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Seven ways in which stories power learning

For quite a few years, I had the privilege of working with one of the most creative and innovative e-learning specialists, Clive Shepherd—a rock star of online learning.

In collaboration with his team, we produced hours of learning films, interviews, and courses, and most surprisingly to me, I ended up in a book covering section on filmmaking for learning. "More Than Blended Learning"

We have produced educational films primarily focusing on learning through storytelling and emotional investment, applying techniques and processes usually familiar within the film industry. Breaking the stereotype that learning content is unbearable and can not be enjoyed.

Checking my LinkedIn messages, I stumbled across a blog post by Clive. It was written in 2015. Quite a lot has changed since then.

Global brands have fully immersed themselves in storytelling through their marketing campaigns and carefully crafted visual communication, but how far is online learning?

Is it at the point of being fully immersive and connecting to the learner emotionally?

I want to post what Clive Shepherd said about storytelling. It all stands true, and it is relevant even today, especially for learning specialists in producing learning films.

(Dead links removed from the post)

Man and the woman standing talking on the beach in Brighton.

Clive Shepherd

February 24, 2015

I’d never written a film script before. The nearest I’d got to so-called creative writing was penning the dialogue for interactive scenarios, so this was a brave move. To be honest, I was pushed hard by my colleague Asatuurs Keim, a film-maker with a passion for storytelling and someone who believes we have failed to realise the full potential of film as a vehicle for learning at work.

Now I was only ever proposing a really short film, but I was encouraged by Asatuurs to use the classic script structure:

  • Setup: Establishes the main characters, their relationships and the world they live in. As the plot unfurls, the protagonist is confronted with a dramatic problem to resolve.

  • Confrontation: The protagonist attempts to resolve the problem, only to find him/herself in ever worsening situations.

  • Resolution: The main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question answered, leaving the protagonist and other characters with a new sense of who they really are.

I’m sure experienced writers don’t approach their task in such a formal manner, but for a beginner like me this structure proved invaluable. Although my principal goal was to provide insights into the value of end-to-end learning solutions, I also needed the storyline to be engaging in its own right and to demonstrate the power of storytelling as a tool for learning.

Here are seven ways in which I believe that stories power learning:

1. Stories speak to us as humans

As Jeremy Hsu writes in Scientific American, 'Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history.’ For more than 27,000 years, humans have been communicating by telling stories. I’m sure that if you were to open up our brains and tip the contents onto the floor, what would come out but piles and piles of stories. According to a 1997 study by Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool, personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations. That seems like an underestimate to me.

2. Stories hold our attention

Stories with characters to whom we can relate will attract and hold our attention. If you don’t believe that 'people nowadays' can maintain attention on anything for longer than a few minutes then you’d be wide of the mark. It’s true that we want our information to come in the smallest possible chunks, but we’ll happily spend hours wading through a box set or turning the pages of a great novel.

3. Stories engage us emotionally

Emotion can have a powerful impact on memory. Numerous studies have shown that our most vivid memories tend to be of emotional events. And stories are highly effective at triggering emotions - they make us laugh, they make us cry, they surprise us, they scare us, they inspire us. Above all, they make us care and caring matters when it comes to learning.

4. Stories provide us with examples

Stories have another very simple value to a learning experience: they provide us with examples that help us to understand difficult concepts, principles and rules. If you’re struggling to figure out the difference between education and training, a good teacher will tell you that old joke, you know, the one about when your daughter comes home and tells you about about the sex education class she attended that day. Fine, but what if she came home and told you about the sex training she’d received?

5. Stories provide us with insights

According to Wikipedia, 'an insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect in a particular context'. Insights are what allow us to respond to situations in which we don’t have clear-cut rules to follow, which in the developed world is true of a great deal of the work that we do. You cannot be provided with insights by simple exposition, you have to obtain them for yourself, by figuring things out. We can do this through our own experience, but also by observing the experiences of others, either directly or through stories.

Literal accounts of real or fictitious events may provide us with insights (my short film being an example). On the other hand, stories can use metaphors to position an idea in a context that may be more familiar to a learner. This is a technique we used for most of the explainer videos that accompany the More Than Blended Learning approach. Learners can readily adapt the lessons embedded in these stories to analogous situations.

6. Stories help us to remember other stuff

As humans, we can struggle to learn factual information. As Ed Cooke explains in The Guardian, 'Whether you wish to learn a set of directions, a recipe, the events during an historical epoch or the members of the cabinet, imposing a story line over what you wish to learn is a wonderfully simple and powerful way of binding the ideas together in a manner that allows easy and enjoyable recollection.'

7. Stories are likely to be shared

Because that’s how we relate to other people - by telling them stories. If you want to get your message out there, don’t rely too heavily on rational argument (this post being an example); tell stories instead.


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