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# Putting Story Structure to Work (page 5)

By John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 14, 2011

All of this description of coins, advertisements, and experiments is really a prelude to the lesson. I'm trying to get students to understand and care about the goal of the lesson, which is to explain how we can determine the probability of an event occurring by chance. That is the conflict for this lesson. Our worthy adversary in pursuit of this goal is not Darth Vader but the fact that most events we care about are not like coin flips—they don't have a limited number of outcomes (heads or tails) for which we know the probabilities (50 percent). That's a complication, which we address with a particular type of graph called a histogram; but implementing this approach leads to a further complication: we need to calculate the area under the curve of the histogram, which is a complex computation. The problem is solved by the Z-score, which is the point of the lesson (Figure 12).

A couple of things are worth noticing. A good deal of time—often ten or fifteen minutes of a seventy-five-minute class—is spent setting up the goal, or to put it another way, persuading students that it's important to know how to determine the probability of a chance event. The material covered during this setup is only peripherally related to the lesson. Talking about coin flips and advertising campaigns doesn't have much to do with Z-scores. It's all about elucidating the central conflict of the story.

Spending a lot of time clarifying the conflict follows a formula for storytelling from, of all places, Hollywood. The central conflict in a Hollywood film starts about twenty minutes into the standard one-hundred-minute movie. The screenwriter uses that twenty minutes to acquaint you with the characters and their situation so that when the main conflict arises, you're already involved and you care what happens to the characters. A film may start with an action sequence, but that sequence is seldom related to what will be the main story line of the movie. James Bond movies often start with a chase scene, but it's always part of some other case, not the case that Bond will work on for the bulk of the movie. The conflict for that case is introduced about twenty minutes into the film.

When it comes to teaching, I think of it this way: The material I want students to learn is actually the answer to a question. On its own, the answer is almost never interesting. But if you know the question, the answer may be quite interesting. That's why making the question clear is so important. But I sometimes feel that we, as teachers, are so focused on getting to the answer, we spend insufficient time making sure that students understand the question and appreciate its significance.

Let me close this section by emphasizing again that there are many ways in which one can be a good teacher. I don't mean to imply that, according to cognitive science, every teacher should be using a story structure to shape his or her lesson plans. It's just one way that we can help ensure that students think about meaning. I am implying—well, no, I'm stating—that every teacher should get his or her students to think about the meaning of material—except sometimes, which is the subject of the next section.