The Power of Stories

Calvin and Hobbes. Stories.
Calvin and Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson. (Dec 21, 1988).

“The impulse to repeatedly tell and listen to stories appears to be a lock-and-key mechanism of intergenerational information transfer.”

Cozolino, L. (2013). The social neuroscience of education : Optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom (First ed., Norton books in education). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Storytelling, easily dismissed as the domain of fantasy and frivolity, may in fact be a potent teaching tool.

Stories are, in the words of Daniel Willingham, “psychologically privileged” (2009). Cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, Willingham explains “the human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories” (2009). Louis Cozolino, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, adds “it is very likely our brains became as complex as they are precisely because of the power of narratives to guide and organize our thinking” (2013).

Psychologist Louis Cozolino talks about stories and learning

Stories, then, seem imbued by evolution with the power to pass knowledge from parent to child, teacher to student, down through the ages. Indeed, an oral tradition has been a universal feature of human civilizations.

That’s fine for minstrels and children’s authors, but what can teachers do to harness the mind’s natural affinity for narrative? A couple things, it turns out. One, we can incorporate storytelling elements in our class activities. Two, we can cast ourselves as guides to the students as heroes in the archetypal mold of Joseph Campbell’s myth. Let’s delve into the first of these two possibilities.

Storytelling in Pedagogy

Tales and legends from The Odyssey to Star Wars have captivated audiences for millennia: interesting characters locked in struggle, persevering through adversity, striving to fulfill their chosen destinies or the fate thrust upon them.

To take advantage of the brain’s predilection for stories, lessons can be presented with some of these elements. But teachers need not compose an epic poem or write a best-selling novel to incorporate storytelling into their instruction. We can simply try to weave in one or more of these four elements.

The core components of a tale, in Daniel Willingham’s account, are the four Cs:

  • Character: they posses traits and goals the audience can identify or sympathize with
  • Causality: a chain of events connected in time and space
  • Conflict: strife and struggle among or within characters
  • Complication: characters do not simply triumph over adversity; unexpected events (and other characters) compound the struggle

Now that we know the power of stories and have seen which components to use, we can try to adapt our material accordingly. But some subjects (and some teachers) lend themselves to storytelling better than others. History and statistics, for instance, are reputedly dull subjects to many students. Can this be overcome with story elements? In his book, Willingham provides examples of doing exactly that to teach the attack on Pearl Harbor and the z-score in probability. He gives us other examples in this blog post and this interview.

Willingham also urges instructors to employ “medium-difficulty inferences” to connect the elements in the way storytellers do. A narrative containing exhaustive detail bores an audience, so the storyteller (and the teacher) should leave small gaps between story points. Students traverse these gaps using their reason and imagination. Willingham cites a scene from Star Wars in which Han Solo and Luke Skywalker handcuff their friend Chewbacca. The director leaves it to viewers to decipher the reason for this seemingly strange act. Han and Luke haven’t turned on their furry companion, but rather have concocted a ruse to fool their enemies. Such medium-difficulty inferences pique curiosity, which (as we know) motivates learning and memory.

A character trying to handcuff his companion is a “medium-difficulty inference”

For my part, I plan to incorporate a story into each weekly segment. Throughout my section of TWP, we will explore several wicked problems connected to technology, so I’ll have the opportunity to open each new discussion with a story. Here’s what I mean:

I won’t just say “Welcome to class, I hope you all read the article on cyberbullying. Let’s talk about ways of solving that.” Instead, I will begin with a real-life narrative, complete with character, conflict, causality, and complication, drawn from a news source or scholarly article. I hope to thus prime the students’ interest and set the stage, so to speak, for discussion- or inquiry-based exercises.

I hope to explore the second method of using stories in pedagogy, students as the heroes of myth, in my next post.


