Monday, August 19, 2013

Teaching at the intersection of storytelling and science

In Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, E.F. Schumacher asserts, “Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live.”  The “great and vital ideas” we need can be found, rather, in the study of the Humanities and Arts.  He argues:
If the mind cannot bring to the world a set – or shall we say, a tool-box – of powerful ideas, the world must appear to it as a chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena, of meaningless events. Such a man is like a person in a strange land without any signs of civilization, without maps or signposts or indicators of any kind.  Nothing has any meaning to him; nothing can hold his vital interest; he has no means of making anything intelligible to himself.  
Forty years later, science is proving that he was right.  At the Brain and Learning Conference I recently attended, I listened to Dr. Dare Baldwin speak about event segmentation theory (EST).  The theory, based on extensive scientific research (you can check out the articles posted by key researcher Dr. Jeff Zacks), proposes that our brains organizes the continuous and massive input of our world by transforming it into discrete events.

Event segmentation, researchers are uncovering, depends on our noticing changes in the environment and on prior knowledge (our tool-box of powerful ideas). Event models - stories, we might call them - are constructed through the interaction of sensory input with stored knowledge.  These models allow us to predict, to understand, to make sense of our world.  To be useful, the models need to be regularly updated as new information is acquired and the model no longer adequately predicts. This connects with Jeff Hawkin’s theory of the brain and learning; intelligence, he says is a memory of patterns and sequences so we can predict.

For reading teachers, these ideas sound pretty familiar, so it won’t be surprising to learn that EST researchers have noted that the theory explains how we read as well: readers segment the narrative into discrete events in the same way they segment “real-time” events, using information about the actor’s goals and prior knowledge about conventional sequences; these are then stored as “schema” (event models). Researchers learned – and, again, this will be no surprise to teachers – that reading and listening to stories leads to robust event segmentation (that is, our understanding of the world and its events is improved through reading) and individuals who are good at segmenting events remember them better than do individuals who are poor at segmenting.  Thus, since learning is inextricably linked to memory, stronger “segmentors” are stronger learners and since segmenting is improved with stories (reading or listening), stories improves learning.  The theory proves what we have always known and is a good reminder to test new ideas, not only in the laboratory, but against practical knowledge.

Implications for the Classroom
  1. Despite the recent call to read more nonfiction in classrooms, perhaps, especially in the primary grades, it may impede rather than support learning, at least for those who do not yet have a rich schema of story patterns to organize the world and their thinking.  Stories aren't just “nice” (lately we hear a lot about how we don’t “use” fiction in “real life” so how can it be important); they are foundational for making sense of the data of nonfiction.  
  2. Event boundaries, researchers theorize, act as anchors in long term memory.  They discovered that if you insert a commercial in the middle of an event segment while people are watching a movie, they more often forgot what happened than when the commercial was at the event boundary.  Thus, we need to remember to teach as storytellers, being sure to organize our lessons in chunks that make sense (hard to do, sometimes, when bells determine the beginning and end of our stories).
  3. The information in the middle of a segment is harder to remember: we need to organize the chunks so that what’s most important is at the beginning and the end of the segment (as all storytellers know).  
  4. Strong event segmentation is predicated on noticing change.  Indeed, learning might be defined as recognizing prediction errors and updating schema. Multiple intelligence guru Howard Gardner noted how, often, despite years of education (even education at Harvard), students retain “unschooled thinking.”  They memorize the masses of information long enough to write the test, but maintain the “event model” from childhood, for example that the earth is warmer in the summer because it is closer to the sun.  They do not update the story when they “learn” the new information.  We need to help our students recognize changes, so they can change the stories that change their thinking.
  5. We need to find – or help students find – stories that makes sense of the masses of information we want them to know. When kids can’t remember anything they learned the month previously (a common complaint), then perhaps they didn't have a story to organize it with; perhaps all the bits and pieces of information were simply chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena and meaningless events. Perhaps, too, when nothing can hold their “vital interest,” it isn't because we haven’t done enough to engage them, but that they have no story for themselves, for their world, or for the information we are trying to help them understand. They need to see the stories that organizes math and science and socials studies – and their lives.  They can’t remember the many parts when they don’t know the whole.  

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