“F–k The Exposition”

Sorry. It isn’t my quote but, seriously, can anyone do better than that for the mandate of the 21st-century social studies teacher? Put it on a mug.

Highly recommended: Emily Nussbaum’s profile of David Simon, creator of fine teevee products like The Wire, Generation Kill, and now Treme, his show about New Orlean’s jazz musicians three months after Hurricane Katrina which debuted on Sunday:

“F–k the exposition,” he says gleefully as we go back into the bar. “Just be. The exposition can come later.” He describes a theory of television narrative. “If I can make you curious enough, there’s this thing called Google. If you’re curious about the New Orleans Indians, or ‘second-line’ musicians–you can look it up.” The Internet, he suggests, can provide its own creative freedom, releasing teachers writers from having to overexplain, allowing history to light the characters from within.

Treme‘s pilot, true to Simon’s challenging aesthetic, dumps the viewer into an unfamiliar-but-compelling environment full of unfamiliar-but-compelling people and trusts that, because the whole thing is so damn compelling, you’ll be back the next week to learn more.

Simon outsources the teacher’s usual role as classroom expositor to the Internet while claiming for himself the role as classroom storyteller, turning the unknown into something challenging, enticing, and compelling.

Tell me that division of labor isn’t ideal. Tell me you couldn’t dedicate a career to that mission statement. Tell me you couldn’t do it for social studies or science or even math.

BTW. Also highly recommended: a memo (allegedly) from David Mamet (another first-rate storyteller) to his writing staff.

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. We need to start calling this The David Cox Moment. I’m drafting a post right now addressing this very question and it’s going not-well. Let’s try this:

    What are you teaching tomorrow? Why did [x] happen, if [x] is a historical event? Why was [x] created, if [x] is a tool like coordinate graphing or trigonometry?

    Now how was [x] created? How did [x] happen? Can you take the conclusion [x] — this tool or event — and trace backwards through the steps that led people to [x]?

    Now, can you put your students into the mindset of those people at that time? Can you give them a challenge such that they’ll encounter the same challenges and obstacles that those people did before arriving at … [x]! Can you help them arrive at “an inductive conclusion that is both surprising and satisfying?”

    What skill set does a teacher need to stop being the expositor and become the storyteller? They need to be good at telling stories.

  2. Oh, they just need to be good at telling stories? My bad. Disregard previous question.

    I think you’re getting at the heart of something I’ve been wrestling with for a while. In fact, when I wrote our department’s pacing guide, I was attempting to sequence things in such a way that one could recognize the limits of the current tools and see the need to invent new ones. (ie. You mean we can’t subtract using only whole numbers? Then let’s invent, let’s see, how about integers?)

    Seems like the Internet may be the problem and solution all at the same time. How do you put your students in the mindset of people who didn’t have all this cheap and easy information right at their fingertips?

  3. As a long-time David Simon fan and teacher (and lurker), thanks for putting these pieces together, Dan.

    This reminds me of two things:

    (1) As a student, I was always fond of teachers that told stories. My chemistry teacher, Mr. Ryan, was especially good at this. He had a story about blowing out the bottoms of soda bottles (which were filled with water) and connected it to surface tension and molecular forces. I also loved Mr. Manger’s stories during my middle school science class, although I didn’t learn much science from them.

    (2) Dan Willingham (who writes over at the Britannica blogs) talks about research that supports this idea in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” (recommended). He has a chapter entitled Why do students remember everything that’s on television and forget everything I say? in which he describes this principle in relation to human memory. In short, research shows that stories are ‘psychologically privileged’ for the human mind. That is, we remember stuff better through stories than through other ways of learning. Willingham even suggests that lesson plans should follow the “four C’s”: Causality, Conflict, Complication, and Character.

    That said, easier said than done. Causality can come from the content, but it can also come from the teacher’s actions and words. How many times have you seen a teacher say one thing and do another? (I know I’ve been that teacher before.) Causality FAIL.

    Short point long, I agree and the research supports it. And The Wire is the best TV show ev-ar.

    @David: The Internet isn’t cheap and easy information. It certainly may be cheap, but it’s usually difficult to wade through the BS, and that wading requires a discerning eye and lots of background knowledge.

  4. To be contrarian, how does this apply–if at all–to foreign language classes? I ask in part b/c I’m interested how true this thesis is for college level education. I’ve often hear analogies drawn between math and language. To the extent that’s true, is it reasonable to not define terms and explain their inter-relation? This seems almost like the most important key to leveraging the Internet.

  5. This post could fuel my brain for a month.

    As for: “What skill set does a teacher need to stop being the expositor and become the storyteller? They need to be good at telling stories.”

    I’m not sure I’d go that far. What IS needed, though, are at least some of the *elements* of good storytelling.

    The best storytellers may have MANY skills, but the one that makes the most difference (I think) is the ability to create the right space for the audience/participant’s brain to do some heavy lifting. Whether it’s the abstractness of comic book art that encourages you to project yourself into the character, or the musician that doesn’t fill all the space between notes… the good storytellers (filmmakers and novelists alike) know where to lower the resolution so that our brain cannot HELP but fill in some of the missing info. These people and/or experiences *force* us, nearly against our will, to use our imagination. And THAT is where the magic lives :)

    And that absolutely takes practice and skill to develop timing/pacing… to know when to wait a beat before revealing the next thing. There are many ways to do this, and sometimes it’s just plain old knowing how to ask questions and wait for the answers.

    I teach horses these days more than I teach people, but the most dramatic breakthroughs in horse training have come from the radical act giving our horses a choice whether they want to pay attention and learn. The goal is to make my horses curious and captivated by the experience of learning and–ultimately–performing in ways that make THEM feel like they kick ass.

    A 1,000 pound animal can often be coerced into obedience (if we’re lucky), but never forced into brilliance. For *that*, they must have the freedom to choose whether to work with us and for THAT, we must be more compelling than the horse version of Facebook: the pasture with their herdmates. The trick is in using as few extrinsic rewards as possible while (sneakily) creating an environment where intrinsic rewards can kick in. We must keep their attention and give just enough of a hint so that they can stay engaged.

    For horses, as I imagine with far too many students, they’ve often spent way to much time being micromanaged — the “exposition”… being told every last thing they need to learn whatever it is we’re trying to teach. The new approach is about NOT telling them, but offering hints and clues and suggestions and holding back and giving them the space and the time to offer an idea and test a theory. (and sometimes, that “theory” is about how they can get the human to do something interesting).

    Too LITTLE information (or info withheld too long) and they simply give up and walk away out of boredom or frustration. Too MUCH revealed too quickly and the motivation/interest drains away and while they might stick around, they’re phoning-it-in.

    Learning to adjust/tweak/tune this sense of timing for hints and reveals… I think that is the attribute of storytelling that helps me most in a learning environment, equine or human!

    It’s been fascinating to try this new approach with horse learning, but when it works it as though a giant switch as been thrown in their brain, and the breakthroughs are virtually overnight. This video does not show how I did it, but shows the result with my newest horse:

    (and as a matter of fact, yes, I CAN relate any topic to something about horses ;)

  6. Kathy: Learning to adjust/tweak/tune this sense of timing for hints and reveals… I think that is the attribute of storytelling that helps me most in a learning environment, equine or human!

    The question that keeps me up at night: is that sense of timing innate or learned? And if it’s learned, if you can teach it to a horse trainer or a musician or a teacher, how do you teach it?

    I despair of reaching a point in my work with teachers where I find a particular skill to be simply unteachable or where a set of actions reduces itself to the proposition that you either have it or you don’t.

    I recall now a quote from Stephen King that makes a certain amount of depressing sense:

    King: I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

    Rather said: there’s only so much we can do here.

  7. @Gilbert

    I’ve been thinking about this for some time, since I primarily teach foreign language (to teenagers). Math and language are quite similar. Learning them requires adopting systems that you can use for new problems. The trouble is that math flows directly out of reality, while the nature of language structures is in a sense arbitrary (certainly from the perspective of an unmotiveate high school student). Dan can get a long way with careful socratic questioning. I recently saw the area of circles taught essentially via observation and good questioning – how on earth to get there with German cases or French irregular verbs?

