Why telling them doesn’t work

Image Sam Sherratt is PYP Coordinator at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City. This article first appeared at Time Space http://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com

When I first got into teaching, about ten years ago, there was much talk about setting the learning “objective” or “intention”, writing it on the whiteboard, telling it to kids at the start of the lesson and then reviewing it at the end of the lesson. This all made perfect sense to me back then.

Back then, when I was teaching the National Curriculum in a small comprehensive school in England. Back then, when we were trying to get our students to pass some tests so we were not humiliated in the national press. Back then, when all the students had the same learning objective. Back then, when there were lessons that had beginnings and endings.

I believe learning has evolved since then.

These days, the idea that all of the students in the class have the same learning objective seems like a complete disregard for differentiation. When teaching dynamically and responding to both the needs and interests of the students, moments in which they are all doing the same thing in the same way are rare. I am not saying that they don’t happen – occasionally, and I mean really, really occasionally, a finite lesson in which they all focus on just one thing does happen. However, if you’re looking for that kind of thing on a regular basis in my teaching, it just ain’t going to happen.

These days, the idea that we should teach in little chunks of time and content seems to go against everything we have learned about learning itself. The  notion that you can draw a line under it and say “they’ve learned that” is as archaic as little kids sat in rows copying bits of text from a blackboard. Learning, like life, ebbs and flows. Lessons take days and the ends of “lessons” may only be enforced by the need for them to eat or run around, not by our own vanity in believing the learning is “complete”.

As far as I am concerned, telling or displaying the learning objective is ineffective… a bit like telling them or displaying “the rules”. It ticks our box, it satisfies our need to believe we have done our job. It does not improve learning. Instead, it is much more powerful to develop a culture of intentional learning, a culture in which students are constantly considering what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Culture doesn’t come from the mouth of an authority figure. Culture doesn’t come from lamination or words written on white boards before students come in the room. Culture comes from habits, from practice and from involvement. Culture comes from within.

So, next time an administrator wants to see the learning objective… tell them to watch the students. Tell them to put down their clipboard, notebook or iPad and watch what the students are doing or listen to how they are talking. Are the learning objectives evident in the room? Do the students know what they are doing and why they are doing it? Are they involved in the learning because they have been part of setting it up? Are they learning with intention, their own intention… not your intention? Do they have their own objectives?

That is when the magic happens.

The What

ImageWhen I left my job in Manchester and moved to Amsterdam, I was an IB novice. Over the next few years, ISA (the International School of Amsterdam) sent me on IB workshops in Vienna, Istanbul, Gothenburg, Barcelona, Geneva, and probably one or two other places I’ve forgotten about.

But it was on a week-long trip to Harvard to participate in Project Zero’s 2002 Summer Institute (http://www.pz.harvard.edu) that I started really getting my head around constructivist ideas about education, and realizing that my own approach needed to change – in ways for which there seemed to be no clear models, at least in my subject area.

My own English teachers in high school were interesting enough, with their literary passions, pet theories and intriguing (to us) private lives. They were OK. Pretty good in fact. When I taught in England for about twenty years, I was probably about as good as they were. I was OK too. 

But what I was being exposed to now made me think that wasn’t enough. Nobody was trying to pretend that they had all the answers. But I now had some at least some of the questions. I was being given all kinds of encouragement to think – and rethink – about exactly what I profess to do.

I found myself focusing not so much on how I teach, but on what. Or to be more precise, on what I teach as the essence of how I teach. I’d always put plenty of creativity into my teaching, though without, as I now realize, having any particularly coherent analysis of what I was doing. I thought my job was to inspire, to encourage, to correct. You know – to teach. To expand minds and tighten skills. To get kids reading, and writing better. All of that. And none of that is wrong, of course. But in pursuing these general aims, I have to admit I could be a bit instinctive in my reference points. I brought in texts I cared about, used the reading I’d done and the passions I’d developed.

I’d taught bright kids at top English independent schools – it was fairly easy to be OK in that context, generally a pleasure to share what you knew and cared about. But the constructivist model of learning I was introduced to through the IB and Project Zero constituted a powerful, relevant and grounded theory. It is how we learn. Knowledge cannot be transferred like a digital file; it has to be constructed afresh by every individual mind. In that sense we are all self-taught. To ‘teach’ anybody anything, I had to get involved on that level, and get much more into the perspective of my students. My job was not primarily to tell, or even to share, but to guide – to create compelling inquiries, to find or build spaces for the students to enter. These spaces have to be structured. They have to have foundations. The curriculum is the blueprint for building inquiry space, and in committing to an inquiry model of teaching we have to start with curriculum.

