In Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Wiley, 2009), a reader is at once subjected to a subtitle with 19th-century length (for example, click here to check out the length of 19th century titles). More importantly, though, the reader is reminded how reading and studies shape and reconfigure the mind, that “three-pound mass of cells, approximately the consistency of oatmeal, that reside in the skull of each of us” (Willingham’s opening words). In the fourth paragraph of the conclusion, Willingham says, “Reading is a mental act that literally changes the thought process of the reader.” (Willingham, 2009: 207)
When I read this I thought, “Of course!” immediately re-remembering the way reading alters our way about the world (my mind was changed to remember how the mind changes when reading). This, in turn, caused my brain to recall conversations years ago from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, chatting with fellow undergrads and agreeing with the statement, “Whenever I read something, it often changes my mind.” At its best this is the power of a classical liberal education, or a liberal education, an ability to allow students to wander around in the infinite of ideas and build arguments and perspectives about the world. It is up to the teacher, though, to consider how they might best teach this to students. This requires historians to embrace the methodological ethos of thinking about thinking, or thinking about the way another person might understand the world, including students. And this in turn leads to pedagogical considerations about how to teach, which in turn leads to how to engage students with narratives and stories (aka, histories).
Willingham brings about one approach, a broad 4-part outline used by good and great screen-writers in Hollywood. It is building a narrative around the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications, and character. In Willingham’s book, he uses the example of Star Wars as a narrative to explain to the reader how important narratives are to telling a story worth remembering, and how this model can be used to teach memorable science, math and history (come to think of it, as an adolescent in school, mathematics became amazingly interesting when it was humanized with the founding thinkers of particular theorems and formulas. At once it was not just a Cartesian grid, but instead a grid work developed by this insanely intelligent Renaissance thinker, René Descartes… this information was crucial, at least to break up the 50-minute monotone lectures presented on overhead projectors in junior high and high school).
With the Star Wars example, Willingham answers the title of Chapter 3, a question laid out as, “Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?” To answer this with “Because you’re boring” would be true but incredibly unhelpful. The reason students remember Star Wars is because screenwriters have modeled the story or narrative around the 4 Cs (and also because Star Wars has permeated every facet of global culture, and also because of Star Wars dorkdom which propels some kind cult of Star Wars, but that’s another tangent for another time). In Star Wars, there is a strong character development that is Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. The overarching cause or causality is hinted at in the opening: find the plans for the Death Star so the rebels can blow it up. Throughout the story, though, Luke, Leia and others face a variety of complications, including a show-down with Darth Vader, this played by the voice of James Earl Jones, and learning from Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and so on. Still, the overarching theme remains: find a way to destroy that bloody Death Star. What Willingham is telling teachers is to be sure to put time into organizing lesson plans to develop those overarching themes. Conflict and character development will push and pull a listener or student through the narrative, and the end-goal will not change. Students will appreciate these well-organized narratives and lesson plans. And if they appreciate that, the teacher will have their attention.