How to Tell a Good Learning Story

(This article originally appeared in Education Week).

Last week, at the New Teacher Center’s 15thannual conference in San Jose, I urged more than 700 educators to start telling their own stories about teaching and learning, and to stop letting outside forces pigeonhole public perceptions of the work that they do

The talk went well (view the Prezi below and decide for yourself), but I worried afterwards that all I’d done was suggest a compelling path forward – and provide little else.

A friend in the crowd confirmed this. “Everyone loved the ideas,” she told me collegially, “but I’m not sure anyone understands how to tell their story more effectively now than they did before.”

I think that’s right. So let me do here what I didn’t do there – by offering some specific suggestions about how to provide a more hopeful, solution-oriented lens to our work.

Decouple and Recouple: Let’s face it: most education coverage is boring. That’s because we’re always doing one of two things: we’re either reporting on reports, or we’re trying to explicate promising practices. The result of this is a sea of stories about education that are heavy on the facts and the how-tos – and light on the personal narratives and the professional inspiration.

This “emotion gap” presents us all with a huge opportunity, as long as we realize that a great story needs to do two things well: it must touch us, and it must teach us something new.

In the modern world, we don’t have to touch and teach in a single video or article. Instead, we can decouple the inspiration from the edification – and then recouple them online.

As an example, consider what we’re doing with A Year at Mission Hill. Every other week until June, we’ll release a new 5-minute video that tracks a year in the life of a great public school. The purpose of these videos is to help you feel the power of a healthy school culture by letting you observe how it unfolds and develops over time. Invariably, you’ll see lots of promising practices in the course of the series – teachers co-constructing curricula, children developing higher-order thinking skills, etc. – but any explanations of how to do these things well have been decoupled from the story itself, and then recoupled online via a rich set of wraparound resources for anyone that wants to go deeper and initiate similar efforts in their own school.

We should do more of this in education: elevate the stories of the people in our schools – the children, their teachers, and the larger community that supports them – and then look for the ideas underpinning that work and flesh them out separately.

Serialize and Sustain: Before there was ever a single copy of Bleak House, there were the twenty monthly installments Charles Dickens published across 1852 and 1853. Point being: the appeal of serializing a story goes back a lot farther than “Must See TV.”  It is, in short, a great way to build and sustain an audience, and to create enough breathing space to let a set of characters develop and deepen over time.

For some reason, however, the idea of serializing our own stories about education never seems to have taken root (and no, a three-part series reporting on a new report doesn’t count). But it should: indeed, there is no other way to capture the scope of that nonlinear journey of personal transformation that is at the heart of powerful learning.

What if we told more stories about teachers and students and classrooms and schools in this way? Would we find better ways to build an audience, reflect the complexity of modern schooling, and inspire a better set of questions to guide our work. Again, A Year at Mission Hill is planning to find out; other schools and communities should do the same.

Reshare and Repurpose: A great story can and should serve multiple purposes. Case in point: the charter school in DC that contracted with a local filmmaker to produce a 20-minute video about their school.

First, this school decided that rather than produce a general overview video (“Welcome to . . . We are . . .”), they would select an illustrative sliver of their work and use that as the viewer’s point of entry to understand who they are and what they value. Because this school is a member of the Expeditionary Learning network, they chose to have the filmmaker follow its Kindergarten class through a three-month learning process that would culminate in a public presentation of their work.

Next, the filmmaker focused in on a few individuals who could be the human faces of the story: the classroom teacher and two of her students. Others were featured, of course, but these were the people through whose eyes we were allowed to see the work unfold. The goal, in other words, was to touch us as much as it was to teach us.

And finally, this school realized that a video like this could serve multiple purposes at once (it’s being finalized right now for a Spring 2013 release): it could be used to help parents at open houses understand what makes the school special; it could be used in fundraising efforts as a sort of visual calling card; and it could be used to spark larger community conversations about teaching and learning (plans are underway for a public screening and subsequent live radio conversation about the state of teaching and learning in DC).

Clearly, this school understands something the rest of us need to understand as well – that the stories we tell must have an appeal beyond just our own internal audience, or our own distinct community. After all, as John Merrow recently pointed out, 80% of American households do not have school-age children.

How will the opinions of those “inadvertent viewers” be shaped in the months and years ahead? How will we restore a balance to what we value in children and each other? And how can we make sure that the stories of 2013 are about more than just content, conflict, and catastrophe?

I believe these three design principles are a good start. What do you think?

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Charles Tsai
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Hi Sam,

    Just want to share with you my own storytelling of a pioneering program at a public high school in Massachusetts. 🙂


  2. Sarah Baron
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I appreciated your presentation at the conference. The one thing that resonated with me is the use of social media to tell a story. Equally important telling a story in pieces that may spark and interest which may grow over time. Most importantly make a point by telling it through a story.

  3. Posted February 17, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Charles! Just shared it via Twitter. Great stuff.

  4. Posted February 17, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking the time to follow up, Sarah. Are you on Twitter? It’s a great platform what what you describe . . .

  5. Charles Tsai
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing. Never thought education stories can go viral but it seems a lot of people care very passionately about this issue.

  • Read Sam’s Books