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.

Where is the simulacra?

What is and what isn’t reality? That’s a question that is not new at all. Stories have taken people off to “other places” since the very first time they were told. Until recently, the tools and the generation of the narratives have all been in the hands of human actors. But that is going to change. Likely sooner rather than later.

Earlier this year, Spark ran a story about the power of storytelling in games. Putting a movie into a game has been done before, but this time, the idea is a little different. Rather than taking the easy route of doing a shooter, they made this game into a horror based game that can be experienced uniquely for each player. The branching narrative that allows the player to choose their own adventure isn’t new either (some of you might remember those old CYOA books). This ability to make choice leads to a significant level of empathy (PBS Thank You for Playing, Psychology Today) is what motivated the creation of the game.

Outside of the content and the presentation, the Apocalypse Now game doesn’t really break new ground, especially when you consider what it refers to as source material (Heart of Darkness, and The Odyssey). But this is where the jump from human agency to Artificial Intelligence can occur.

To create a game like this, artificially, one would need a narrative. Teaching AI to do this, the models from Vonnegut are the place to start. Without a strong narrative, the story is going to be a dud. Thankfully (perhaps) for AI, iteration to improve itself is par for the course, so it can make a convincing story with an almost endless number of branches and terminations. With enough compute cycles the iteration and improvement is going to get things perfect (perhaps too perfect). With the bones of the story in place, AI can then create the visual representation, if needed, similar to this world that was created randomly.

With these basic elements, we know that we have the tools to allow non human agents to create stories. What we need to be able to do now is look at those stories objectively and identify ways to create ones that can deliver an objective. That objective for my interest, would be to teach something, and in so doing looking to see if the checkpoints of laughter and truth are passed by. If they are, it would suggest that these two elements are vital (perhaps among others), to using stories to teach.

Those other things may come from elements that are identified in this TED Talk with Shonda Rhimes. She makes a comment on the CYOA stories and how they may not be as satisfying:

I’m watching a movie, I know for a fact that a story is not as good when I have control over exactly what’s going to happen to somebody else’s character. You know, if I could tell you exactly what I wanted to happen to Walter White, that’s great, but the story is not the same, and it’s not as powerful. You know, if I’m in charge of how “The Sopranos” ends, then that’s lovely and I have an ending that’s nice and satisfying, but it’s not the same story and it’s not the same emotional impact.

So if we are looking at fabricating stories for specific ends, the task becomes “easier”. The story creation system no longer needs to perfect an infinite number of endings. It only needs one that is going to create that impact.

You know, if you could decide that, you know, in “Jaws,” the shark wins or something, it doesn’t do what it needs to do for you. The story is the story that is told, and you can walk away angry and you can walk away debating and you can walk away arguing, but that’s why it works. That is why it’s art. Otherwise, it’s just a game, and games can be art, but in a very different way.

I’m always excited when new technology comes out and I’m always the first one to want to try it. The possibilities feel endless and exciting right now, which is what excites me. We’re in this sort of Wild West period, to me, it feels like, because nobody knows what we’re going to settle on. You can put stories anywhere right now and that’s cool to me, and it feels like once we figure out how to get the technology and the creativity of storytelling to meet, the possibilities are endless.

So it looks like I’m not the only one who is thinking about this and what stories can do, or be made to do for us and society.

Truth and Perspective – Laughing to the other side

I was listening to the October 27th Startalk Daily as Neil deGrasse Tyson talks to Bill Maher. During the interview, cut together with other conversations, Maher brings up some interesting points that I’m sure we have all heard in some manner before. The first is truth. The second is laughter. Looking at the second point first, there is a well recited claim that “if they are laughing they are listening, if they are listening, there is a chance that they are learning”. And the first point, the truth is relative.

Looking at Truth and truth, there are many people who have spent their life examining truth and a short blog post isn’t going help move the stick here. For now, we will assume that truth is related to an idea that is accepted as being fundamental to being. In order to get someone to accept your story, they need to to be able to align the ideas that they are being presented with the truth or the type of truth that they are looking for. Around the 51:51 mark, Tyson identifies three types of truth. The first being a personal truth. This is a truth of personal conviction that you would see in someone who is looking at truth in religion. This is a truth that is well, personal. Next is a political truth. This is an idea that becomes truth simply from repetition. Finally there is an objective truth that is established through repeated observation.

These truths need to then fit into a story arch. And just as there seem to be prescribed forms of truth, there are also common story lines. Kurt Vonnegut has a decent little video looking at this on YouTube, and this graphic from io9. Linked below:

Shapes of stories from io9.

All this brings me back to an article from The Atlantic that pulled all these ideas together. And part of what kicked off my interest in the power of storytelling was this section:

“This is an active area of research,” Reagan says, “and there are a lot of hard problems yet to be solved. In addition to the plot, structure, and emotional arc, to write great stories, a computer will need to create characters and dialogue that are compelling and meaningful.”

If we are trying to get computers to do this, we need to understand it first. And once we can do that, once we can systematically understand storytelling, we can use it for some amazing ends.

The power of stories to teach

Being away from the academy in a formal manner for years has started to really start an itch in me. For the longest time, I defined my interests in terms of how technology can be used to extend one’s ability to make messages accessible, and by extension, improve teaching outcomes.

Over the past few years however, technology has started to fade into the background. There hasn’t been much of an “oh wow” or “must have” piece of tech entering the teaching environment. It seems that technology is fading to the background and iterating. While this may be temporary (I think it’s likely happened before), it does allow us to take a breath and think about substance more than shine.

What I’m curious about isn’t something that puts technology together with storytelling, ala digital storytelling. Alan Levine aka CogDog has done some amazing things with this in ds106 as has Brian Alexander (h/t Ken Bauer of Flipped Classroom fame). Digital storytelling uses technology as a means of democratizing the production of high impact stories that share the perspective of the creator, from Wikipedia:

One can think of digital storytelling as the modern extension of the ancient art of storytelling, now interwoven with digitized still and moving images and sound. Thanks to new media and digital technologies, individuals can approach storytelling from unique perspectives. Many people use elaborate non-traditional story forms, such as non-linear and interactive narratives.[1]Simply put, digital stories are multimedia presentations that combine a variety of communicative elements within a narrative structure. Media may include any combination of the following: text, images, video, audio, social media elements (like tweets), or interactive elements (like maps).

Digital stories may be used as an expressive medium within the classroom to integrate subject matter with extant knowledge and skills from across the curriculum. Students can work individually or collaboratively to produce their own digital stories. Once completed, these stories can easily be uploaded to the internet and can be made available to an international audience, depending on the topic and purpose of the project.[2]I certainly see the power of this tool in the classroom or in educational spaces in general, but what I’m more interested in is the story aspect of it. I want to explore not only what makes a digital story effective as a teaching tool, but what makes any story effective as a teaching tool? How can educators harness the power of narrative in their pedagogical practice?. From the traditional classroom, to the work site, my experience over the last 20 years has shown that context, analogies, and interpersonal connections make teaching anything more effective. In my experience, my teaching, and the teaching of others has been that a solid story can help anyone to learn just about any topic. After all, learners are not just vessels to be filled, they are more akin to sculptures to be formed and hewn.

I’m not foolish enough to think that I’m the first to do this, or think this way. There have to be others with similar thoughts, but this is what I hope to be able to find out more about over the next while. There are ideas from Education of constructionism, and connectivism that look at how people build and connect ideas together in the learning process. There will also be ideas from literary theory.