Using the “… and …but …. therefore…” narrative technique in the classroom

I learned about the “….and… but……..therefore …” narrative technique from keynote speaker Dr. Randy Olson, scientist, filmmaker and expert in scientific communication, who was speaking in a plenary session on “Sea Level Rise: New, Certain, & Everywhere” at the 22nd biennial conference of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation in San Diego in November, 2013. (Video of the three-speaker presentation can be seen here.

The idea is that the “and, but, therefore” narrative structure almost always works. It provides a “hey you know this,” but then there’s this hook, a catch, followed by a “so this is what should happen now.” Dr. Olson talked about using it in all forms of story telling. Here’s a cute example I found in pop music: “Hey, I just met you, AND this is crazy, BUT here’s my number, SO call me maybe.” In a scientific format, you can present two pieces of status-quo knowledge “this and that,” then you provide a “but,” which would be some evidence that goes against the prevailing wisdom. You then conclude with the so. “Therefore you should fund my team to investigate this alternative approach.” Here’s a rather dry example that I used in my talk last week at the AGU/ASLO Ocean Sciences meeting: “Continental shelf sediment transport studies have traditionally focused on the seafloor and events are thought to be dominated by surface swell. But internal wave motions transcend bottom boundary layer scales and can easily lift particle 10 to 40 meters above the seafloor. Therefore this study set out to determine how internal waves move sediment in the middle of the water column over the mid-shelf mud belt.” You get the idea.

How are we using this in the classroom? Dr. Ivano Aiello and I are currently co-teaching a graduate seminar on climate change at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. The students are assigned papers from the original literature and tasked with presenting them back to the class, usually giving a short presentation with powerpoint. This can be scary for the students, since the papers are challenging and usually deal with science far outside of their comfort zone. Since we watched the plenary talk and learned as a class about the “and, but, therefore” technique, several of the students took it upon themselves to represent an entire paper with one full “A B T” phrase. Usually the phrase is a few sentences, sometimes it’s one run-on sentence. Although we are not requiring it, the students challenged each other, and we are finding that those who are able to boil down the essence of a whole publication into one “and, but, therefore” statement are the ones who really get it. And they are best capable of teaching others. We have been so impressed by their work.

I used to challenge my students to turn their own thesis research into a haiku. But I like this better. For one thing, it’s just easier. You don’t have to be quite as elegant, but you still have to do the thinking work of getting at the essence of a publication.

Has anyone else tried any similar approaches?

A slide from MLM L student Ashley Wheeler. Her “and … but… therefore” for Levitus et al., 291. “Anthropogenic Warming of the Earth’s Climate System” Science, vol 292.

A slide from MLM L student Ashley Wheeler. Her “and … but… therefore” for Levitus et al., 2001. “Anthropogenic Warming of the Earth’s Climate System” Science, vol 292.


Erika McPhee-Shaw, a coastal geographer, is an Associate Professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, San Jose State University and a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow.


2013 Fellows: What We’re Thankful For


Ben Ra’anan, M.S. student at Moss landing Marine Laboratories, San Jose State University, presenting his first stab at his thesis research message box during a lab meeting this fall.

Note from Pam: In the spirt of the holidays, I asked our 2013 fellows what they were thankful for from their Leopold experience — a tool or skill from their core training, an insight that has stuck, a new time-saving practice, or anything else that has stood out. Erika McPhee-Shaw starts off the conversation here.

The Leopold training helps me every single day and it would be hard to overstate how thankful I am for all that you have given us. One of the most important insights I have carried with me since the summer training is the newly clear understanding that networking is the very best way to solve many problems. I am a natural networker, one of those types who likes talking to other people and making connections. But as a scientist coming from a physics/engineering academic home, I have always felt a bit of pressure against working as a “networker.” Instead, I often felt that the only valued approach to problem solving was elegant theoretical work. The brilliant-mathematician-toiling-alone-in-a-closed-room type concept. This summer’s Leopold training shattered that wacky notion completely and gave me the confidence to know I am doing it just right by sitting down to map a network and get on the phone!

The message box training has also been incredibly valuable, and it is something I have been using throughout this semester with my own graduate students. Each student must write a proposal for their MS thesis research, and I have been working with our lab group to have each student write out the message box for their thesis ideas. This is an exciting time for them to do this exercise because they are only in the initial stages of their research. This work clarifies their goals, and I have been so proud to hear them explain their work to visiting scientists or other professors — they do such a great job and are so confident that their science is valuable and useful.

Erika McPhee-Shaw, a coastal geographer, is an Associate Professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, San Jose State University and a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow.

An Academic Takes Some Leopold Training to the Real World of Management

During the 2013 Leopold Leadership training we learned many leadership skills and techniques for organizing consensus from groups with competing stakeholders. Last month I was able to use one of these techniques in a real-world situation, and wanted to share my experience with you!

The situation was the semiannual meeting of the Governing Council of the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS: (one of three west coast portions of of the NOAA US Integrated Ocean Observing System program).  The goal was to achieve consensus on only four activities to define as the organization’s overarching priorities for the years to come. I am the chair of the governing council (, and have been heavily involved over the past year doing strategic planning and writing a formal decision-making framework, mission and vision statement. We academics don’t usually get a lot of practice with these kinds of skills and I was a little nervous about this!

I decided to try out the “Think-Pair-Share” technique introduced at the Leopold training by Peter Redstone and Martin Bloxham of Barefoot Thinking Ltd. This took some planning. It is not something you can just slip casually into a meeting. I started with an explanation of what we were going to do and a description of how it would work, a reassurance that everyone would have their voices heard this way, and a description of the desired end point. I also had help from the CeNCOOS director’s staff. Aric Bickell, the program manager, has had some facilitator training and he was on board with helping me organize this. We met at least a week before the meeting to visualize how we could make this work and to make sure we had the proper items (well, remember all that means is a bunch of sticky-pads, some pens, and a good flip chart or white board!).

With this particular group of highly opinionated and outspoken academics, business owners, and nonprofit leaders, typically these conversations veer towards the loudest voices in the room. And my experience with this and other scientist-led boards is that everyone wants to talk, and the topics can veer off and bifurcate endlessly. So I wasn’t sure that we would ever be able to achieve consensus. Nor was I confident that folks would be amenable to being led down the kind of structured conversational path that “think-pair-share” requires. But wow! It worked amazingly well. Everyone was enthusiastic and engaged, everyone felt their voices were heard, and people were happy to realize how much overlap there was in opinions. We were able to narrow down to four overarching priorities fairly quickly because we had so many pieces of thoughts in common on all our little sticky notes. This was a real breakthrough for this group — we can often talk for hours and not make much progress. It felt collaborative, in a working-for-the-good-of-the-organization type way rather than the advocating-for-my-own-interest-group type of way that often characterizes the representation on these kinds of councils (we are broken into research, non-profit, business, education, government agency categories, and many of the board members also have professional programs that do funded work with CeNCOOS, so definitely there are some conflicts of interest). People commented to me afterwards that they felt they had a better chance to speak their opinion they are accustomed to, and everyone was happy with the speed of the process.

Thanks again Martin and Peter for your excellent training! I don’t think I can use this for everyday scenarios like faculty meetings and such. It takes too much ahead-of-time planning. But for big meetings where a group faces a looming decision I think it is wonderful.

Does anyone else have experience with a similar situation? Any feedback on what worked for you and what did not?