heads. Are you convinced? College students understand that the answer should be no because there is a fifty-fifty chance that a fair coin would have come up heads. How about one hundred heads in a row? Clearly the odds are really small that a fair coin will come up heads one hundred times in a row, so you'd conclude that the coin isn't fair.
That logic—how we decide whether a coin is fishy or fair—is used to evaluate the outcome of many, if not most, scientific experiments. When we see headlines in the newspaper saying "New drug for Alzheimer's found effective" or "Older drivers less safe than younger" or "Babies who watch videos have smaller vocabularies," these conclusions rest on the same logic as the coin flip. How?
Suppose we want to know whether an advertisement is effective. We ask two hundred people, "Does Pepsodent give you sex appeal?" One hundred of these people have seen an advertisement for Pepsodent and one hundred have not. We want to know if the percentage of people in the saw-the-ad group who say it gives you sex appeal is higher than the percentage in the didn't-see-the-ad group who say it gives you sex appeal. The problem here is just like the problem with the coin-flip example. The odds of the saw-the-ad group being higher are around 50 percent. One of the two groups has to be higher. (If they happened to tie, we'd assume that the ad didn't work.)
The logic for getting around this problem is the same as it was for the coin-flip example. For the coin flip, we judged one hundred heads in a row as a highly improbable event assuming that the coin was fair. The odds of a fair coin coming up heads one hundred times in a row are very small. So if we observe that event—one hundred heads in a row—we conclude that our assumption must have been wrong. It's not a fair coin. So the saw-the-ad group being higher than the other group may also not be improbable—but what if that group was much more likely to answer yes? Just as we judged that there was something funny about the coin, so too we should judge that there is something funny about people who have seen the ad—at least funny when it comes to answering our question.
Of course funny in this context means "improbable." In the case of the coin, we knew how to calculate the "funniness," or improbability, of events because we knew the number of possible outcomes (two) and the probability of each individual outcome (.5), so it was easy to calculate the odds of successive events, as shown in Table 1. But here's our next problem: How do we calculate the "funniness," or probability, of other types of events? How much worse does the vocabulary of kids who watched videos have to be compared to that of kids who didn't watch videos before we're prompted to say, "Hey, these two groups of kids are not equal. If they were equal, their vocabularies would be equal. But their vocabularies are very unequal."
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