Radio demands attention and compels involvement

The title of this post is stolen from Michael Enright’s NYE essay about the value of radio.

Even though it’s a full three months since that essay aired, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. The medium of radio is such that it is very similar to the human voice that we all start learning from. Outside of “living and learning” through experience, this auditory element may be the most powerful means of learning before or after the fact.

Through history, the lecture (not only the ones that go one way) certainly has shown it’s stripes as the de facto means of teaching. Looking to radio, and the way that it has survived and perhaps even strengthened in light of ever changing technology, the power of voice is undeniable.

Maybe what makes the power of voice stand out now, and (other than a few minutes to myself) what got me to select this idea from my list of post ideas is the realization that what is causing so much grief in the world is that the voice of so many has, for the first time been disrupted. For the first time, it’s not only the “others” around the planet who are without a voice, but is seems in a time where “the most powerful man on the planet” has rejected the power of conversation, and has worked so hard to remove the voice from indiscriminately wide swathes of the population. But in light of this, the resistance comes from people who have realized that the way that “we” arrived at this point in history is that we allowed for sound bytes to take precedent over conversations. We allowed the rejection of lecture and its variants to erode our education systems.

I think we have to start understanding that if we want to make things better, we have to start making time to tell stories properly and not to take shortcuts. We have to attend to stories and take action as needed.


Over the holidays, I got a chance to spend a day at home, with nothing to do other than build a large LEGO model of the Millennium Falcon. As I was building it, the details that were part of the build helped to bring back memories from books, movies, and games. Being able to manipulate elements that were previously only imagined was, for a Star Wars geek, very rewarding. It got me thinking though, what if I wasn’t attached to the object I was building in any way, and I just had to complete the steps to achieve a result? What if this was a task that had been assigned as so many are in schools everywhere. Jump the hoops, check the boxes, move on.

In this context, if the builder of the model didn’t know what the end result would be, the assignment would be much more difficult, as there would be no way to estimate how close one would be to a final result, or significant checkpoint. If this were a story, this would be akin to knowing what happens in the end – SPOILERS – and that wouldn’t really do. But stories do foreshadow events to allow people to see how things will fit together. During the build of The Falcon, this foreshadowing was there when each stage showed what it would look like when it was completed.

Part of this foreshadowing included holes. Gaps in the model or story where you knew things were going to go/happen, but where the details are not revealed. A simple model or story would have few if any holes, but a more complex story would have these arranged in such a manner that they would contribute to the overall experience. Sometimes these holes are for small details that may not have an impact overall, but that enrich some element for those who would care to look further. Details like chairs that can only be seen when the model is open; a state that it would likely rarely be in once completed.

Beyond the foreshadowing that helps a story, and a build move along, I noticed there was another important element. There needed to be some way to manage the tedium associated with the basic building blocks. Elements that repeat with little if any variation are important, but can so easily be lumped together at the start of the process and labeled as “basics”. In a classroom, these could be those rote skills like spelling or multiplication; in a build, they could be exterior panels. During the build of The Falcon, these “boring” micro builds were spaced through the process and were always in context. I noticed this when I thought I knew more than I did and I built a number of similar pieces, only to find out that there were small, but significant differences that I had missed. The context was vital. Having an authentic context for classroom building blocks should work the same way. Spelling words properly is great, but outside of a sentence, that spelling may or may not be correct or appropriate. The build kept these elements in context and it helped, as you would assume, to tell the story of what is being created. This is different from other builds like IKEA, where subunits are often assembled out of context and then brought together to create a functional whole, but not after at least one subunit is installed backward, necessitating sometimes considerable rework, and breaking the flow.


It’s really not hard to see how/why people describe both builds and stories as being layered. There are many similarities between the two processes, and when done well, they can be used to teach those involved complex ideas in a manner that is accessible and engaging.

Forward and Back

I’ll grab my soap box, and deep thought pose and with a deep breath… get going in this all annecdotal, unresearched or referenced mind dump.

