Storytelling – The cave

telling stories

There is a lot written today about the power of storytelling and how it can help persuade, influence and of course educate. Stories come in many shapes and sizes, sometimes they are true, but might be embellished, sometimes they are not true but include powerful messages hidden in the form of metaphor or allegory.

The simplest definition of a story is that “one thing happens in consequence of another,” and it can engage, motivate and inspire. But cognitively the brain is working very hard forming connections, asking questions, creating images and helping offer up opinion.

“If you want your children to be smart, tell them stories. If you want them to be brilliant, tell them more stories.” Albert Einstein.

Below is an allegory, arguably one of the most important in the whole of western philosophy, but its message for educators and students is sometimes lost. It’s called Plato’s cave, read it carefully, thinking about what it might mean.

Plato’s cave
Plato caveAlthough Plato is the author, it is Socrates who is the narrator talking to Plato’s elder brother Glaucon.
The story told is of a group of people who from birth have been chained up in a cave with their heads fixed in one direction so they can only look forward. They face a cave wall on which they can see moving images, shadows that they believe to be reality. Socrates’s explains that when the prisoners, because that is what they are, talk to each other they discuss the shadows as if they were real. But they are an illusion, created by shadows of objects and figures played out in front of a fire, manipulated by the puppeteers.

Socrates goes on to say that one of the prisoners breaks free of his chains and is forced to turn around and look at the fire, the light hurts the prisoner’s eyes but as they adjust, he can see the fire and the puppets he had believed to be real. He doesn’t want to go any further fearing what it might bring but once more is forced to go towards the mouth of the cave and into the blazing sunlight.

At first, he can only look at the reflections because as with the firelight the sun is too bright but as his eyes adjust once more, he finally looks at the sun, only then “is he able to reason about it” and think what it could mean. His thoughts are interrupted by the sorrow he feels for his fellow prisoners who have not seen what he has, have not learned the truth. So, he goes back into the cave to tell them everything. But when the prisoners look at him, they see a man stumbling, strained, no longer able to see in the dark cave. But worse when he begins to explain they think him dangerous because what he tells them is so different to what they know.

The prisoners do not want to be free, the effort is too great, the pain and apparent disability sufficient to stop them trying. They are content in their own world of ignorance and will fight anyone who wants to change that.

But what does that mean?
The answer of which should be, well what do you think it means? But sometimes you just don’t have time for that answer so here is one interpretation, it’s worth pointing out there are many.

  • The puppeteers are those in power or authority. They prefer it if people don’t ask questions, remain content and are not causing trouble.
  • The fire is knowledge and wisdom.
  • The prisoners are society.
  • The escaped prisoner is the student. The student who through education escapes and finds answers.
  • The person that frees the student and drags him towards the light is the teacher.

If we put this all together, it gives us an insight into learning that has remained unchanged since Plato wrote the Republic in which this story sits in 514a–520a.

Learning is not easy, it can be difficult and hard work. Some people are happy to remain as they are, ignorant, after all it’s not pleasant having your beliefs challenged and finding out that what you thought was true in fact isn’t. Teachers can help take you towards knowledge and learning but you need to want it for yourself, and once you have knowledge you can’t go back to what you were before, education will have changed you forever.

To find out more about the power of stories watch this video – The rules to telling a story by the Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story,” “WALL-E”)

Plato’s cave at the movies

The Matrix and Plato’s Cave – Neo meets Morpheus and explains he is a slave

The Truman Show – Truman shows bravery by going towards the light

 

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For example – how to get higher marks in written questions

MORE-EXAMPLES

It’s great to be knowledgeable, but to pass an exam knowing the answer is often not enough. Questions set by examiners seek to do far more than identify people who “know stuff,” they want the student to prove understanding and that they can use the knowledge, not simply reproduce it.

The knowing doing gap

There is sometimes a disconnect between what you know and what you can explain. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know what I want to say but can’t find the words” or “what more can I say, I feel like I am just repeating the same point”. This may be the result of a lack of understanding and simply requires more study (see Eureka I understand understanding) or it might be that you just need a better way to think about what you’re trying to do.

Analyse, Explain – clarify – Example e.g.e.g.e.g.

Imagine you’re faced with a question, it asks that you, provide a possible  explanation as to why we have seen a fall in stock market prices in recent weeks and what impact this might have on  economic growth in the UK . Often the first problem is knowing where to start, below are a few ideas that might help.

You will need a few headings to help give structure, these can often be found in the question, here for example we could use, Why stock markets might fall and Impact on the UK. Then under each heading think about analysing, explaining, clarifying and giving examples. These are not headings; they are to help expand on what you have been asked to do and give a perspective from which to think.

  1. First you analyse – If you analyse something you break it up into smaller parts so as to gain a better understanding. For example going back to the question, perhaps we should identify exactly by how much the stock market has fallen, over what period, what other events were happening at the same time, do we have any theories that could help or theoretical models we could apply etc. By examining what you have found, something new and obvious may become clear.
  1. Then you explain – an explanation is an attempt to make clear what you mean. One way of doing this is by making a series of statements. So for example, if you noticed that during the period in which we had the fall in the stock market, China’s economy also slowed and oil prices fell to unprecedented levels. This might lead you to make the statement – one of the reasons for the fall in stock market prices would appear to be the slowdown in the Chinese economy and the fall in demand for oil.

A subset of explanation is clarification. Definitions are a great way to clarify exactly what something means and in what context it is being used. Here for example we might want to include a definition of economic growth.

  1. And finally the example itself, possibly one of the very best ways of explaining and a very powerful technique to demonstrate understanding.

Example “Metaphor’s forgotten sibling”. John Lyons

It may be a reference to a real world example. In the question we have to address the impact on the growth in the UK economy. If you gave an example of the last time oil prices were so low and what happened as a result you will not only be demonstrating breadth of knowledge but also moving the debate forward, suggesting perhaps that the same will happen again?

Real world examples demonstrate the complexity and unpredictability of real issues, and as such, can stimulate critical thinking.

Students learn by connecting new knowledge with their own prior knowledge and real-world experiences. Piaget et al

An example may also be a construct, something that you talk through to illustrate a point. For example, let us imagine the impact of falling oil prices on an engineering company in the West Midlands. A reduction in oil prices would result in lower transportation costs that could be passed onto customers in the form of lower prices, in turn this should increase demand.

“Examples are indispensable to the acquisition of knowledge and they appertain to the domain of intuition”. Kant

Although this blog has covered an approach to structuring written answers, it is the use of examples that for me is the most important. And if it was not obvious enough, look how many times I used examples to explain what I was trying to say …….