Cozolino, L. (2013). The social neuroscience of education : Optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom (First ed., Norton books in education). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Willingham, D. (2009). Why don’t students like school? : A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Student Evaluations: A Curious Finding

I stumbled across a provocative tidbit while reading sections fromWhy Don’t Students Like School? by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

“College professors typically get written student evaluations of their teaching at the end of every course… Researchers have examined these sorts of survey to figure out which professors get good ratings and why. One of the interesting findings is that most of the items are redundant. A two-item survey would be almost as useful as a thirty-item survey, because all of the questions really boil down to two: Does the professor seem like a nice person, and is the class well organized? Although they don’t realize they are doing so, students treat each of the thirty items as variants of one of these two questions.” (50)

Willingham, D. (2009). Why don’t students like school? : A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

When I’m done with my current mission (investigating the power of stories in education), I’d like to find the studies upon which this claim must be based.

Asking the Right Questions

The Question Formulation Technique

“Our methods often presume students can pivot effectively from an information need to information discovery. The QFT does away with that presumption.”

I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to studying a classroom activity that has the potential to strengthen a soft spot in my teaching. The Question Formulation Technique (henceforth referred to as “the QFT”) works to empower students in the middle stages of their research from conception to conclusion. And, it promises to do so in harmony with the TWP’s overarching philosophy.

The Question Formulation Technique on one slide
Sessler, J., & Williams, C. (Producers). (2018). Asking questions in the age of Google webinar.

Tackling a Wicked Problem seeks to engage students by giving them a hand in their own practical education. This approach follows from the belief, supported by data, that students are more accountable when they help determine their own learning objectives. In addition, people are more motivated when working together toward a real-world outcome.

In short, students learn better when they have agency and work harder when it matters outside the four walls of the classroom.

Several pedagogical ideas are invoked in pursuit of this philosophy: open pedagogy, project-based learning, design thinking, and wicked problems.

But these methods often presume students can pivot effectively from an information need to information discovery. The QFT does away with that presumption.

The Question Formulation Technique in a High School Science Class

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the QFT combines “authentic practice” with “metacognitive reflection” (Eyler, 2018), motivating students not just to investigate the content, but to gain insights and self-awareness they can transfer to other classes and challenges. It does so by following these steps:

  1. Determine the question focus
  2. State the rules for producing questions
  3. Produce questions
  4. Categorize the questions
  5. Improve the questions
  6. Determine next steps
  7. Reflect

The following describes each step in detail. The intervals shown are recommended by the Right Question Institute, a nonprofit organization directed by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, originators of the QFT. However, as with many activities, the QFT will take longer the first time (about 45 minutes) than with experienced groups.

Determine the question focus

Determining the question focus is the one step performed by the instructor and is done before the QFT session begins. They can and should, therefore, craft the focus carefully while keeping in mind the types of questions their students are apt to generate.

The question focus, which QFT practitioners often abbreviate as QFocus, is typically the same for the entire class. The QFocus is never itself a question.

The focus is often a statement that is clear and incisive, but can be something else, such as a photograph. Whatever form it takes, it should stimulate thoughtful interest in the subject of investigation. For example:

“In the digital age, some students are not asking questions.”

Sessler, J., & Williams, C.. (2018). Asking questions in the age of Google webinar.

“American imperialism at the turn of the 20th century.”

Right Question Institute. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) for Summative Assessment

“Once we were slaves. Now we are free.”

QFT Small Group Worksheet

State rules for producing questions

2 minutes

Because the rules are fixed, this is sometimes not listed as a discrete step, but instead included in the next step. Either way, the rules are:

  1. Write down as many questions as you can related to the question focus
  2. Number each question
  3. Do not stop to answer, judge, or discuss the questions
  4. Record the questions exactly as they were asked
  5. Change any statements into questions

Students may find it difficult to adhere to some of these rules, so it is worth going over them early (even before announcing the QFocus), and handing a copy to each group.

Produce questions

4 minutes

If the class has not already formed groups, divide the students into teams of 3 to 5. Instruct each group to designate a note-taker.