Knowledge for its Own Sake

   Luis Orthon Murillo

by Dr Luis Murillo

ImageINTERNAL motivation is a drive that comes from within you. Just as athletes experience pleasure as they develop competency and strength, students may sense meaning and pleasure as they get a better grasp of the world around them and feel the enhancement of their faculties. Teachers and parents should encourage that experience. In the absence of internal motivation, parents may dangle incentives of some type or another to achieve the desired outcome of high grades from a student, but there are reasons to be cautious with that.

There are students who are focused on answering questions. Then, there are students who are focused on questioning answers. While the former may manage to get high grades, it is the latter, who soar beyond grades to attain conceptual expertise and skill. A student who has been conditioned to produce the ‘right’ answers to specific stimuli is operating on a purely behaviorist model which leaves out wonder, fascination and relevance. Too keen a focus on the number written on the report card can distract from the pleasure of learning as an internal motivator. What does success mean for a student like that? Just a number?

If you are keen to excel at conformity you are less likely to generate groundbreaking contributions. So what needs to be emphasized? Understanding, inquiry, imagination, resourcefulness and a healthy questioning of authority.

In the Renaissance, scholars saw knowledge as something of intrinsic value. Leonardo was seeking meaning and beauty, not financial success or social advancement. I doubt it was Shakespeare’s mother’s tantrum over his low grades that made him a master of the English language; nor did Dante’s straight As contribute to his writing the “Divina Comedia.” Education, discovery, inquiry, inspiration: these are big words. We should ask ourselves whether grades are more than an occasionally helpful footnote.

The French sociologist, Jean-Francois Lyotard, writes in The Post-Modern Condition that our present condition in contemporary society is characterized by an obsession with high performance. Paradoxically, the cult of performance coincides with a collapse of meta-narratives, the large-scale, sweeping philosophies of the world that somehow inspired, justified and encouraged collective action.

Today, we are more than ever aware of the diversity and at times incompatibility of our aspirations. Sadly, economic competitiveness seems to be the sole common thread providing the meager but unavoidable motivation for individual performance. However pervasive this “micro-narrative” is, it seems insufficient to inspire greatness. Can you really motivate your children to achieve scholastically by brandishing the carrot of future prosperity?

I am skeptical that you can encourage love of learning just by proposing a high salary or material success, but if you can, I am not sure I would congratulate you for it. Isn’t education and the transmission of knowledge a much loftier goal than can be exhausted by the search for pragmatic solutions?

Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents describes society as a tool we have created to protect ourselves from unhappiness, and yet it is also one of the greatest sources of unhappiness. The constant need to repress instinctive drives in order to achieve the social project leaves the individual (e.g. the child who attends school) feeling a slave to the constraints of a society that relentlessly favors anhedonia. School, as a tool of socialization, then becomes one more element of repression and self-denial. There is an important drive, however, that needn’t be repressed in school and socialization, it is the search for meaning.

In the classical view of education, knowledge and particularly the contemplative reflection of knowledge (knowledge for its own sake) is described as one of the greatest sources of emancipation (this is more than better financial independence). Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics and Plato in the Symposium describes the search for knowledge as an intrinsic drive present in every human. Acquiring and savoring knowledge, they say, is the source of one of the most intense and lasting pleasures. This ideal should be passed on to our students.


Dr Murillo has contributed to a number of fields in a wide-ranging academic and teaching career embracing neuroscience, philosophy, economics, psychology and epistemology. He currently teaches at the New International School of Thailand, presents internationally on Theory of Knowledge, and examines for the IBO. This piece was originally published in the Shanghai Daily. 


Teaching as Storytelling (5): What happens

So, if teaching is like storytelling, first you must commit passionately to the storyworthiness of the story, and thus arouse expectation, engagement, curiosity. These dynamic states must be resolved, to a degree, but it must not happen too quickly, or where’s the story?

Out of this tension emerges the second emotion – suspense. Suspense is an open state, and at the moment and degree of your choosing you must give (or allow) (at least partial) closure. But you must not do so in quite the way your reader expects, or ultimately you will disappoint. (A nice irony and a Wildean motto for living: to fulfill expectations exactly is indeed to disappoint).

As in narrative so in inquiry. First you must excite and engage, then make them wait. You must provoke questions and then not answer them. Or not all of them. Sometimes your answer might be ‘I don’t know’. And sometimes, ‘I’m not going to tell you.’

This of course only works if you have already established yourself as someone who does know and can tell – your ethos as a storyteller, in other words.

When I talk to Year 10 students about what’s coming up, I tell them that at such and such a point in the course – usually around the beginning of the second semester – there’s a gap in the curriculum, and I don’t know what we will be doing at that point. It all depends, I tell them, on what happens between now and then.

The use of the word ‘happens’ to describe the work of a class is a little surprising. What could ‘happen’ in a literature class? Why doesn’t the teacher know what’s going to happen?

