Narrative pedagogy 4: Connecting the dots

Teachers can learn a lot from the techniques writers use. In this short series I'm exploring some of the storytelling techniques that can be adapted for use in education. The first post featured a technique called Interrupted Routine; the second discussed Red Herrings in narrative. Number 3 in the series was about Deus ex machina (God out of the machine or 'an act of God'). Number 4 is Chekhov's Gun.

The Russian author Anton Chekhov believed that every element in a story should have a purpose. He offered the example of a writer describing a gun hanging over a door. He argued that the gun must be fired later in the narrative, otherwise it serves no function in the story. In other words, if something is not essential to the story, don't include it. It's a minimalist literary rule.

There are various instances of the Chekhov's Gun principle in popular fiction. In the first episode of the Walking Dead zombie apocalypse TV series, Rick Grimes takes a grenade from a dead soldier. We don't see the grenade again until several episodes later, when he uses it to blow an escape hole in a pane of bullet proof glass. Some might assume that the writers needed a means of get Rick to escape and so back-engineered the first episode to include the grenade. But I like to think it was just an example of brilliant story telling.

In Rowling's Harry Potter saga, there are numerous applications of Chekhov's Gun. Notably, Ron Weasley's pet rat Scabbers is introduced in the first book. Ron tries to turn the rat a different colour using a spell his brothers have taught him, but he fails. We don't know why the spell fails, and this element in the story seems somewhat irrelevant. The story moves on to other matters. It is only later in another Harry Potter book that we discover the reason why the spell failed. Scabbers is in fact a wizard who has taken on the form of the rat to hide. Comedians often use the same principle of Chekhov's Gun in their routines. They introduce a seemingly random topic early on in their set, and it seems there is no relevance. Later, toward the end of their set, they revisit the theme, and the entire narrative connects. It's a very effective method to help the audience join the dots.

How might we use the principle of Chekhov's Gun in education? Teachers can introduce elements of a lesson that are intriguing, but at first have no meaning. Later, these same elements can be revisited, and principles learnt around them. The approach helps students to connect together the elements of the lesson or lecture and to see a more holistic view. In language teaching, the teacher may speak a phrase at the start of the lesson, move on to develop the lesson theme and then revisit the phrase during the plenary. In a science or history education, an object may be placed at the front of the class, and not used until right at the end of the lesson. Used appropriately, it can be a very effective method to prepare students' minds for when an important principle or concept needs to be conveyed. By the same token, teachers should only include in a lesson those elements that are absolutely necessary.

Photo by England on Flickr

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Narrative pedagogy 4: Connecting the dots by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Yeah, that's a fantastic way of making sure the students find the learning relevant - they can apply it immediately!
Unknown said…
Hi Steve - thanks for the great series on narrative pedagogy. This article in particular bring to mind the most memorable (let's be honest...really the only memorable) lecture I had during college. I was taking a rocket propulsion a course taught by a former NASA engineer.

He entered the classroom and informed the class that he was going to prove that the NASA moon landing was, in fact, a hoax. That it was mathematically impossible to have pulled off. He then proceeded to apply all of the theories and calculations that we had been learning throughout the semester. And after 40 minutes he arrived at the answer that left everyone in the class dazed and confused. He had just proved that it was mathematically impossible. What did this mean? How could it be? I mean...he had worked for NASA. If anyone would know, he would. But...?

He let us simmer on that for about 3 minutes. Puzzled looks filled the room. Then he asked if he had missed anything. After another 60 seconds, a kid in the back of the room timidly raised his hand and asked "What about staging?"

The professor looked at him and said "Thank you. Staging. Staging is what made it possible for us to make it to the moon. And that's what you'll learn in the next class period." Mic drop. He walked out of class 15 minutes early.

Looking back at that lecture through the lens of narrative pedagogy as you describe it, he made incredible use of all of the devices you described: Interrupted the Routing, Maintained Suspense, Problem Based Learning, and Connecting the Dots. Incredible memorable.

Thanks for this great series! Definitely gives me some ideas to incorporate into the next training I produce.
Steve Wheeler said…
Now that really is joining up the dots! It's a great story, and I wonder if I might even use it in my forthcoming book (with due acknowledgement to you of course!). If you are willing to let me use your story and send me your name, I would be most grateful! Thanks for stopping by and posting such a great comment.

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