The teacher should visit each group to ensure they are following the rules and that they continue producing question throughout the time allotted. Encourage group members to generate a volume of questions without pausing to evaluate them.

Improve the questions

5 minutes

In this step, students will fine-tune the questions to lead to better results. First, the groups will mark each question as open-ended or closed-ended. Closed-ended questions are those that can be answered with one word. Yes/no questions fall into this category. All other questions are considered open-ended.

Next, ask each group to brainstorm some advantages and disadvantages to each type of question. This metacognitive task prompts the students to reflect on their current and future thinking.

Finally, instruct each group to change one closed-ended question to open-ended and vice versa. Allow them to switch additional questions if they feel inclined.

Prioritize the Questions

3 minutes

The students will now identify one or more priorities and pinpoint the top three questions that serve each priority. Some example priorities:

  • Which questions most interest you?
  • Most important questions
  • Those that will be most helpful in your project
  • The ones you need or want to answer first

Remind the students to keep the QFocus in mind when selecting three questions for each priority.

You can have the students report some of their questions to the class. For example, you could ask each group to share the questions they changed from closed to open and vice versa.

Another approach is to have them read their priority questions and then observe for the class where in the list they came from. That calls attention to how early or late in the process the priority questions came up.

Determine next steps

2 minutes

At this stage, each group will have a list of fine-tuned and prioritized questions. They then must figure out how to go about answering them. For example:

  • Conducting an experiment or survey
  • A Google search
  • Contacting a reference librarian
  • Scheduling an interview with an expert in the field


3 minutes

The final step prompts students to contemplate the QFT. Because the QFT is detailed and transparent, students can focus their reflections on any specific part of the process. The teacher might choose to prompt the groups to discuss and answer some questions:

  • What did you learn?
  • What is the value in learning to ask your own questions?
  • What are you going to take with you going forward?


The Question Formulation Technique upends the traditional model in which teachers ask questions and students answer them. Empowering students to ask questions gives them agency to take their project work in directions they find authentic. Formalizing the process of finding questions not only leads to better results, but it fosters metacognition. The QFT also connects to our Habits of Mind: purposeful communication and problem solving.

I’m excited to use the QFT to further the methods and philosophy of TWP.

Additional Resources

(Some materials require free registration.)

Classroom segregation: An extreme exercise in sociality

“Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins…
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives.”

Judge Softly by Mary T. Lathrap, 1895

On April 5, 1968, third-grade teacher Jane Elliott launched a controversy that still simmers today. More on that in a minute.

The subject of chapter two in How Humans Learn is sociality, a term whose definition I’ll get to in a subsequent post. For now, it’s enough to know that the classroom is steeped in the social environment surrounding it.

Class activities occur within the context of myriad human relationships: teacher-student, student-student, parent-student, student-society, and so on.

Jane Elliott describes her infamous exercise in racial discrimination.

Never was that fact driven home more forcefully than on that April day in 1968. History buffs will recall that Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated the day before. Riceville, Iowa teacher Jane Elliott changed plans to help her third-graders understand how racial discrimination permeates the lives of those who suffer from it. She sought to show them the social context surrounding King’s activism and his murder.

Elliott divided her all-white class by eye color and explained how she would begin treating the blue-eyed students worse than the brown-eyes students. The next day, she reversed the exercise to give every student a chance to experience prejudice. Needless to say, the activity became highly controversial and has remained so ever since.

An article in Smithsonian magazine notes “When the exercise ended, some of the kids hugged, some cried. Elliott reminded them that the reason for the lesson was the King assassination, and she asked them to write down what they had learned.” One third-grader wrote:

“I felt like quitting school. . . . I felt mad. That’s what it feels like when you’re discriminated against.”

In the ensuing five decades, Elliott has been both lauded as a racial justice hero and condemned as a sadistic child experimenter. Undoubtedly, her exercise would have a hard time clearing any institutional review board today. Nevertheless, it serves as evidence that learning is never isolated from the personal and social relations among students and the larger society.

