Tag Archives: Seven Basic Plots

Teacher Talk: Sounding Into Ears

In the early middle agesinstruction came from didactic grammarians who taught in repetitive and boring ways… the one way catechism (literally ‘to sound into ears’) by which the master instructed his pupil.” Trivium 21c p45.

When I was at school (not quite back as far as the middle ages) we had a history teacher who would ‘sound into our ears’. He told us to open our textbooks to a certain page, instructed us to copy either from our books or from the board on which he had chalked up what was written in the textbook. He would then speak the words monotonously from the text and we were expected to write at the pace by which he ‘sounded into our ears’. Unfortunately we got bored, started to misbehave, threw things at each other, threw things out of the window, including, on one occasion, a fellow pupil who, when he went flying past the window of the class below caused a bit of commotion though no lasting damage to himself. Our teacher blamed us, shouting that we were wasting our lives.

As a poacher turned gamekeeper, I am not proud of my behaviour, but I am interested as to why we didn’t present passive ears waiting to be sounded into. I could pay attention, for example I would sit and listen to the historian AJP Taylor on television as he, without the visual gimmicks of today’s TV historians, stood and delivered lectures to camera. The great AJP was a master storyteller and he gave me a lifelong interest in history. It is not the ‘sounding into ears’ that is boring, it is how a teacher goes about it.

In ‘Why Don’t Students Like School‘ Daniel T Willingham writes: “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories.” (p51). Willingham suggests structuring lessons from stories based on the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications and character. This is a good place to start but I think it is also worth looking at the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘. The author, Christopher Booker, spent years researching the idea that there are only seven stories: ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Voyage and Return’, ‘Rebirth’ and the classical narratives of ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’. I believe even a short 5 minute presentation following one of these structures could enthrall the most despondent of classes.

For those who do not feel comfortable with ‘storytelling’ structuring their talk and yet agree with Willingham that lessons based around conflict work particularly well, the art of rhetoric is the perfect option. In Trivium 21c I explore rhetoric in more detail but the following should give a flavour and a great way to structure and think about teacher talk. What follows is a glimpse at ‘the five parts of rhetoric’ as used in Ancient Greek education:

1. Invention Firstly you think about the content which you intend to teach and you draw together your ‘evidence’.  Then you establish your Ethos, your credibility, not your street cred but why you are a suitable person to teach this particular content (this is probably part of an ongoing dialogue where you communicate about why the subject you teach is important). Next you think about how to create the right mood, the shared emotion or Pathos between you and the class. You should pay particular attention to creating the right emotional charge at certain points in the lesson. Finally Logos, which is your use of reasoning and logic, and models critical thinking.

2. Arrangement: The order in which you present your talk. For this the basic six parts of oratory are useful: 1. The Exordium or ‘hook’: something that catches the class’s attention but is also central to your narrative. 2. Prothesis: you present the history of what your are talking about. 3. Partitio or division: you make the points which are uncontroversial and then the points which are contested. 4. Confirmatio or proof: you state your thinking. 5. confutatio or refutation: you refute any opposing argument 6. Peroration You sum up the arguments and leave an impression with your class about why the content matters and should matter to them.

3. Style: Low, medium or grand? Low style is ‘down with the kids’, use sparingly. Medium is probably the best for day to day teaching, but every now and then it might be good to unleash the ‘grand style’ of great oratory to lift the class to a higher level.

4. Memory If your talk is drawn from your natural memory, rather than always reading from a textbook, your credibility is enhanced. If you use powerpoint it should be your tool rather than you being its slave. Anything on your whiteboard should illustrate and not lead your talk. N.B: Natural memory which is ‘knowing your stuff’, is better than artificial memory, which is more like an actor remembering a speech.

5. Delivery: voice, gesture, posture, use of space. Without these performance skills being used to the full, the most brilliantly thought through examples of teacher talk can fall flat.

Put all this together and teacher talk can be something that enthralls a class and helps them learn and remember what you want them to learn and remember. Sounding into ears can be a very effective way of teaching if you do it effectively.