Monday, June 8, 2015

Inside the Head of a Fish-Head, by Don Orth

How do you get into the head of a college student?   In an earlier post I described my story.   Here I make a case for narrative writing and advocate for use of digital storytelling in college teaching.  You don’t become a “fish-head” without working with and learning from other “fish-heads.”

“We learn not for school but for life” Non scholae sed vitae discimus (from the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca the Younger’s Moral Letters to Lucilius AD65).    All learning begins with a dream.  We are all dreamers.   refers a study that found The average daydream is ~ 14 seconds and we have about 2,000 of them per day (Gottschall 2013 p 11).   Is it possible we spend 1/3 of our waking hours spinning fantasies?   Our students imagine a future, perhaps murky and unclear.  And they dream about it.   How do we tap into students imaginations with our pedagogy?  

The use of narrative in our pedagogy has cognitive, social and science literacy benefits.   Story-telling engages the brain of the listener in a way that psychologists call neural coupling.  Listener makes the story their own with own experiences.     Mirroring means the listeners experience same brain activity of the speaker… allowing them to “predict” how this story will go.     Storytelling releases dopamine (dopamine is brain chemical responsible for reward, pleasure, goal setting).        Your brain produces more dopamine when telling a story about yourself than when telling a story about someone else (Tamir and Mitchell 2012).   If stories have such as strong effect, we should use them in teaching.   

Student emotions need to be engaged.   As Carl Jung wrote “there is no change from darkness to light or from inertia to movement without emotions.”     It’s easier for people to take on the goals, motivations, emotions, and even physical reactions of people whom they feel even minimally connected to.   You can also use synchronous behavior -- having people do something together – to create connectedness.  Connectedness can actually make a team work harder and perform better.     It’s called “Mere Belonging” and many interventions may affect the long term student motivation and achievement and assist in creating a sense of belonging to the group.       

Science and Engineering Indicators Report finds that the primary source where Americans receive information about science and technology is nearly tied between television (34%) and the Internet (35%), with magazines and other print media tied for a distant third and fourth (9%).  Berger and Milkman (2012) found that the biggest predictors of sharing content with others was that which was perceived as interesting, practical, surprising, and that evoked emotional reactions, all factors at which narratives excel.

A character has clear goal or need, strong conflict (inner and outer), plan of action, and resolution of inner and outer conflict. The plot consists of the character, a challenge and choice and outcome that leads to the “moral of the story.” Figure from Ganz (2011).

This past semester I asked my students to create a digital story “On Becoming an Ichthyologist” in order to reveal to themselves [and others] who we are, why we are here, how we come to be what we are, what we value most, and how we see the world.    This Digital Storytelling Pedagogy in Student Development recognizes that students need to engage deep reflection as they are struggling to learn Ichthyology or any other technical topic.  Joe Lambert in Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community defines a digital storytelling as “art of telling stories with some mixture of digital graphics, text, recorded audio narration, video and music.”  I use a series of example stories, writing prompts and story circle to facilitate this reflection process in my students.   My goal is to have them think holistically about the “self.”  

Each step in the digital storytelling process encourages learning as the student enters a community of practice.    Source.

The following Ichthyology video stories, used with permission, illustrate what emerged when I let students reflect and explore their personal stories.  Sasha Doss   starts her story with a quote from Johann Wolfgang Goethe “He who has never seen himself surrounded on all sides by the sea, can never possess an idea of the world and of his own relation to it.”    JacobBaker does not use photos of himself, but instead uses vivid imagery to help tell his story.    Katie Ranger  compares her journey and earliest experiences with fish to the journey of fishes.   Skylar Wolf uses images from his Ichthyology Lab Notebook and describes changes in his study habits to do better in this class.      


Berger J,Milkman KL  (2012).  What makes online content viral? J Marketing Research 49(2):192–205.

Dahlstrom, M.F. 2014.   Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.  111 (Supplement 4) 13583-13584

Ganz, M.  (2011) Public narrative, collective action, and power.  In S. Odugbemi & T. Lee (Eds.), Accountability through public opinion: From inertia to public action (pp. 273-289).   Washington, DC:  The World Bank.

Gottshall, J. (2013) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books.  272 pp.

Tamir, D.I., and Mitchell, J.P.  (2012) Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 109:8038-8043.   Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1202129109