I'm always on the look-out for ideas about how we can improve teaching (rather than test scores). A new idea has popped up for me about incorporating more conservative techniques in teaching, sparked by an intriguing new book by David M. Ricci, a professor of politics and American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. However, before this becomes a political debate, let me say I'm not talking about incorporating more conservative beliefs in teaching; I'm talking about including more of the conservative reliance on selling ideas through great stories.
Ricci's book is entitled Why Conservatives Tell Stories and Liberals Don't: Rhetoric, Faith, and Vision on the American Right. This book answers the puzzle posed by New York Times colonist and author of The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, who stated just before the recent elections "The thing that baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can't come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics." It also explains why conservative leaders whom those with left-wing leanings find to be, at best, simple, and at worse, let's call it "intellectually challenged," keep winning elections. These Conservatives may not have the Ivy League degree or the facts and figures at their fingertips. But they tell a great tale about America's glorious possibilities, and sometimes those stories triumph--even if they turn out to be fantasies, or even worse, lies.
Ricci argues that it is in the very nature of liberalism to eschew storytelling over data. He traces the liberal movement from the Enlightenment, and shows how they have consistently relied on science, theories, and facts to convince the population to abandon long-held policies or behaviors. Conservatives, on the other hand, promote traditional values, conveyed through uplifting stories about such qualities as courage, decency, authenticity, and the democratic virtues of freedom and justice. So you have President Obama trying to teach people about his national health care legislation, which was more than 2,300 pages long, while Sarah Palin talks about her mama grizzlies and tea parties. And we all saw which approach tended to be most convincing to voters in the 2010 elections.
But leaving politics aside--I think this is a valuable insight for us to consider in education. How many of us are liberal thinkers, and so think the most important thing is to teach our students the facts and figures of what ever subject we are teaching? If we are, how powerful would it be NOT to abandon facts, but to combine it with the more conservative bent towards storytelling? Because when I think back to the best teachers I've ever had, they weren't the ones who necessarily fed me the most theories and data. The best ones, for me at least, were those who brought the subject alive through their passion for and, yes, stories about their subject matter.
Of course, it may seem that storytelling lends itself more to some disciplines than others. Literature, of course, is all about stories, and history can easily be taught (although, unfortunately, too often is not) as a series of narratives about historical dates, facts, and figures--tales of the who and why that enliven the when and what. But how about math? For many of us, that is one of the most fixed, inflexible, and uninteresting (and, unfortunately, for some incomprehensible) subjects. However, you only need to meet a master math teacher like my friend, Maria Droujkova of Natural Math, to learn otherwise. No matter what topic she is teaching, Maria is always conveying a story of math as a fun, creative, flexible, beautiful, and personal medium through which each student can express him- or herself and make life better. Maria changes people's stories about math, and that can make all the difference in their ability to learn math.
Or how about science? There has been an intense discussion lately on the Natural Math e-loop on how science differs from math in regards to storytelling (which, unfortunately, has gone over my head, or at least over my ability to devote the time and attention to comprehend all the posts and links that have been exchanged by people with much more specialized knowledge in those fields). But I still believe that there is a place for storytelling in science and that science, too, in the end tells different stories about the world. If you have read Thomas Kuhn's classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, major shifts in the fundamental theories in science, like moving from the Ptolemy to the Copernican astronomy or from mechanical to quantum physics, also change our story of who we are and how our worlds operate.
Once again, I haven't actually read the book, so I'm not sure that I completely buy Ricci's argument. But I think he raises a fascinating point to consider, and shines a light on something that may be a bit of a blind spot for some of us.