Sleep-Drunk Commentary

The comment I left last night – semi-coherent after a bunch of sleepless nights – over at Students 2.0:

I’ve lost my mind a bit lately, and I’m certainly losing sleep, sensing some grand unifying theory creeping behind me, creeping behind every high school discipline, behind everything I’ve ever learned or taught.

It isn’t design.

This design thing is just too abstract, I think. It’s awesome but too easy for me to toss out there on my blog and retreat behind, simply because I own a copy of Photoshop and know how to use grids. But what do the teachers who don’t have any training, amateur or otherwise, or own functional software do?

I’ve realized now that more important than design – what, in fact, consumes design – is storytelling.

Design (a term which means a lot of different things) concerns itself so much with the placement of things, how to order a set of charts to most effectively impact an audience, how to compose the people in a photograph to tell the most compelling story.

But there’s always the story.

Storytelling is the umbrella above design. It’s harder than design and simultaneously accessible to every single person on Earth, young and old, regardless of education or station or toolbox. It’s been around since forever, the setting up of heros and villains (your “characters”), the establishing of a guiding goal (your “narrative”), the careful positioning of challenges between them and their goal (your “obstacles.”)

My point is that, if you know how to tell a precise, articulate, and moving story, if you know how to build intrigue about a character in the first act, how to lull your audience into a happy, contented place in the second act, only to punch them precisely in the gut in the third, you have this fantastic skill which applies absolutely EVERYwhere.

Essay writing. Music composition. Graphic Design. Videography. Salesmanship. Teaching. Especially teaching. Especially these days. This list keeps building in my head during hours when I oughtta be sleeping.

Storytelling is the skill. Everything else is just its instrument.

I don’t know where this is taking me and, yeah, this blog kinda changes themes on a dime. Consider yourself served.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. At the end of the day, everything we do — if we do it well and with unapologetic passion — comes down to sitting around a ‘
    ‘campfire’ telling stories.

    Or, as you said (and perhaps one of the finest lines I’ve read from you in a long time, amongst many that grab my attention):

    “Storytelling is the skill. Everything else is just its instrument.”


    I do hold true to the premise that ‘design problem solving’ is a skill that must become fundamental in all educational settings. But design — or technology or roller skate tuning — is but an instrument to something more epic: storytelling.

    And frankly, it’s profoundly human, unapologetically universal. And there is no ‘beta’ or 2.0 version needed. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

    As my head nods up and down tonight, Dan, let me say: “Well phrased and well provoked.”

  2. Design – particularly information design – is the only way I know to bring storytelling into mathematics. That enthusiasm won’t recede even a little as I explore its parent skill.

  3. Couldn’t agree more – story-telling is everything. If you really can’t sleep and want something to get your teeth into have a look at “When Metaphors Bewitch, Analogies Illustrate, And Logic Fails: Controversies Over The Use Of Metaphoric Reasoning In Philosophy And Science”.

    That’s a bit of a mouthful and I don’t normally read this stuff but Chapter II is superb – it’s all about the contest between the idea of teaching as “transmitting idea objects” and “teaching as guiding” – Protagoras describes teaching as a form of motion, which is just delightful.

  4. A Whole New Mind, thanks JD! I knew I’d read something that totally linked in to what Dan was saying here…but it just wouldn’t come off the tip of my tongue.

    It’s definitely worth checking out, Dan, if you haven’t already. One of the arguments is that storytelling (and the right-brained people that go along with it) will become essential to selling a product, because the differences in cost / function / aesthetic appeal are going to become so minor. The main difference between products will be the story behind them.

  5. I still think that there is a particular language to film making that only a few will pick up just by osmosis.

    If you want to make good videos you have to be aware of certain film language in the same way that print design requires adherence to certain principles.