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The Power of Stories 2: Narrative structure and lesson design

I decided to reread Daniel Willingham’s excellent “Why don’t students like school?” recently and as with all second readings you review certain aspects in a new light. In Chapter 3 Willingham draws our attention to the power of stories, which I wrote about in my previous blog here. He explains how psychologists sometimes refer to stories as “psychologically privileged” and how they are treated differently in memory. However, my attention was drawn to his suggestion: “organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember”.

Willingham explains there is no universal agreement on what makes a story but points to four principles:

• Causality: events are causally related to each other.
• Conflict: a main character pursuing their goal but experiencing a barrier or problem.
• Complications: sub problems that arise from the main goal
• Character: stories have interesting characters.

Willingham’s suggestion seemed oddly familiar in more ways than one recalling for me both the story mountain model and the pillars of Let’s Think.

Let’s Think lessons are structured like a narrative and have parallels with aspects of the story mountain model. Stories tend to start with an exposition in which character and setting are usually introduced and the reader becomes familiar with the fictional world created. In Let’s Think lessons we commence with a concrete preparation stage; introducing the terms of the problem to be explored and familiarising pupils with key concepts. Both expositions and concrete preparation share another aim: to hook their respective audiences.

In Let’s Think in English we pass from concrete preparation to social construction. Like the build-up or rising action stage of a story, in social construction pupils develop their first impressions and delve deeper into the text they are studying. Like a book group, pupils are invited to share their thoughts and receive feedback from others. While the story mountain’s rising diagonal line indicates tension, there is a gradual increase of challenge in the LTE lesson as pupils move from concrete preparation to social construction.

The high point of tension and often interest in a story is the dilemma or problem as we observe the protagonist’s attempts to achieve their goals and overcome challenges. Similarly, in a Let’s Think lesson cognitive conflict marks the peak point of difficulty in the LT lesson with its element of surprise that demands pupils’ attention. Interestingly Willingham in Chapter 3 also encourages teachers to organize a lesson plan around a conflict stating:

“The advantage of being very clear about the conflict is that it yields a natural progression for topics”

and provides the recommendation:

“Start with the material you want your students to learn and think backward to the intellectual question it poses.”

Designing stimulating and challenging questions are key to the cognitive conflict stage.

During the reflections and evaluation of metacognition in LT lessons there is a change in pace, mirroring the story mountain’s descending gradient towards resolution and ending. However, LT lessons do not seek resolution, or an end point and it is not unusual to hear pupils discussing the lesson as they leave the classroom. Effective bridging ensures the learning undertaken in LT is reawakened as teachers find opportunities to retrieve concepts, knowledge skills and understanding in their day-to-day teaching.

After the cognitive conflict Let’s Think lessons diverge from the story mountain model. However, as we know the story mountain model doesn’t fit all stories. Indeed, the limitations of the story mountain model is a concept we explore through the lens of narrative sequencing in a Let’s Think in English Year 5 and 6 lesson centered on the mesmerising short film: The Maker.

In this LTE lesson (see here for a fuller account) students appreciate the limitations of the story mountain as it doesn’t align with cyclical narratives. This encourages students to consider when, how and why writers/directors choose to invert this model. With the Let’s Think programmes’ emphasis on development over performance it strikes me the cyclical narrative is a better match to the LTE lessons’ structure with pupils revisiting key concepts in increasing cycles of difficulty over time.

One of the many remarkable things about Let’s Think in English lessons is how they sear into pupils’ memories as they recall them long after other learning experiences fade. Teachers we work with comment upon this time and again. Perhaps an explanation for this strong recall, engagement and memory lies in both the narratives we explore and the story-like structure of the lesson plan?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I love this analogy Michael. That lessons should presented with the structure of a story makes so much sense. The idea that LT lessons don’t necessarily have a resolution helps me understand why they are so “sticky” with the students. There is nothing so intriguing as an unanswered question. But it also helps clarify why not all lessons should be LT lessons. We do, after all want children to find answers to many of their questions. Thanks for pushing my thinking – again.

  2. Thank you, Jaeann. I agree on the need for lesson variety and the need for resolution in learning too. Even within LTE the role of bridging is so important for consolidation and application.

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