Telling Stories

by Yule Heibel on October 28, 2005

One of the more enjoyable books I’m reading right now is Roger Schank’s Coloring Outside the Lines, which I stumbled across because Zac left a comment on a post I wrote about HeyMath and his own Interactive Math site. (I need to check in with Zac more often — he finds these incredible puzzles and links… ) Schank’s other work focusses on e-learning (see here).

Anyway. In Schank’s work I found a fascinating account of how and why dreams are important. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

I’m not going to get into a Freudian analysis of why we dream; my concern here is simply with the role dreaming plays in learning. That role involves expectation validation. As part of the learning process, we seek explanations for unexpected or odd situations. If you’ve been going shopping at a certain store for years and then one day it has a closed sign in the window when you arrive, you begin testing explanations: Maybe it’s now closed on Tuesdays; maybe it’s always been closed on Tuesdays and I just never shopped here on that day; maybe the owner, who’s rather old, decided to cut back on the hours he works. Expectation validation is largely an unconscious process. While you may consciously consider some of these explanations, you probably see the closed sign and don’t give it much conscious thought beyond “I’ll come back when the store is open.”

Many times it’s not possible to test explanations consciously (we’re not aware of what our expectations really are, the issue is difficult to think about, etc.). Yet we naturally want to test some of the expectations we collected during the day. Thus, we test them in our dreams. The way our minds do this is to run “simulations” that often have little to do with reality. [details his young son’s dream of asking his sports hero to become editor-in-chief of his school newspaper, and concludes that the dream “was testing my son’s expectations about dealing with someone he respected.”] (…) The dream …allowed my son to test one aspect of his expectation. By talking about it, we could bring the issue closer to home and turn it into a memorable experience that might be useful later on.

(…) The more unusual or outrageous the dream, the more kids are compelled to seek explanations for them. [from pp.70-71]

In other words, telling stories and learning how and why they fall into expectation validation — or, Schank’s other very important point: fall into expectation failure — helps us to learn. Expectation failure is key to learning: familiarisation breeds perhaps not contempt, but certainly expectation validation. I expect the furniture to be in the same place I left it, I expect my friend to look the same as last time when I meet him for lunch today, and so on and so forth. I live in a prescripted pattern. If the expectations aren’t met, thinking kicks into a higher gear. If, on the other hand, they are, we can coast on autopilot:

When there is no expectation failure — when our friend looks exactly the same as he did all the times before — we don’t seek explanations and we don’t learn anything new.

The irony about expectations is that to acquire them, we have to abandon them. Our expectations are consistently wrong. Experiences demand that we modify or completely change previous expectations. (…)

Sometimes when children experience expectation failure, they are motivated to seek explanations for what happened on their own. Sometimes, however, expectation failure is a complicated experience that children aren’t able to deal with all by themselves. [Schank gives an example of a child not winning the “first violin” position in a school orchestra even though she was convinced that she was the best qualified.] (…) You can help your daughter eliminate the obstacle between herself and an explanation by telling a story. Rather than directly confronting her with possible theories about why she was demoted, tell an “analogous” story. [To this, she may reply that you’ve got it all wrong, that your story makes no sense in relation to her story, but she might instead begin to tell “her” story in a more detailed way.] (…) In response to your story, she told a story, and by doing so may have shed some light on why her expectation failed and what she can do about it the next time. [from pages 76-78]

Schank then deconstructs “scripts,” the “expected” routines and outcomes we’ve learned and which we need to do most of the simple things we take for granted. I can’t, for example, do my laundry efficiently without a “script” in place: I need to know the routine, and not face the task each time as though it were brand new. Otherwise, I’d never get past the first load… Or take the script we learn once we’ve been to a couple of restaurants: we don’t need to explain every single detail anymore. If we tell the story of a restaurant visit to another person who also knows the “restaurant script,” then the shorthand “I ordered pasta” is readily understood to imply that “ordering” in a restaurant also means that I ate it. Without “scripts,” I’d have to explain what a waiter does, how ordering works, that you get your meal placed in front of you, and that you eat it — all implied by “I ordered pasta.” As Schank puts it, “In one sense, these scripts are a substitute for thinking. Instead of having to infer, reason, draw conclusions, and invent novel behaviors to solve problems, we simply apply a script. It’s a shortcut we take from thought to action.” [p.79]

But think back to those days when you were a really young child and didn’t yet have a bunch of scripts at your fingertips: what was happening then was that you were learning all the time, constantly. As an adult, you can increasingly go on autopilot, unless you have a position that continuously makes demands on you to experience expectation failure:

The conundrum, however, is that the more scripts you know, the less likely you’ll be to experience expectation failure and put yourself in a position to learn new things.

Scripts promote rigid thinking. Actually, thinking really doesn’t take place; it’s more accurate to state that scripts promote unthinking reactions. (…)

Children who are locked into scripts limit their learning opportunities; the more scripts, the less learning. They short-circuit the learning process from the start, decreasing the diversity of experience and by extension their chance of encountering expectation failure. [from pp.79-80]

Schools, according to Schank, are the worst offenders in the “thou shalt live by script” indoctrinators gang. In a typical curriculum, everything runs by script. Expectation failure is a luxury no one has time for in the rush to meet “outcomes.” Plain and simple failure happens, but that’s not considered a “learning opportunity” — it’s just failure, and no one takes the time to tell stories around it, to figure out whether expectation failure took place.

And this whole thing started with telling your dreams… Interesting.

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