Narrative pedagogy 2: Maintaining the suspense

Humans have been telling stories since time immemorial. Narrative is built into our collective memory, and is part of what makes us human. Stories are compelling. Every story is a lesson, and every lesson can be a story. Teachers can learn a lot from the techniques writers use. In this short series on what I will call 'narrative pedagogy'* I want to explore some of the storytelling techniques that can be adapted for use in education. Yesterday I wrote about a technique called Interrupted Routine. Here's number 2 in the series:

Closely aligned to Interrupted Routine is another narrative device known as the Red Herring. It's a technique beloved of crime and suspense writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie that is used to keep the reader guessing.  Red herrings are clues that lead the reader in the wrong direction. They are distracted from the real villain, and focuses for a while on other characters. Similarly to Interrupted Routine, the Red Herring maintains interest, because the reader is now engaged in trying to work out 'whodunnit' or what happened.

Warning - Spoiler Alert!
In a recent episode of  the zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead, Glenn, who is one of the central characters, is standing atop a trailer trying to escape a seething mass of zombie 'Walkers'. His companion falls and takes Glenn with him. The next shot we see is a close-up of Glenn screaming in pain and horror as blood gushes everywhere. The audience is shocked. They believe he has been torn to pieces by the herd of Walkers. Confusion reigns as everyone tries to process what they have witnessed. Social media goes crazy with speculation and fans try to resolve their confusion. Is Glenn really dead? No-one knows for sure. But everyone keeps watching to find out.

It isn't until 3 episodes later that it is revealed in additional scenes that Glenn falls under his companion, and that it is in fact his companion's body that has been torn apart, not his. He subsequently wriggles free and under the trailer, and escapes to safety. So the first scenes were just a red herring to convince us all that Glenn had died.

I have occasionally used the red herring technique in my own teaching. I inform my students that I'm going to tell them a deliberate lie at some point during my lecture. Now their interest in piqued. They listen more attentively during the lecture to see if they can detect the falsehood. Sometimes the lie is real, but sometimes there is no lie at all. Except of course for the red herring - that I promised I would tell a lie at some point in the lecture.

Both the interrupted routine and red herring devices are used to focus interest and also to sustain the momentum of the story telling. Red herrings can keep students in suspense, or even in a state of confusion - something that may or may not be pedagogically desirable. The longer students are kept in suspense, the more they will be interested in what comes next (well, up to a point - you need to decide). I sometimes use a rather dangerous demonstration in the classroom to explore visual perception. It's potentially dangerous, because if it goes wrong, I'm likely to be injured and there will be blood. It involves a can of baked beans and my index finger!

The video above shows a version I recorded several years ago during a lecture. Because of the perceived danger, and the suspense over whether I will actually go through with the trick or not, you will see that the students are totally focused. When I eventually complete the trick, there is surprise and confusion. How did I manage to do it without getting injured? They discuss it for some time afterwards, trying to figure out how the trick worked. But it is just a red herring. There is no danger, because it is a sort of illusion. They now need to think about whether they actually saw what happened, or something else entirely. Or... was the whole thing just a red herring?

If used appropriately, red herrings can also encourage students to sort good information from bad information.

Photo by Daniel Hollister on Flickr

*Yes, I know that the term 'narrative pedagogy' has been used before, but in other contexts. My use signifies how storytelling devices can be applied to everyday pedagogy.

Creative Commons License
Narrative pedagogy 2: Maintaining the suspense by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Martin King said…
Super story and the video is a super example of super teaching Steve .... you've really got my mental juices flowing.

Steve Wheeler said…
Good to hear Martin. Stick with me - there's more! ;)
I really like your ways of teaching, Steve! I wonder if that red herring technique could be translated into eLearning.
martin king said…
John - it was all on-line and naturally translated as elearning .. I had to think about how he did that trick .. great stimulating stuff.

I think we over do the concerns about eLearning.
Martin King said…

There is a dark side magic!

Psychology and physiology presents "buttons" to press - a good educator can use these buttons to give great teaching\learning experiences.

Magicians use these same buttons in their "magic" distraction, cause effect construction, patterns, predictability etc.

In a sense these "buttons" reveal a certain programmability in human nature that can be exploited for good and bad.

Now .... many of the big tech companies are aware of this and are providing their AI with the tools to press these buttons ... those with fingers in the education space see the potential of these buttons to achieve "learning outcomes" - it all sounds good to education management - automated, efficient, effective a managed learning.

How programmable are we?

Its also fascinating to see contemporary AI using natural human methods - trial and error discovery rather than programming.

The 21st century is going to be fascinating as both machines and people cross the uncanny valley ... will we meet in the middle?

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