    I’m not there yet with language, except for languages that the pupils have massive exposure to (second language as opposed to foreign language). Here the teacher can ask questions and help pupils systematise their observations. (See grace’s comment on previous post). But with languages where they have no observations beyond what we can do in the classroom? I don’t know. One route could be to turn the pupils into grammarians and get them to derive rules from texts instead of presenting them with grammatical structures. This would involve devoting far more time to grammar than we tend to do now. Another might involve a more old-fashioned approach, where pupils learned a great deal by rote without much explanation given. Later, they could systematise what they already ‘know’ and derive general rules.

    @ Dan
    Of course timing can be learned, it’s just really hard….

    @ Kathy
    Thanks for your writing here. It’s just that … giving our pupils a choice about whether they want to learn seems so scary…

  8. @Dan — I believe we *can* learn to have this timing. (“believe” being the key word since I lack any proof.)

    Consider where you were a year ago, two years ago, five years ago. Your ‘resolution’ for teaching has increased. Your ‘bit depth’ for processing the response of your students has increased. I’ve seen many a teacher go through the progression:

    1) “I say what I’m going to say regardless of what the student’s facial expression, body language, questions, etc.”

    2) I adjust what I’m going to say based on whether they are “definitely getting it” or “definitely not getting it”

    3) I adjust with subtle changes based on subtle feedback from the students.


    When I began with my horses, all I could adjust for were the most gross examples of behavior: doing it or not doing it. I had a bit-depth of 1: on/off, right/wrong. Later, I began to have, say, an 8-bit experience… 256 different shades of behavior.

    With those differences, I also needed to learn a matching set of possible responses and the flexibility to self-assess how they were working. At first they were mechanical and with MUCH latency… I wouldn’t know if they were working for quite some time, and often only with external assessment from another observer (or what we call “eyes on the ground”). But eventually my resolution began to increase.

    I believe this is no different from improving expertise in virtually ANYTHING. It is always about continually increasing our resolution, and is achieved through a balance of challenge matched with new knowledge + skill, and what the performance experts call “deliberate practice.” We NEED to find ways to offer teachers a chance to learn and practice *the right things.*

    Not that different from how one becomes a chess master. Or a martial arts expert. Or a horse “whisperer”. What once looked like magic (or at least innate talent) begins to look more like not just time-on-task, but time-on-the-RIGHT-task.

    My sister-in-law is a Sommelier. For me, wine is indeed a 1-bit experience (red or white). At one time, hers was too. Now she can distinguish all those (b.s. I still think) subtleties. She *learned* this. She studied this. She practiced this. She took tests on making these distinctions. She was not born with any particular talent for this, and in the beginning… not even an interest. But the more her resolution grew, the more *interesting* wine became. Now it is her passion.

    If this is viewed as increasing a teacher’s resolution for both the feedback of students *and* the possibility for responses, yes, we can teach this. As you’ve suggested in the past, in our books we are doing some of this with ZERO direct feedback from our learners, based on the assumption that we can capture 80% of what is likely to happen in a classroom guided by someone like you, and then do our best to “flatten” that into a 2D page. A pathetic imitation of an awesome class experience, but in part compensated for by the fact that each individual learner is given the time needed for their own unique brain to fill in the spaces we tried to create and inspire.

    As to *how* to teach this… well, yeah, I really don’t know. But again to paraphrase YOU–figuring out what the problem really is matters deeply, and I think you and your co-conspirators are converging on a few key tools/skills that could make a huge impact on learning.

    People like you make me optimistic about the future. Do not let up.

  9. For more specifics on screenwriting and directing, especially about showing a story instead of telling it, see On Film-Making by Alexander Mackendrick (edited by Paul Cronin.)

    From Martin Scorsese’s forward:

    He knew that is was about acting and editing, action and words. And that more than anything else, it was about practice. Theories are fine, but practice is everything.

    This book – this invaluable book – is the work of a lifetime, from a man who was passionately devoted to his craft and his art, and who then devoted himself to transferring his knowledge and his experience to his students. And now it’s available to all of us. What a gift.

  10. Here’s a confession: I became a storyteller because I didn’t always understand the math, and I needed to tell a story that made sense of it first for me, and then for my students. I’m not going to say I was any good, but this is a question I have spent quite a bit of time exploring professionally over the past few months (although I keep getting sidetracked by more concrete and manageable things, like deadlines). How do we help teachers first see, and then tell, the story of their course?

    I suspect that as humans we understand narrative better than exposition– case in point being that hilarious moment that becomes a dull series of events when you try to recount it and ultimately have to explain away with a lame “you really just had to be there.”

    I don’t think a teacher can tell the story without fully understanding exactly what you laid out, Dan and David, in comments 2 and 3: what came before? What comes after? Why does this all matter? How does it affect everything else we do? And why does it just make sense this way?

    First, we all need to understand this (and, from my recent work with math majors, I’m not sure what it takes for even content experts to really truly get it). Then we worry about presenting it to our students.

  11. Reading Grace’s comment I realized that there was a key point from the screenwriting analogy that might not have been caught. Period pieces (for TV or film) are often developed using quite a bit of historical research and knowledge, even if those details are just part of the costumes, scenery and asides; even if they ultimately choose to change or distort history for the sake of the story.

    From my formal undergraduate math experience, I got little to no history of the subject. Most of what I know, I picked up myself out of interest. I suspect the same might be true for many math teachers. To that end, here are two excellently researched math/history books from good authors that have been highly recommended to me:

    Mathematics in Western Culture by Morris Kline
    Mathematics and Its History by John Stillwell

    Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of how to tell a story rather than a dry narrative in class, but maybe it’ll help with the equivalent of background research.

  12. @Gilbert

    Considering we all learn our first language primarily through observation (induction), it would seem that learning a second language could be inductive as well. I’ve learned two second languages inductively (and one non-inductively), so to speak. The first language I learned this way was German, which was taught using Total Physical Response and a textbook in high school. The first time we heard our teacher speak English was at the end of our second year. My second experience was in learning Chinese, which also involved many ways of learning outside of the classroom. As a bit of background, I took three semesters in a traditional course at USC, and have lived in Taiwan for all but three years since. I studied formally in a local language program while attending a local church. The language program was completely conducted in Chinese, as we had students from around the world. I also learned a lot of characters through singing songs at church. If you see a certain character enough times, and hear it sung repeatedly, eventually you recognize it and know what it sounds like (other than tone). At that point, you can ask someone what it means, or you can figure it out through the context. I learned a lot of language this way.

    I think that learning a second language teaches students that words can take on different meanings in different contexts. Definitions even change over time. Different languages have different amounts of rigidity in their grammar. By listening to the language, you begin to develop a sense of what “sounds right”. Krashen talks about how input is the key to learning language, and not production. So, how do we get students to listen to (or read) the language? How do we get them to listen/read actively and observe the language? Production for me is very analogous to applying formulas. Listening/reading develops the intuition, whereas practicing production allows you to respond or initiate in conversation in a smooth fashion. I’m not a second language teacher, but if I were, and I wanted to follow the advice of this blog, I would probably try to get as much input (aural and written) to the students as possible.

    From above:

    “If I can make you curious enough, there’s this thing called Google. If you’re curious about the New Orleans Indians, or ‘second-line’ musicians–you can look it up…”

    “Treme’s pilot, true to Simon’s challenging aesthetic, dumps the viewer into an unfamiliar-but-compelling environment full of unfamiliar-but-compelling people and trusts that, because the whole thing is so damn compelling, you’ll be back the next week to learn more.”

