A good story often contains some kind of dramatic tension.
We see freedom and oppression play out in Cinderella. We see the idea of known and unknown worlds play out in Jack and The Beanstalk. We see safety and danger play out in Hantzel and Gretel. Dramatic tension is not only the stuff of children’s stories, myths, or fairytales however. Read an engaging news article and there will be some tension within it that you feel. For example, I just read a vivid account of what can happen when an underwater oil pipe ruptures; I was captivated by the sense of potential explosiveness that can occur. The hidden is revealed. The silent suddenly screams.
Imaginative teachers shape their lessons and units in ways that evoke a source of dramatic tension or, what we call in Imaginative Education, an Abstract Binary Opposition (ABO). (Check out the YouTube video about this teaching tool at the end of this post!)
Some examples for primary/elementary teachers:
Gigantic/minuscule can shape a science unit on OUTER SPACE.
Bold/timid can shape an art unit on the ELEMENTS OF LINE.
Apart/together can shape a language arts unit on PRINTING.
Finite/infinite can shape a math unit on NUMBERS and COUNTING.
Gain/loss can shape a science unit on ANIMAL ADAPTATION.
Temporary/permanent can shape a science unit on GROWTH/CHANGE.
And a few examples for middle-secondary school teachers:
Treasure/garbage can shape an interdisciplinary unit on ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP.
Colourful/drab can shape a social studies/humanities unit on CITIZENSHIP.
Freedom/constraint can shape an English unit on forms of POETRY.
Balance/instability can shape a math unit on SOLVING SIMPLE EQUATIONS.
Or university instructors:
(I constantly employ this tool in my undergraduate and graduate teaching):
Conceal/reveal can shape an Education course for pre-service teachers on CLASSROOM ASSESSMENT.
Help/hinder can shape a graduate Education course on INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENT.
The Pedagogical Importance
When you identify a source of dramatic tension in a topic—the learning tool we call Abstract Binary Oppositions—you tie emotional concepts to the knowledge you are teaching. For teachers of children who are not reading extensively and are still largely oral language users, this is one of the most powerful tools for creating engaging units. But even for older students, this tool works.
Free Resource: Download a "page of binary oppositions" to help you in your planning.
Recipe For Spicing Up Your Next Staff/Departmental Meeting
Want to add some spice to your next staff meeting? Here’s how to do so:
Start by making a copy of the oppositions list (above) for everyone at your meeting.
Next, identify a few curricular topics to discuss.
Now, play. Or, in adult speak, collaboratively talk about a topic in your curriculum (or a BIG IDEA or ESSENTIAL QUESTION) and decide what powerful opposition or tension it contains.
Discuss how the opposition you have chosen captures the emotional importance of the topic. (Learn more about that here: Tips for Imaginative Educators: #1 Find the Story)
Brainstorm what students might do in their learning to experience this dramatic tension and bring it into greater focus.
Some ground rules:
DON'T settle on the first opposition/idea that seems obvious to you; often times the first idea that comes to mind is not the most potent for engaging your students.
DO choose the opposition that will best encompass and represent the range of content knowledge you are teaching.
DON'T try to find the ONE RIGHT answer—the ultimate choice is up to you in terms of what engages your passion and what, in your expert opinion, can best convey the meaning of the topic you are teaching.
Summary of Tips For Imaginative Educators Series
#1 Find the Story. Identify what ignites your passion/interest in the topic; seek the emotional significance of the topic.
#2 Find a source of dramatic tension in the topic that you can evoke in your teaching.
*Learn more about this teaching tool from this brief YouTube video that I filmed a loooooong time ago with Dr. Kieran Egan: