The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories.”
Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School, p. 66
One of my resolutions this term was to exploit the power of stories more. This has helped me explain the past better, but I’ve also been reflecting upon the impact of telling students about their predecessors’ lives and choices. A sentence in to an anecdote about a student I once taught, I’ve realised, all eyes are on me and all movement has ceased. My students’ reactions, their eagerness to know how the story ends (and, I assume, what it implies for them), suggest that talking about real people in familiar situations conveys a powerful message.
Stories seem a compelling way of telling our students what we expect of them. Exemplary narratives highlight aspects of the classroom culture we idealise more appealingly than exhortations and complaints. Moral tales lay out a path to success: this is especially powerful in a new school in which our oldest year group have no elder students to whom they can look up. Arguably, this reflects an ancient purpose of story-telling: codifying and passing on a community’s values and ideals. Every teacher has such stories: here are three of my favourites, the recent recitation of one of which prompted this post.
Holly, the questioner
Holly questioned everything. She wouldn’t let an idea go, just kept asking and asking and asking, until she was satisfied she understood. This process took time, but everyone benefitted, because she made certain things made sense to her before she let me, or the class, move on (when you’re unravelling the US constitution, this can take a while). Her determination to learn meant she always did, so she was wildly successful.
Holly made planning easy: all I had to do was present a stimulus or a problem and let her get her teeth into it. This determination could make me lazy: I could guarantee an excellent discussion which would push me and the class. Holly illustrates the power of asking questions and taking responsibility for, and insisting on understanding.
Laura, the refuser
Me: Laura, what do you think?
Laura: I don’t know.
Me: I don’t want you to know, I want you to have a guess.
Laura: I don’t know.
This was before I was au fait with the intricacies of ‘No Opt Out,’ but I was sure I wanted Laura to guess. I would encourage other students to guess and celebrate wrong but plausible attempts. I kept coming back to her, and eventually, a year or so into our GCSE course, Laura took her first, faltering guess… and went on to become pretty good at it.
I’m trying to show students they can’t get away with not guessing; that it matters; that I will wear down their resistance; and that, if Laura can take the plunge and guess in lessons, they can too.
Ismail, the reinventor
When Ismail moved abroad and was taken off roll in Year 10, I’ll admit I breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t seem to want to learn and eight months into his GCSE course my impact on this was non-existent. But when he reappeared in my class without warning, he’d changed. Over the course of that year, he developed gradually into a unfailingly charming young man, he grew determined to put in the extra work needed in order to succeed. Which he did.
One moral from this its that it’s never too late to change your ways (and I’m waiting to help you when you do). Ismail never got the grade he deserved; his request to rewrite his Controlled Assessment a few months after doing it was almost tempting, although I didn’t blink saying no when he asked (I’ve also used this as a tale to explain that even in a deserving case, students still have to play by the rules).
I’ve always used stories opportunistically, prompted by students’ actions. This year however, I began my first lesson inviting students to choose for themselves between two stories: a student who let himself down in history (and regretted it) and another whose hard work enabled later success. I wonder whether I could use stories more intentionally: have particular tales to call up at certain points of the year, for example (an anecdote for our first essay, a story the first time someone gives up, a tale to tell in July about why its still worth learning). I think stories are a powerful way to help students appreciate their choices and the possible consequences, and so to choose better.
All teachers have such stories. Can we make better use of the experiences of those we once taught to benefit those we teach now?