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Is ‘once upon a time’ still a viable plotline?: storytelling as pedagogues

As I sit to write - be it this blog, a lesson plan, a presentation or a research paper - I like to think of the story I’m trying to tell. Good stories enthrall me. They captured my imagination and stay with me for a long time. Isn’t this what we are aspiring to in our teaching? In our research? In our presentations? If we want people to remember then surely we should seek to enthrall them. To me this means we have to capture the imagination of those who choose to read our research, our tweets, and our blogs and of those who attend our lessons, our lectures and our seminars.

If we consider our leisure time and social lives many of us will spend time reading books or watching films.  But why do we watch films and/or read books? Alternatively, why do we like particular types of films and/or books? I would venture that we like them…because their enjoyable and they challenge us? Yet, if we acknowledge that books and films are in different genre, why is it that we like some and not others? Isn’t this question that has baffled authors and filmmakers for...well forever? So, what is it that we like and dislike about these things? Or to put another way why do some things captivate us while others leave us indifferent or ‘put us off’?

I wonder if it’s to do with the way we ‘are drawn’ as the audience? How many books or films still start at the beginning with “once upon a time”? I can’t think of the last film I watched or book I read that started this way. Instead they start with a question, conundrum, or a cliffhanger. As one of the audience I am immediately placed into the heart of dilemma and left to consider and problematize the possible solutions. Yet we don’t do the same in education or physical education. Instead we start with “once upon a time”. How many lessons have you taught that started at the very beginning? I would say I have taught hundreds. Yet, as I explore and examine the traditional approach to teaching physical education, with its three-part lesson, then I begin to wonder where the story is.

In my early career “once upon a time” meant the skill. Perhaps not even the skill because the word ‘skill’ suggests something that is used in a live or real situation. So I’ll started with the technique. My lessons were technically-based. End of story. I didn’t take into account my audience. I didn’t consider the students I taught and their responses to my teaching beyond the lesson. No, like my predecessors (my teachers and my teachers’ teachers) I started with the core techniques and they were lucky if they ever got the full story let alone ‘happily ever after’. What I didn’t do was place these learners at the heart of the conundrum, and I am now left to wonder what they remembered about these lessons.

In the models-based practices that I now extol, the leaner is placed at centre. As the teacher I try to consider the bigger picture and then position the student at it’s heart. In this way, I hope to challenge them, to question their expectations and asked them to think ‘outside the box’. Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) and Sport Education at two examples of pedagogical models that seek to do just that. TGfU is a prime example of a model that starts by placing the student at the centre of the problem. The plotlines that follow i.e. the modified games, the tactical problems and the question and answer sessions, are designed to entice the audience and ensure that the ‘story’ of the game is at the heart of the learning experience. Sport Education strives for authenticity and seeks to place students’ experiences of sports, rather than the ‘techniques of play’, at the centre of its units. Similarly, Cooperative Learning seeks not to tell students what they have learned but to explore it with them and to ascertain the nature and quality of their learning through the questions that the students are asked and the contribution that each one of them makes to the group’s success.

So when next you watch a film or read a book see how quickly you are presented with a conundrum or challenge that the author or filmmaker sets you. Then consider your next lesson, presentation or paper. Do you seek to draw in your audience (as an individual learner) and place them at the centre of the problem? Do you begin, like most fairytales, with it “once upon a time” or have you moved to acknowledge the art of the filmmaker? I’m not suggesting that every lesson of a unit or every lecture in a series should start with a conundrum but I am suggested that not every lesson should start with ‘once upon a time’. Techniques and skills are valuable, of course they are, but there is a time and place for their introduction. How many times in a film is the heroine and her nemesis introduced in the opening scene, with no effort made to tell the backstory of their enmity? If we take the same approach in our teaching, presenting and writing then the interplay between, for example, two teams is left to fill the opening scenes before the deeper technical, tactical and strategic understanding is introduced as a means to improve this selfsame interplay.

So the challenge to you, and to me, is to tell the story but not always in the traditional way. Instead we should consider our audience and strive to enthrall them. Have I enthralled you? What do you think?

Vicky Goodyear
About me
On Sunday 07 October at 13:18 Vicky Goodyear said
When I read this I thought, what's my favourite film? Book or something I have watched? A good example, of something that has 'enthralled' me is the TV series Homeland, which I am sure many are aware of. When I watch it I am constantly quentionning 'what's going to happen' next and it leads me to guess or speculate, is he going to get found out? I often discuss the plot line with my family and friends, who sometimes have different ideas of what will happen, and then week on week we watch the programme and continually try to guess the storyline where our ideas and questions often change. Drawing on my research of models-based-practice and specifically Cooperative Learning I agree that each lesson there is a story where students work together to find out the answers and create new understandings. It could be said that they work together and create their own stories. What I described about what I do with my friends and family when watching Homeland I think links directly to one of the Cooperative Learning structures. - THINK-SHARE-PERFORM The teacher presents a problem or a question? students THINK individually for a solution. Once they have created thier own understanding they then SHARE with their team mates and decide on a collective solution to the problem. Following this the team then PERFORMS the teams solution and they reflect on the successes or areas they need to improve on. There are other examples I could of used about models-based-practice but this one stood out for me. Students are led to create their own understandings and from what I have seen they are 'engaged' in the learning process. A great blog that led me to really think about what enthralls me and then how teaching, presenting and writing can enthrall my audiences.

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