    Being dropped into a foreign country and trying to learn the language is like the definition of “unfamiliar-but-compelling”. That’s not 100% feasible in the classroom, but here’s my stab at an ideal language learning classroom. You start with some form of aural immersion (TPR, singing, cartoons, etc.). This gets the students interested and wanting to figure out what’s going on. Let them struggle to figure out how to pronounce a word. Maybe even let them try to spell it from how it sounds. Let the students try to figure out what the word means from the context. Then, give them the vocabulary list (this almost seems optional). Maybe they’ll find out that their spelling was similar to the “correct” spelling. Maybe they’re off just a bit. Maybe their spelling was representative of the actual sound of the word, but the language has little tricks that they don’t know about. An ESL student might spell “rocket” as “rockit”. They would learn that sometimes “e” sounds like a short “i”, without the teacher having to tell them. Now that I think of it, get rid of the vocabulary list completely, and just give them a passage containing many of the words they just heard. This way, they’re exposed to more authentic input, and they are reinforcing the words/structures they just listened to in the aural immersion. You could even reverse the order (aural -> written, written -> aural). Give the students an authentic text (maybe a dialog) containing words the students don’t know (give them a dictionary to look up the words). Let the students try to act it out. Then, show a video of the dialog. Now, they can see the context, and they can listen to find out if they were pronouncing things right.

    As the students pick up more vocabulary and grammar, their ability to acquire new words and structures from context will increase. I’ve only had 2.5 years of formal training in Chinese, but I’ve been using context to acquire language constantly since I stopped taking classes about 10 years ago, and I am able to translate Chinese to English professionally as part of my job.

    Finally, regarding motivation, I think the biggest joy for me in learning a language is being able to use it. But, I’ll always remember those glorious moments of ordering something in Chinese, and having the exact thing I ordered show up on the table, having someone on the phone tell me that they wouldn’t have known I wasn’t Chinese unless I told them, or telling a joke in Chinese and people actually laughing. These things help me keep pushing to learn, even now, especially when I feel like my mind is in a big, black haze when I’m speaking Chinese, which happens when I’m not sure the other person knows what I’m saying.

    P.S. If you’ve seen the video on ConcepTests by Eric Mazur (physics prof at Harvard), I think even that could be adapted for the secodn language classroom. Give the students a fake text message or e-mail from a girl to a boy, and ask (based on the context): Has the girl agreed to go to the dance? 1) Yes, but he has to get a haircut; 2) Yes, but he needs to shave; 3) No, because she doesn’t like his hair; 4) No, because he doesn’t have enough hair to need to shave (ok, this is a pretty lame example, but I made it up on the spot). Have the students vote on the answer. Let them discuss it amongst their peers. Let them vote again. Clear up any conceptual problems. Rinse and repeat.

  13. Oh yes, one thing we’ve learned the hard way about helping authors/teachers develop their story skills: the story that REALLY matters is the learner’s. The more time we spend enhancing and enlivening the story of The Topic, the less time we spend putting the learner in the heart of it.

    In “What The Best College Teachers Do”, there’s a quote something like, “By the end of the course, I want the students to feel as though they *invented* calculus…” THAT is the feeling we’re looking for, is it not? So I’d prefer to focus on the story of the learner’s *discovery* of the topic… rather than a story *about* the topic.

    Just my two cents. Not suggesting I’ve been successful, but we’ve seen how asking our authors for storyboards instead of outlines/TOCs has led to some interesting and very *wrong*(from the learner’s persective) implementations of “story”.

  14. I agree about the value of storytelling, but also agree that it helps if the story evolves from your discussion.

    IMHO, facilitating this sort of dynamic storytelling feels easy for a gifted educator and can really look easy, but it takes lots of expertise. It’s like a really good improv group. They make everything look easy and spontaneous, but they have honed their craft.

    Aside from knowing how to tell a good story, a great math teacher also needs to know:

    1) Math. She doesn’t need to know all math, but needs to know lots of math related to her topic. This includes knowing what leads up to it, what flows directly from it, and how it can be applied.

    2) How students build their understanding of the concept and common mistakes people make. Many brilliant mathematicians have no idea about how knowledge is built. They are too smart. It’s like an engineer tutoring a kid in pre-algebra. Many engineers are gifted in math and have no sense of how to help anyone move from one level of understanding to the next.

    3) How to listen. I know plenty of smart people who can tell good stories, but can’t really understand questions people ask. When someone interrupts a story with a question, some storytellers misinterpret the question and thus provide bad answers. A great teacher has to be a great listener. A bad listener won’t be able to stop students from steering straight into rocky mathematical cliffs. A bad listener can’t determine where their students are. A great teacher has to be a great listener who knows where her students are and where they are headed.

    What have I missed?