Teaching Notes: March 2012 Archives

What Genre is your Instructional Story?

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At the last All-ID meeting, we had a good discussion of crafting your presentation (and instructional content) as a story, but some of asked "What kind of story?"

A TED talk by Nancy Duarte discusses how many successful speakers vary with talking about "what is" and "what could be" (start with now, end with the future). It turns out that I do structure many talks that way, especially when it's about technology. But is that the end (as it were) of the story?

I guess the question I am asking is how to add legitimate spice to your story. One thought is to make it a quest (to understand....) maybe with a touch of mystery. This is a common strategy for many science documentaries. In fact the one I saw last night asked about how the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete ended. Was it a volcano? Not enough ash? But maybe it was a...tsunami triggered by the volcano (because they found evidence for one and many Minoans lived on the shore). In archaeology, it's difficult to be sure, but the mystery is the fun of it.

Another tack is the metaphor - which is popular with many science writers. This assumes that you can think of a good one. Similarly, you can think of ways to tell the story from an unexpected point of view. Sam Richards is an expert at getting his students to think about what it's like to experience the world from a point a view different from their own.

I would also like to advocate that sometimes it's the sitcom or melodrama that's the right genre. Maybe it's my slightly warped view, but I confess that some of my favorite instructors had some good stories to pass on. I heard a professor give a dramatic reading of a Bronze Age tablet from a large city state to a smaller one advising them to not be alarmed by the army on their doorstep. Their advice was "to consider our presence to be a friendly one." Buffer states are a very ancient concept.

My last question is though - should all instructional content be considered a story? I can craft a story about linguistic theory, and how it was discovered, but can I use that story to teach you to perform a linguistic analysis? Or do I need to leave the story (and lecture) behind? This is where it's important to think about what works as a narrative (content) and what is more of a skill to be taught.