I tell them that I don’t know what will fill the gap, and I don’t even know how long the gap will stay open. All of that depends. (Of course it depends on student engagement, student thinking, student questions, the quality of the work we are doing. It depends, possibly, on what happens in the world of popular narrative. And what fills the gap – I don’t need to tell you – is arising inquiry; mutual, open-ended inquiry.)

Last year the gap, once it opened, stayed open for the rest of the year. Within it, students compared stories from widely differing points in time and space, history and culture, looking for archetypal structures and variations within them. They chose their reading, and wrote on individually-originated questions – authentic questions arising out of their own identities and personal attractions.

One girl wrote about beautiful monsters – in Bram Stoker and Ann Rice. Another deconstructed Nabokov’s Lolita (and yes, she read every word), comparing it with Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby. Another wondered what happens when the antagonist is part of the same being as the protagonist, and this led to a penetrating analysis of doppelgänger stories by Edgar Allen Poe, R L Stevenson and Chuck Palahniuk. One boy wanted to compare the mental states of travelers returning from traumatic adventures in other worlds or realities, focusing on Gullivers’ Travels and Life of Pi. Another put The Hunger Games alongside the Ramayana, to find out what qualities identify the hero and allow him – or her – to succeed.

In previous years we have had group and/or whole class inquiries comparing structures in Beowulf and ALIEN, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Avatar.

Now this sounds all very well and good, jolly interesting, very impressive, etc. But the question is – Why? Is there some kind of theory behind all these bizarre combinations of texts (quite a few of which seem to be popular movies)? Is there some kind of coherent approach in evidence here, or is it ultimately just another (albeit quite elaborate and bright yellow) great big clay daffodil?

That’s what I want to get on to in my next post and new thread, about theory and inquiry in English (Language A) classrooms.


Teaching as Storytelling (4): Clay Daffodils

ImageKen Robinson has a great story about a school inspector going round a school somewhere in England or possibly Wales, and finding that in every subject the students were studying daffodils. In Biology they were looking at bulb germination, in English they were reading Wordsworth, in Art they were drawing and making daffodils. The inspector goes up to a small boy who is poking at a gnarled, yellow- tinged excrescence of flaking clay. ‘What’s that?’ he asks. ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘it’s a daffodil.’ ‘Oh,’ says the inspector. ‘Very nice. And do you like daffodils?’ ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘I’m sick to death of the bloody things.’

A colleague of mine at a very good English independent school – the Head of History, and a respected historian and author – once said to me, ‘The trouble with your subject [ie ‘English’] is that it doesn’t have a discipline.’

I didn’t argue with him – and wasn’t quick enough to take a pop back at his own discipline. ‘Well, Nick,’ I could have quipped. ‘history is bunk, as someone once said!’

I didn’t, because he had a point – more than a point, he was spot-on. The problem facing the high school literature teacher is that there isn’t really any agreed equivalent of the scientific method to be imparted. Instead, there are all kinds of competing schools, new paradigms touted every generation, a jungle of fads and factions with no deep roots. Among these, we have (apparently) found no dominating theory, no over-arching narrative about narrative to use or push against. We don’t have a paradigm, we have a wilderness of mirrors. And so we have more or less declared high school English/ Language A classrooms a theory-free zone. We are not aware of a theoretical basis for what we do, and in as far as one exists at all, it is a wishy-washy pre-structuralist mish-mash which is at least 50 years out of date and has only survived, like some hospital-dwelling superbug, in schools. Put it under the microscope, and what do you see?

Clay daffodils.


OK, you might say – here’s a theory –

My English class is about learning to write well. It’s about recognizing good writing and learning from it. Everything we read and discuss serves as example and as stimulus for good writing. We learn to read well in order to write well.”

It’s not a bad model.


here’s the problem. It doesn’t support inquiry. 

In English classes we have a lop-sided situation where there’s a strong, fresh educational theory (constructivism) which is effective and adaptable, but we don’t have the literary theory to match it and to enable meaningful inquiry into the subject.

Is our inquiry always to be – what does this text teach us about good writing? Is it to be – is Juliet too young to get married? Is it to be – why don’t we write the chapters that the author decided for very good reasons not to write?

The result of the problem is the inflow of dross to fill the vacuum. The confusion about literary criticism. The alarmingly narrow technical base. The shallow politicization of the subject.

The result of that is in turn the loss of engagement across a broad band of students – the more logically minded, or epistemologically-minded, who find the subject empty for them. The technical and scientific types, who don’t understand what they’re supposed to be inquiring into. Many of the boys, in fact.

