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.


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

  1. Nice post Erika- yes- the Randy’s ABT approach is really accessible and easy to use. I’ve also been using it with my students, along with the message box. I’ve found it especially helpful for putting together presentations- to make them more ‘relatable’ to audiences. If you enjoyed Randy’s plenary session you might also really enjoy the book he and his colleagues, Dori Barton and Brian Palermo, just published ‘Connection: Hollywood Story Telling Meets Critical Thinking’- it’s a great read and probably a good reference for students as well. If you’re interested, I just did a review on it for ASLO . Thanks for your post!

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