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How to Turn Lectures into Stories7 min read

When the concept of innovating school is discussed and written about, there is often this idea presented that traditional methods of teaching are completely outdated, and therefore ineffective. The solution presented by many is that the concept for traditional education needs to be blown up and replaced with a system that is radically different. No more rows. No more textbooks. And no more direct instruction.

Much of the current education system is outdated, and many of the methods of traditional teaching should be replaced or adapted to a 21st century model. However, there are aspects of modern education that are still highly effective and should be utilized in classrooms. Sometimes in the frustration of rising numbers of high school dropouts or reading Forbes articles about Finland continuing to beat America at the sport of making great schools, we forget those great teachers we once had who told lectures with flawless precision. Skilled orators who found a way to make boring content a little less mundane, and sometimes even interesting. Heck, you may be one of them.

The lecture does need to hop onto the conveyor belt that is delivering the industrial model of education into a garbage incinerator. Lectures, or direct instruction, is an art form utilized for thousands of years, from Socrates, to Jesus, to Stephen Hawking, and TED Talks. When done well and with precision, direct instruction is still one of the most effective ways for students to learn specific content. The trick is, how do you do it well?

We have all had the teacher who could drone for hours at the front of the room, forcing thirty adolescents to drool puddles on their desks as they slip into a boredom-induced coma. Charlie Brown’s WA WA WA teacher was our teacher. We all laugh when Ben Stein calls out “Beuller, Beuller” because our names were called in the same tone of voice.

Chlorophyll. More like Borophyll.

Lectures need to be delivered in a way that the information sticks and knowledge is retained. And like the rest of epic learning, this comes down to engagement. For this engagement to be achieved with your students and for direct instruction to have a maximum impact, you have to consider the format of your lecture, how students might interact with it, and how your lesson is delivered.

Turning Lectures Into Stories

There is a phenomenon called Neural Coupling that basically syncs up multiple brains. Essentially, even though speaking and listening are two very different activities, when a story is told, the speaker and listener share very similar brain activity. Even more incredible, this brain activity has a permanent impact, and is forever changed by the story. If the goal of a teacher is for students to comprehend and retain information that they the teacher already possess, then it makes most sense to deliver that knowledge in the format that contains the elements of a story.

Story-shaped lectures will look different throughout content areas, but all should share the elements of a story and have an overall theme within them. If you are a biology teacher and you have the task of teaching your students about plant growth and the biological mechanisms that are within this subject, you could present all of the information about mitosis and photosynthesis in a lecture that merely describes and explains these processes. Maybe by listing the processes on Powerpoint slides, and methodically talking about each one. Or, you could craft that information into a story:

There was a farmer who lived on the edge of the Florida Everglades who grew orange trees. These trees were this farmer’s life, and they were what kept the roof over his family’s heads, put food in their stomachs, and gas in his truck. So on that hot July morning when this farmer went out to his field to check on his trees, and saw that all of the leaves on the trees were withered, he became very concerned. His source of income was at risk.

At first glance, it looked like his trees were very thirsty. He checked his irrigation system, and found that it was working fine. He therefore knew that the trees were getting water, allowing for transpiration to occur, providing oxygen and nutrients to enter the stems and leaves and allows  photosynthesis, and therefore mitosis to take place. Next the farmer inspected the bark of the tree closely, and noticed there was long streaks on the bark. He knew from past experience that this can be caused by a fungal infection of the tree. Fungal infections invade the xylem, or water-conducting tissues of plants and trees, and prevent them from receiving oxygen and nutrients.

After checking other symptoms of fungal infections, the farmer was sure this was causing his trees to wilt. Using soil solarization and the process of heating up the soil around his trees’ roots, the farmer killed the fungus and saved the orange trees. His family thought he was crazy for coming home so happy after a normal day at work, but the farmer knew that his day was far from normal.

This example of a story-lecture obviously lacks detail, but any skilled biology teacher could fill in the blanks and dive deeper into the content. When the content is wrapped into a narrative like this, processes like photosynthesis and a term like xylem is more practical and understandable. The beginning of the story about the farmer and his family captures the audience’s attention. A conflict is introduced early on that stimulates students’ brains, and creates an automatic desire to hear what the resolution to the conflict will be. The delivery of content, and the scientific details are the rising action as the story approaches the climax, which is the soil solarization and the frying of tree fungus. And the farmer and his family lived happily ever after.

This is a story, and while not the most compelling plot ever devised, it has the elements within it to initiate neural coupling in young learners’ minds. I possessed the biology content (thank you Google), and was able to plug it into the format of a simple story. This can take a little practice, but using this rough outline, information can be infused into a narrative.

Beginning

Introduce character(s), setting, ordinary world

Introduce conflict (What is disrupting the ordinary world?)

Rising Action

In-depth content that relates to the conflict

Climax

Problem is solved

Resolution

Because of everything told in the story this is the way it is

Also be sure to plan to give detail and descriptions in every story you tell. Listeners brains will process descriptionary information in the same way your brain does when sharing it, causing more engagement and lasting learning. Paint a setting at the start of the story. A study found that effective lectures start with a 3 minute warm-up period, where learners minds get acclimated to listening and learning. This is where you can lay the groundwork for the rest of the story.

Remember that every story must have a theme of some sort, answering the question of “Why?” Why am I learning this? Why is this important? Why should I listen to you instead of Snapchatting my friends? If you are telling a story/lecture about the order of operations, ensure that students learn why they are learning about this. Maybe have the character at the end of the story exclaim, “Now I can add, subtract, divide, and multiply all at the same time!”

Yes, I know this is a little corny, but students are in on the fact that there was a purpose to the story. Sometimes you can be more subversive with the theme, and let them derive what it is, but like some stories, you can sometimes spell it out for them. If they can now apply that theme to their own work, they too can add, subtract, divide, and multiply at the same time.

Not every story is packed with excitement or oozes suspense. So do not torture yourself trying to craft a Pulitzer every time you write out a lesson. Stories can be subtle and simple; loud and extravagant. While differing in many ways, all stories should engage the listener, just as all lectures should engage the learner. So why not combine them?

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