We need stories. They tell us what it means to be human – to be, as Terry Pratchett put it, “the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” More than that, stories encapsulate the lived experiences of people we will never meet, but whose prior learning is imperative to our growth.
From a very young age we gravitate towards stories. You don’t read a child a list of facts about stranger danger before bed: you tell them the story of Little Red Riding Hood encountering the Wolf, and the risk that Red puts herself and her grandmother at by oversharing information with a stranger who wants to exploit them.
We tell stories to ourselves, too, guiding future behaviour from past experience. You say to yourself, “I do X because, once upon a time, this thing happened, and I do / don’t want it to happen again.” Or even, “I do X because, once upon a time I read an article where this thing happened, and I do / don’t want it to happen to me.” Without stories to link and anchor learning, information floats around in grey matter, easily lost or forgotten (this is why I think maths is so hard. Thank you for coming to my TED talk).
Telling stories makes learning easy. Why does it work so well?
The theory of story-based learning proposes that we understand our experiences within a narrative context. Narrative context is the stories that we tell ourselves to organise, understand and frame our life experiences. By telling ourselves these stories we represent, engage with, and understand new information in a way that becomes personally meaningful and memorable.
To narrativise learning, we create a realistic story within a specific context, giving learners a framework to organise the new information within. The use of storytelling in learning demonstrates to the user why this information matters and should be remembered.
When writing a script for eLearning therefore, we need the following building blocks:
- Content (new information to be learned)
- Context (framing this information and demonstrating to learners how it is relevant)
- Characters (providing a sense of narrative presence for learners to personally invest in)
- Chaos (things going wrong in the context, which adds narrative tension and asks learners to problem-solve how the characters should react, using the learning content)
For example, we might develop training on safety procedures for a mining company. The content here is the company processes and procedures, and any relevant Acts or Standards. The context we develop to frame the learning could be a mine site, covering a daily journey from entering site, responsibilities throughout the day, to going home safely at the finish to effectively use visual storytelling to engage the learner. To people this framework, we would develop a series of characters, who would be confronted throughout the training with actionable scenarios related to real life.
A key part of this storytelling is not to make it too obvious: we understand Red blurting out her personal details to the Wolf because she’s a child in a story for children. Adult learners won’t engage with such obvious errors in their characters, and the chaos needs to be more subtle.
The best chaos features multiple conflicting priorities: time constraints; multiple tasks; existing interpersonal relationships; procedures versus the lazy positivity of ‘it could never happen to me’. After all, obvious black or white, right or wrong scenarios are rarely where people trip up. Focusing on the grey areas where in real life, things do go wrong, is where they truly need to learn how to respond.
And finally: as in all good storytelling, reward your characters and learners with a happy ending for getting it right.