When I saw The Matrix for the first time, in fall 1999, the opening blew my mind: It featured a woman doing impossible stunts, like running on walls, jumping 15-20 meters between two buildings, and disappearing when the phone booth she was in was rammed by a garbage truck—only for her to appear unharmed two scenes later. As well, the only other characters in the intro who could do what she did were three sinister-looking men in suits, who were playing a game of cat-and-mouse with her. Though it was a genuinely exciting opening, it was also confusing, since I kept on wondering what was going on, and really wanted an answer to that (which the rest of the movie provided).
I was reminded of that when I read Daniel Willingham’s summer 2021 article in American Educator titled “Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?” in which he talked about story structures, why it is that we do a good job of remembering what’s in stories (understanding them is easy, they interest people, and readers / viewers find them easier to remember), and how he thought educators could apply it.
As I read that, I thought about movies I’d watched and stories I’d read, in particular how a number of them (such as The Dark Knight and Hamlet) opened with a question that made readers and viewers wonder what’s going on, and how they spent the rest of the story answering it.
And, it occurred to me that it might be possible to do that with a class: That is, to open it with a question that gets students wondering what’s going on and wanting to know what happens next, and then to spend the rest of the lesson answering that question. Or, possibly, to treat the course like that: To use the first lesson as a way of posing a question (that just happens to be about what will be covered in later classes), and to spend the rest of the semester answering it.
I decided that that might be an idea worth trying, once I resumed teaching.
Matt Ehlers is an MA TESOL candidate at SIT Graduate Institute who enjoys studying Spanish and learning about cognitive psychology.