In the news this week, there were two stories about local newspapers shuttering in Canada. The first is CBC Sunday Edition’s story on Moose Jaw losing it’s paper (podcast) and the second is from CANADALAND (podcast) – edit and Day Six (podcast). While these stories are similar and are only related enough to the point I want to make as to inspire this post, they point to the demise of what one could easily say is the most common form of storytelling that we have only lost in the past few years.

Newspapers, magazines, and letters used to be the way stories were told. The length of the story connoted some measure of quality. It used to (and some would say still does), cost a significant sum of blood and treasure to put together a story that fully and rationally explore an idea. Perhaps “back in the day” stories were better balanced to ensure that everyone would have some element of their voice heard. This lead to the idea that if it was in print, the story must be true.

But then as the cost of printing fell, voices started to separate. As more individuals could access the means to publish, the number of publications increased, and to be well read meant that one had to access more sources and those sources, to capture more people reduced the size of their stories. Quickly getting to the point of their argument.

Today we find ourselves in a sound bite and headline world, having slipped down a slippery slope. The co-efficient of friction and the slope continue to move in opposite directions to a point that wants to move stories in front of us so fast, that they are there and have had us react before we even know that we do through the use of managed newsfeeds and predictive algorithms.

These older stories used to have value because they provided insight about the past. Seemingly, it was the past that was the most important part about the art of storytelling – be it the news or epics about heroes. Now it seems that the value of a story is all about how close, and how amusingly it can get a glimpse about the future. So how do we get around this to use stories as a tool to teach when the very tool that we want to use is/has/or will change?

Is it worth trying to use an old tool in a new world?

Two Worlds Reflecting

For almost twenty years, my professional life has centered around EdTech. Using the tools that are available to extend the ability of individuals to communicate with each other, and in so doing, teach and learn in more efficient ways. I haven’t abandoned my interest in that sphere, just shifting it away from the tools toward the product. The product is the story, and the tools? Well they can range from the most basic technology of spoken language, to well, nothing. Our technologies are all used, in some manner or another to communicate with each other, and in communicating, we learn and grow.

So this morning, when I saw this (NYT original), story online, and heard it on CBC, it got me thinking. For a very long time, people have been talking about using computers in the classroom. But it seems that this use, hasn’t been as an extension to the abilities of the students or teachers/instructors, but as a replacement. And there is why, I believe that laptops in the lecture theater are failing students. As a replacement for pen and paper, it has become too each for everyone involved to process the information only once (if at all – image directly linked from NYT).

So while the research talks about other reasons, from the storytelling perspective, I’m thinking what’s missing is that people have forgotten that notes taken in meetings are stories that we will later tell to ourselves or to others. The words on the screen, or on the page are nothing until they have been processed through reflection.

“Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous” – Confucius

Looking at the quote from Confucius, I realized how/why I had to put down some words when I read and heard the story. I’m under no impression that what work I will ever do will “save” EdTech, Teaching, or Storytelling, that’s not the point, what I’m interested in, as I mentioned before is how we can use stories to improve teaching. And all stories are told in some manner through technology. But because so much of technology makes things “quick and easy”, we have fallen into the trap that Confucius is warning about.

In a lecture (already a barely adequate teaching paradigm, it’s really just spray ‘n pray), we perform an action that we believe to be learning, using technology, that cuts out the reflection. In a lecture, this would have been re-copying notes, or doing further research. To Confucius’s point, it is learning without reflection.

But what about the second point? Reflection without learning? I think that is what we are doing now. We have seen what poor integration of technology in the classroom (or other meeting spaces) has done to the quality of the learning environment, so how can that be changed?

Perhaps by telling students about what they need to learn, versus talking at them. Perhaps by creating a grander context for details versus merely dumping facts. Perhaps by leaving space for students to think, and not just boxes to check off on an exam.