Children are Curious; Students are not

“Intellectual curiosity becomes a casualty of the education and status wars.”

Joshua Eyler. How Humans Learn. 2018

I mentioned psychologist Susan Engel in an earlier post. As recounted in Joshua Eyler’s How Humans Learn, Engel documents a drop-off in curiosity between kindergarten and fifth grade. Eyler points to other research that corroborates an age-related decrease in the pursuit of novel information.

While some of the decline in curiosity is likely natural, a portion of it may be attributed to school itself. In a tragic irony, it appears that the very institution responsible for imparting new knowledge depletes its pupils’ hunger for that knowledge.

Students, preoccupied by scholastic hurdles and abetted by canny or cynical parents, get wise to the learning industrial complex. They begin to avoid any authentic challenges that would impede the achievement of grades.

“Intellectual curiosity”, therefore, “becomes a casualty of the education and status wars” (Eyler, 2018).

He then commences a discussion of pedagogical methods that can reinforce curiosity instead of reducing it, namely inquiry- and discussion-based.

Inquiry-based pedagogy encourages learners to take responsibility by putting them at the center of the learning process.

Inquiry-based teachers use open-ended questions to spur investigation into authentic challenges (Coffman, 2017). Inquiry is guided, not directed. That means students enjoy a degree of autonomy as they pursue answers of real-world import. Ideally then, they begin to cultivate self-regulated learning as a habit of mind.

Wiggins and McTighe, in Understanding by Design, promote building courses with overarching learning objectives and “essential questions”, those that hew to the fundamental essence of the thing under investigation.

Robin Paige (Eyler’s colleague at Rice University), in contrast to Wiggins and McTighe’s multiple questions, proposes a “metaquestion”: one question around which course activities will revolve.

A key feature of inquiry-based approaches is learning to learn rather than simply learning the content, making it well suited to TWP.

Discussion-based pedagogy is a time-honored method going back at least to Socrates. Brookfield and Preskill say discussion has manifold benefits. It affirms the students’ role in the learning process and also encourages exploration of a diverse set of perspectives. That diversity, one hopes, fosters one of our habits of mind: integrated perspective.

As well worn as is it, discussion as a teaching tool can fail as well as succeed. According to Howard, a key to successful discussion is setting expectations. Classrooms are social settings in which norms are continually under negotiation and revision, so the instructor should explicitly set the expectation that all students should participate in discussion. The syllabus, then, should explain how discussion is tied to the learning objectives of the course. An accountability mechanism, such as a participation grade, is also useful.

Likewise, Lang suggests introducing discussion early and reinforcing it often. If students become accustomed to lectures, it will be an uphill battle if you suddenly throw in discussion during week four.

The instructor can spark conversation by asking questions. Fact-based questions can kick things off, but should be used sparingly. Open-ended questions invite more thoughtful, well, discussion.

Interestingly, this recommended progression, from a few fact-based questions to more open-ended ones, parallels Chouinard’s observations of young children. Pre-school-aged kids inquire into facts first, then seek explanatory (“why”) answers. Modeling college instruction on patterns of early childhood may rekindle some of that lost curiosity.

These two pedagogical styles—inquiry-based and discussion-based—are not mutually exclusive. In the words of Susan Engel, “by asking questions I don’t have a set answer to, I am modeling genuine inquiry and sharing my own curiosity.” Inquiry and discussion, in other words, overlap.

Both hinge on asking the right questions. To that end, Rothstein and Santana devised a Question Formulation Technique (QFT). The QFT is a six-stage process that spurs students to create their own questions.

  1. Design a question focus.
  2. Produce questions.
  3. Work with closed-ended and open-ended questions.
  4. Prioritize questions.
  5. Plan next steps.
  6. Reflect.

The QFT offers an effective tool for getting the most out of both discussion and inquiry. As Eyler states, it combines “authentic practice” with “metacognitive reflection”, motivating students not just to investigate the content, but to gain insights and self-awareness they can transfer to other classes and challenges.

