Teach with a narrative

What if every student could be the hero in an epic story?

There is no reason why that could not be the case. All the teacher has to do is to frame the teaching into a narrative, and allow the challenges of learning to play into the story.

Is that easier said than done? Read about my experiences teaching physics to Danish high-school students.

Physics in the nuclear wasteland

My first decision was to use a post-apocalyptic setting: Human civilization has been destroyed by nuclear war, and the students are 3rd generation of survivors.


They are among the brightest of their generation, and have been taught all the scientific knowledge that their colony had access to: old books and knowledge passed down through the generations.
Now they have to use that knowledge to protect their colony from danger, and to cooperate with other colonies in order to reestablish civilization.

To get them going, their first objective was to save the colony from thirst. A drought had prevented the collection of drinking water from rain, and the colonist has to rely on the infested water sources they use for irrigation.

What the students then had to do in class was first to prove their knowledge to a nearby colony (by answering questions about electronics), who would in turn trust them to work with their electronic components.
Then they would have to perform several experiments and calculations, preparing them for building an automated system that would purify the water by heating it to 70 degrees, thereby killing all germs.
Finally, they had to make a presentation (given to me on video) describing the parts of the system and the physical theory. This was the requirement for bringing the purifier system back – the neighbor colony would need information to build their own system.

While this took a bit longer than I expected – I cut the work short before they got every part working – it was a nice practice in electronics.

Bringing the story to the classroom

The next part of the story was to be much longer, so I will not be detailing it this time.
But let me share the mechanics behind the story in the classroom:

Use illustrations

I found all of my illustrations at DeviantArt.com – and I aim to use at least one when I tell the story. They are great at igniting the imaginations of the students.

The drought

Random events

A simple story last longer when you don’t have to tell a new part every time you teach.
But then how do you remind the students what they are doing?
Simple – run a random event.
Make a list of things that could happen at any time in the story, like fighting with raiders or getting a reward from helping a merchant in distress.

Suddenly, raiders attack!

XP, gold and damage in Classcraft

To further motivate the students and add immersion, Classcraft was used. In every random event, and some story events, the students avatars are affected. They can take damage, gain XP or gold. They might even gain or lose action points (AP).

Since Classcraft is not a post-nuclear setting, I had to be creative to explain the visuals (and re-name all text items):
“Magic” powers are rare technology from the war. Ammunition and guns are rare and unreliable, so people use medieval-looking weaponry.


Track progress on a map

Combine the progress in solving problems with the progress in the narrative, by showing problems on a map.

What I have usually done is to have one set of problems that everyone must solve each module, and then present sidequests that the students can spend the rest of their available time on. Classcraft rewards makes sure that students do the sidequests.

Read more about using maps in class at Exploration of knowledge (though I used the similar Classcraft pro-feature “Quests” this time around).


Challenges of knowledge

I find that while learning equations and definitions by heart is boring, it is also an important part of physics. So in order to make it more fun, I introduced some story elements which would challenge the knowledge of the students.

One way to do this is the Classcraft pro-feature “Boss Fight”, in which random students or teams each take a round against the boss, taking or dealing damage by answering questions.

An even better way is to make a trivia card-game, in which each team collects questions and challenge other teams to a duel.
In my story, this kind of duel happens every time the students has to win the confidence of strangers, proving that they are honest seekers of knowledge.

If you liked all of this, I am sure you will love to read more about Gamification of teaching (link)

Got any questions? Make sure to ask them in the comments below