David Warlick Ryann Warlick Martin Warlick
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Being Understood Requires Context…

(cc) Photo by Harold Neal

Seth Godin asked this morning

If you want to drive yourself crazy, read the live twitter comments of an audience after you give a talk, even if it’s just to ten people.

You didn’t say what they said you said.

You didn’t mean what they said you meant.

He follows this with two paragraphs saying, basically, that humans are not so good a communicating understanding — that human language is less than perfectly clear, no matter “…your affect, your style and your confidence…”

I would suggest that a big part of the misunderstanding, that I agree we should expect, is about perspective. The words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that we hear or read are all colored by our own frames of reference. It is why context is such a critical part of speaking and teaching. Our words must not merely tell our audience or class what to believe, but also create the common perspective that makes that belief discoverable and valuable.

This is what frustrates me about teachers and public speakers who simply get up and tell us their facts and opinions — even with the most interesting personalities and greatest passion. Ideas must carry with them a compelling context that the listener or reader can’t help but adopt. There has to be a story.

This, I think, is why I was so warmed by the great compliment paid to me by Josh Alen, when he tweeted,

Was watching @dwarlick’s #k12online closing keynote. Thought he was losing me during garden example then *bam* it all made sense. Wow. ((Alen, Josh. “Was Watching….” Josh Allen’s Twitter Feed. 3 Dec 2010. Web. 10 Dec 2010. .))

The best way, I believe, to create these sorts of learning pyrotechnics, the BAM of understanding, is with stories.


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  • http://www.you-can-teach-writing.com Linda Aragoni

    I was working with a prospective business owner with a background in education. She said to me, “You must have been a wonderful teacher: you always have a story.”

    I tell that story to show I am not anti-story. I do, however, know that the stories can become disassociated from their point.

    My mother was a lay preacher noted for her every-day illustrations. I cannot tell you how many times someone who knew her has asked me, “Are you the daughter who polished the red shoes or are you the one who washed the rug?”

    It’s far easier to keep the story tied to the point in writing. In speaking and in teaching, it is much tougher.

  • Frank Hannan

    Daniel Pink had something to say about the power of stories and how they provide a sense of meaning to the message.

    Historical Fiction is one of the best tools I have for teaching history. Students have a context in which events are happening, usually with a character not too dissimilar to them in terms of age. They remember events and more importantly the significance of events when they are presented within the context of a story.

  • http://www.shift2future.com/ Brian Kuhn

    How true! I have been capturing video during my classroom visits of late. These video snippets are great tools for telling stories and bringing the characters alive for an audience. Story telling is such an important way to communicate ideas and concepts. When you listen to a good story teller, you really recognize how good they are – they have you captivated!

  • Doug Alexander

    I would say that, going further in, that being well understood not only requires creating context, it requires creating relevant context, which is to say that it requires an understanding of the listener’s perspective. You might not tell same story to a convention of teachers as to a convention of programmers. Ferinstance.

  • Katherine Moran

    I definitely agree with the value of telling stories while teaching. I also, however, have realized the value of the stories that students reciprocate after I tell my own. If students respond with their own stories that seem unrelated to the lesson or reflect misunderstanding, I know I need to reteach the lesson because the connection was not made. However, few things are more rewarding than a truly relevant story provided by a child. The story is evidence of the feeling, “Yes, I get this! And it’s relevant to my life!”

  • Katherine Moran

    I agree about the value of storytelling in education. I have also found the stories with which students reciprocate exceptionally valuable as a learning tool. If students’ stories reflect misunderstandings or seem unrelated to the lesson, I know I need to reteach and more clearly connect material. However, few things are more rewarding than a student’s story that seems to shout, “I get this! And it makes sense in my life!”

    • Rose Tran


      So true! I had not thought of using storytelling as a form of assessment. I have been missing so many opportunities. Thank you for this insight.

    • Rose Tran


      I agree with your use of storytelling as a form of assessment. I have not thought to use it in such a manner. Thank you for the insight!

  • http://www.richgamesforlearning.com David Brown

    I have had this thought many times, the idea that what you say can mean something completely different to someone else. Like those conversations you have with people where at the beginning of the sentence you realize that the person has already decided what you’re going to say. We are very limited in our ability to communicate verbally, perhaps we need to get better not at communicating but at listening.

  • http://www.techlearninglab.blogspot.com Rachel Mangum

    Daniel Willingham has a great book called Why Students Don’t Like School that talks about the two characteristics he believes all great teachers have. One of them is that they connect with people and the other one is that they know how to explain things in a way that others understand. He references story telling amoung other things as a way to connect and to explain. It’s a great book that is great for anyone interested in the brain and learning.

  • Rose Tran

    Storytelling draws the listener to you and when you weave a story and a concept together artfully the ideas seap into their minds and stick! I have utilized storytelling in my lessons and understand the value that it holds. My philosophy is that when my students are listening to me, laughing with me, they are attendind to the lesson at hand. In my lessons, I aim for engagement and relevance. When students are interested in the activities and understand why this bit of information is important to them, they will always remember your words and your story.

Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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