Next time, I hope to explore the QFT in depth, talk about how it relates to the goals of TWP, and see if it helps make students curious again.

The Question Formulation Technique in practice.


Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching : Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Coffman, T. (2017). Inquiry-based learning: Designing instruction to promote higher level thinking (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Engel, S. (2011). Children’s need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 625-645.

Lang, J. (2008). On course : A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (2008).

Rothstein, D., Santana, L., & Puriefoy, W. (2017). Make just one change : Teach students to ask their own questions (7th printing ed.). Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard Education Press.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.) [Expanded 2nd ed.]. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Action Plan

On June 4, 2019, all members of the CPLC Wicked Track were tasked with developing a personal action plan to answer the following questions over the course of the ensuing two months:

What will I need to learn about the course?

I will need to determine from CPLC discussions whether and how the TaWP mission differs from that of last year’s FYS. My understanding is that the name and credit count was changed, but that the main thrust remains the same. In other words, instructors who taught FYS in fall 2018 in the spirit it was intended will not have to make substantial changes to their plans for fall 2019.

[Edit: My own last sentence above may give the impression I just want to teach the same course the same way I did last year. I don’t. I want to improve on the parts that worked and learn lessons from the parts that didn’t work. What I believe remains the same from last year is the HoMs, learning objectives, PBL, and open pedagogy.]

What activities will I need to engage in?

I will look over last year’s syllabus, class activities, and assignments to decide what–in light of that experience–should be changed, replaced, or updated. Reflecting on my memory of classroom success and student feedback will be a guiding factor during this process.

What will you ned to read/discuss/write about?

I intend to continue reading Eyler’s How Humans Learn and blogging (here) as a way to interpret and understand some of the important lessons of educational research.

The Hungry Mind and the Educated Mind

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…” 

—Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)  
Babies Learn from Surprises. Stahl and Feigenson.

One of the common threads Joshua Eyler identified while researching How Humans Learn is curiosity. Most every reader intuitively grasps the meaning of curiosity, but scholars have leveled varying definitions.

Eyler cites Bardo, Donohew, and Harrington, who call it the “inherent biological need for novelty.” Piaget called it “the search for the new.”

How you define curiosity may depend on your field and your point-of-view, but one theme that emerges again and again is, in the words of behavioral economist George Loewenstein, an information gap, the metaphorical void between what one knows and what one would like to know.

But to call it simply a gap would be incomplete. Curiosity is like the electric potential that traverses a circuit or the wind produced by a pressure gradient in the atmosphere. It’s an innate urge to resolve a disparity.

Gruber, Gelman, and Ranganath document the association between higher curiosity and improved learning and memory. The underlying mechanism appears to be dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in motivation and reward.

“There is a clear empirical link between the hungry mind and the educated mind.”

Susan Engel, The Hungry Mind
Susan Engel on how to avoid stifling curiosity in the classroom.

The greater the disparity, the greater the curiosity. Stahl and Feigenson’s study of infants showed how, from the earliest age, unexpected observations heighten curiosity.

For example, babies who witnessed a toy seemingly defying physics used play to study the toy’s behavior. For example, a ball made to look like it was hovering would have its gravitation tested later when an infant sought the ball and dropped it.

Eyler adduces other studies to show how children are inherently curious, and that this curiosity fades over time.

Although it fades, it never disappears, a feature Konrad Lorenz called a neoteny: a childhood trait that has been preserved through adulthood.

Vibrant scientific discussion continues to investigate the evolutionary underpinnings of curiosity and the human brain’s other defining characteristics, but it remains ripe for the picking.

The mind, therefore, seems wired with the potential for lifelong exploration; by presenting what’s unexpected we can provoke the curiosity that catalyses learning.

Eyler muses:

“What if we already know how to educate ourselves?  What if the process is a natural one that simply requires our attention, cultivation,  and guidance to be fully utilized?”