We escape the theoretical vacuum by shooting off in other directions, embracing the refuge of other subjects in which we might have little training but which still feel somehow more solid than our own. In my first international school, I encountered a Language A (English) MYP curriculum which seemed to have been designed entirely to support the Humanities curriculum. In the name of inter-disciplinary study of course. Everything we read in English served to illustrate a historical experience. Of Mice and Men when they were learning about the great Depression. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch when they were doing the Cold War. Easy to justify from the Humanities side – but from the literature side the overwhelming lesson seemed to be that literature can tell us what history felt like.

Or else it’s all about ethics, concern, identity politics and wedge issues.

At its lowest level, of course, it’s about maps, or anything we can put on display. Let’s make a diorama of the inside of Macbeth’s head, shall we? Let’s make it out of cardboard!

I would love to know – how many English teachers have had their class draw maps or even make papier-mache models of the island in Lord of the Flies?

I’m sorry, but that’s a clay daffodil.

Have you ever used Of Mice and Men to have a class debate about the ethics of euthanasia?

Even that – clay daffodil. Sorry. 

Teaching as Storytelling (3): Plot Dynamics

Can you become a rich and famous writer if you’re not much good at writing?

Yes, of course you can – it happens all the time! There are always highly successful popular novelists around who can’t write to save their lives. But they can use plot dynamics.

The dynamics of plotting are the four primary emotional states writers and storytellers of all kinds try to induce. Within these, a lifetime of emotions can be aroused. But first, the writer must be able to induce these four dynamic states:





Expectation means engagement, curiosity, uncertainty, the driving force of all narrative. Wanting to know. In a state of expectation we cannot help ourselves from making predictions and hypotheses – imagining the future. We are full of questions: what’s going to happen? Why did what just happened happen? Even in a less plot-driven narrative, we have doubts and questions about why the author is telling us this at all. Why is this significant? Why is it interesting?

If we seek to define the term ‘story’, we have to say that it is not just a sequence of events. There has to be something about the sequence of events that makes it worthy of narration. It can’t be ‘The alarm clock woke me up, so I got up and came to work. I worked all day and then I went home, ate, watched TV and went to bed.’ That’s a sequence of events, but it’s not a story. (It’s not even a life!)

To earn the title of ‘story’, a sequence of events must be worth telling, and to be worth telling it must involve a change of state. So if you got fired at work, OK, that’s a story. Or fell in love, even. Or murdered your boss, whatever. But first and foremost the storyteller must passionately commit to the story-worthiness of the story. Its narrativity, to use the jargon.

Even if the story starts in the most mundane possible way, there is a contract that the author must fulfill, an expectation that if I stick with this, I will… be made to laugh / cry / find out / understand / be amazed / amused/ horrified.

However, these expectations must not be met too quickly. All linear art – music, narrative – works by arousing and satisfying expectations. But – such works must exist in time. They have to take time to unfold, and during that time the audience must be in suspense, the experience of an as yet unfulfilled expectation.

The storyteller delays. A storyteller slows down, just when you’re desperate to know. A teacher must be prepared to wait.

A teacher waits… have you ever done that, without telling them what you want, just wait to see what the students will give you? Wait to see how long it takes them to realize that what you want is questions.

Which you should quite probably refuse to answer.

Teaching as Storytelling (2) Gap Theory


On the eve of publication of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald removed more than thirty pages from the novel. This was at the ‘galley’ stage, when the author is sent proofs to check for errors before printing proceeds.

The pages Fitzgerald struck out consisted mainly of Gatsby talking to Nick about himself. By taking them out, the novelist created a gap in his narrative, posed the question implied in the title, and preserved the mystery surrounding his central character, the millionaire socialite who does not attend the parties he throws. It is this man-shaped gap which has driven the fame of his masterpiece in the 88 years since its publication.

As in narrative, so in inquiry – it is the gaps which drive engagement. The gaps are where the imagination plays. Reading is a creative activity; narrating a collaboration between storyteller and listener.

But you can’t have a gap by itself, of course. It has to be a gap in something. Through the outsider Nick Carraway, we observe Gatsby staring at the green light across the bay. We hear his party guests swapping wild rumours about him, we learn of their fascination with this gentleman thug, we wonder why he doesn’t attend his own parties…. a little later we hear his fantastical life-story from his own lips and don’t believe a word of it.

At the last moment, Fitzgerald decided to leave it like that. And so Jay Gatsby remained a living, breathing contradiction, and became immortal.

To create the space for inquiry, you need to plot your curriculum. The word ‘plot’, by the way, is not synonymous with ‘story’. It means the way the story is told – its narrative structure – what we learn in what order, and how – and when (if ever). A storyteller never tells the whole story. As a storyteller it’s good to leave out the boring bits – but leaving out the most interesting bits is sometimes a stroke of genius. 


Teaching as storytelling (3): Gap Theory originally appeared in Time Space Education http://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/teaching-as-storytelling-3-gap-theory-2