Humans tell each other stories as a way of making sense of the world. One of the profound deficits of social isolation is that it puts barriers to our ability to share stories. Storytelling is a two-way process. The storyteller requires feedback from the listener to know that the story is being heard. Furthermore, we often lose sight of the story that is unfolding across the entirety of our courses. The small stories have to make sense in the overall narrative.
In the end, the student is the ultimate storyteller because they are forming impressions and ordering the story as they see it, not necessarily as the teacher intended to tell it. If that part of the process fails, it’s all for naught. The audience is the author.
Related content: Moving from textual thinking to visual thinking
Our classes are often by their very nature collages, but they must be carefully constructed to highlight and not obscure the intended pathway to the end. Simplicity of the meta-narrative is crucial here. Everything in my class is oriented toward a single goal: a tangible work product at the end of the semester. How my students get there is less of a concern to me than whether they get there. However, it is my responsibility as a teacher to show them the way there through my design of the narrative.
The temptations of the digital canvas are to provide a wide range of activities and opportunities for exploration. However, there is a danger here of leading students down alleys and then having the class become about the detour, not the intended thoroughfare.
One of my favorite documentaries, Objectified is an exploration of design in the modern world. Once I watched it during a flight to a conference where I was scheduled to give a presentation. Braun designer Dieter Rams is featured in the documentary and his famous dictum, “less, but better” resonated with me at that moment as I considered the story I was about to tell at the conference. I resolved to remove 5 of the 25 slides from my 60-minute presentation. They represented interesting information, but the challenge presented by Rams to me was to ruthlessly examine every element of my narrative and determine what was central to my story and what was not. In the digital world there is always a temptation to add one more slide because it is easy and free. Taking out slides is a much more difficult task because it is an exercise in design. My subsequent presentation was one of the best I’ve ever given.
These same principles must apply to the narratives we construct online (and in person). One of my mentors in grad school, Roy Godson, taught me that in delivering a lecture, your audience is unlikely to remember more than three things from a given session, no matter its length. I would take that further and say that the audience will also paste together those three points into a narrative that makes sense to them. One of my favorite stories from a colleague was when a student answered a question on his exam about the difference between State Department employees and Department of Defense employees as, “State Department employees are like cows grazing in a field.” When he asked the student what prompted her answer, she replied, “you said they see the world in ‘shades of grays.’” All narratives are subject to contextualization.
I face special challenges in my class design because it doesn’t follow the typical narrative structure of lecture-review-test-lecture-review-final that most students have come to expect from college courses. Therefore, in addition to the content discussion in my class I have to explicitly compete with the narrative that exists in 90 percent of their other classes. One of my chief concerns in moving my class online was that having this conversation would prove more difficult and that students will become hopelessly lost because I’m leading them down unfamiliar pathways in the process of learning. I usually have to devote considerable class time in meta-conversations about the nature of the class itself. These kinds of conversations are by their very nature difficult online. This makes creating clean and clear pathways essential to the success of my pedagogical goals, both in-person and online.
Enter design principles. I am ruthless in stripping away extraneous cues in my class narrative. I now have a simple step-by-step diagram set up like a game board metaphor. I have three thoughts for my students: 1) This class is different; 2) Follow the board and do what it says; 3) Everything in this class is focused on creating a Final Portfolio product that will be yours to keep. I have also added to this a layer of iconography that provides a visual clue to the student about the kind of task they are performing at any given time.
Figure 1: Class Design Overview for my Class. The Blue Line is the Narrative Path.
Figure 2: The Use of Iconography Linking Activities to Narrative Pathways
Figure 3: Example of an Intended Student Narrative Pathway Through My Texas Government Class
The story of my class is also one of learning by doing. My assessments up until the final portfolio are all formative in nature. Students get credit for doing the work. The act of completing the assignment itself is demonstrating a certain learning skill. Explicitly and implicitly combining conceptual clarity, visual aids, integrated tasks, and a clear narrative pathway with waypoints along the way is central to my strategy in keeping students on track toward the final goal.
In The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum employed the Yellow Brick Road as a mechanism for keeping Dorothy and her friends on track through his narrative. However tangled the story became, the road was always there to lead them to their ultimate goal: the Emerald City. This is a healthy metaphor for any class. Can you see the Yellow Brick Road in your class? If you can’t, don’t assume your students can–and don’t be surprised if they get lost along the way.