Joshua Eyler. How Humans Learn. (2018)


Bardo, M. T., Donohew, R. L., & Harrington, N. G. (1996). Psychobiology of novelty seeking and drug seeking behavior. Behavioural brain research77(1-2), 23-43.

Engel, S. (2015). The hungry mind : The origins of curiosity in childhood. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron84(2), 486-496.

Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75–98.

Piaget, J. (1953). The origin of intelligence in the child. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Stahl, A. E., & Feigenson, L. (2015). Observing the unexpected enhances infants’ learning and exploration. Science348(6230), 91-94.

The Scientist as Child

In How Humans Learn (2018), author Joshua Eyler reminds us he’s a medievalist, not an education scholar. Eyler’s book, then, is his distillation of others’ work. He selects and presents research drawn from related disciplines, like evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), psychology (both cognitive and developmental), and neuroscience.

The Amazing Minds of Very Young Children

One such example comes from psychologist Alison Gopnik. Eyler draws on her learning theories on children and adults. In her 1996 article, The Scientist as Child, Gopnik likens the innate learning methods found in humans from birth to the empirical methods used in science:

Science may be successful largely because it exploits powerful and flexible cognitive devices that were designed by evolution to facilitate learning in young children.

Gopnik, A. (1996). The Scientist as Child. Philosophy of Science,63(4), 485-514. Retrieved from

This view inverts the traditional notion that children can be taught science, asserting instead that scientists, in some ways, are merely adult practitioners of childlike curiosity. On this view, scientists, children, and everyone else are, to varying degrees, indebted to evolution for their investigative prowess. Eyler writes:

The building blocks of human learning are put into place when we are very young and continue to influence the way we make sense of the world throughout our lives.

(Eyler, 9)

Yet, this prowess fades somewhat after childhood. As Gopnik explains in this interview, four-year-olds are better at sussing out unexpected solutions than young adults. She suggests, therefore, rather than making preschools more academic, we should be making the academy more like preschool.

Eyler suggests the learning disparity between young children and older ones is due to the loss of curiosity, the subject of chapter two. Would Gopnik’s prescription forestall the ebb of youthful curiosity? Perhaps we’ll find out.

The challenge, a challenge, is how not to squander the students’ remaining natural curiosity in Tackling a Wicked Problem and how to restore what’s already lost.

No One Wants to Look Bad in Public

To ready myself for teaching the first year seminar (now Tackling a Wicked Problem) a second time, I’m planning to read How Humans Learn (Joshua Eyler, 2018).

It’s one of six books recommended by the leaders of the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community, a group of Plymouth State faculty who committed themselves to advancing certain learning and teaching methods during the upcoming year.

But instead of simply reading it, I decided to be more rigorous:

  1. Read
  2. Take notes
  3. Reflect
  4. Blog

Annotation and reflection, of course, will help me comprehend the author’s most useful takeaways, but why blog them as well?

One answer is found in Project-Based Learning (PBL), a pedagogical style that vests learners with authority to guide their own practical, problem-solving activities. Learning is more complete and effective, PBL advocates hold, when both the problem examined and the solution proposed are of real-world import.

One component of PBL, Public Product, is described by the Buck Institute for Education this way:

“a public product adds greatly to [Project-Based Learning’s] motivating
power and encourages high-quality work. Think
of what often happens when students make
presentations to their classmates and teacher. The
stakes are not high, so they may slack off, not take
it seriously, and not care as much about the quality
of their work. But when students have to present
or display their work to an audience beyond the
classroom, the performance bar raises, since no
one wants to look bad in public
.” (emphasis added)

Buck Institute for Education. (2015). Gold standard PBL: Essential project
     design elements [Pamphlet]. Buck Institute for Education.

No one wants to look bad in public. This aversion, the thinking goes, fosters a motivating anxiety. When one’s work is held up to examination and scrutiny, that work is likely to be of higher quality. That is the spirit in which I created this blog.