Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Teaching with Provocation

Some of you know these kids - slumped over, staring at the ceiling, yawning, until you get them going with something juicy - some gory detail, gross story, or lurid detail - suddenly the light switches on, their bodies snap to attention, they're all leaning forward, and you've know you've got them hooked.

How you tell your story - makes a difference, and for some kids - it's all the difference in the world. Look at the increased number of brain areas that light up when words are used in emotional in stead of neutral sentences. Examples of the sentences read were:

Neutral - He stood on the balcony and watched the tide.
Emotional - He stood on the balcony and watched the riot.

Books that provoke are often of the Xtreme variety - like the Horrible Histories series or other books in Incredible-But-True genres. History and Science particularly lend themselves to this, but if one employs controversies, unusual or unexpected facts, almost anything can become provocative.

It is true that not all life is lurid or extreme, but emotional information acts as the hook, then a lot of other learning follows. To discover a short story storyteller who's discovered this trick, read H.H. Munro's train story at the link below.

Emotional Context and fMRI
Teaching Tips from Berkeley
The Storyteller, by Saki


  1. I've been reading your blog for ages but I think this is the first time I've left a comment.

    What you describe is a very common technique in language learning classes where, apart from trying to get students to speak and advance an opinion, it needs to be in a foreign language! I've experienced this both as a student (of 4 different languages) and as a teacher of English and Spanish. And, although you end up with a whole list of 'provocative' topics, personally I've found that the most effective way of getting students to talk is to break the conversation down to whateever is important to them either personally or as a group. Regional or local concerns ans stories also beat internationl ones every time.

  2. Hi, matthew.

    Great point!

    I still vividly remember a charismatic Spanish teacher I had in junior high (my teacher in high school was dry) - she also let us learn little proverbs in Spanish (like "Aunque la mona se viste de seda...")that everyone trying to beat out each other to learn it the fastest.

    Our son has just begun Latin, and his vocabularly really took off when we added Latin for Dummies. In this book, there are many humorous ancient Roman dialogues that are fun to say.