Why emotive storytelling can result in meaningful and effective learning

Apr 19,2013

In a recent blog, Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, states:

“…over the last several decades psychology has begun a serious study of how story affects the human mind. Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.”

Jonathan Gottschall[i]

A comment by “Guest” on Jonathan’s blog states:

” Any scientist will tell you that our brains have not appreciably changed/evolved structurally or chemically in 50,000 years. The templates/archetypes for stories that our ancestors told 50,000 years ago still work today to excite, frighten, please, motivate and inspire us. We just have different “window dressing” on them like cell phones, skyscrapers and cars”.

The comments on Gottschall’s blog post consists of many points of view (please note the post by JW is not me!) but both of the statements above link together in my brain to the reaction that I have experienced to a couple of pieces of e-learning I’ve been the instructional designer for.  In good experiential learning design three types of experience, Retrospective, Concurrent  and Prospective combine allowing the learner to apply prior knowledge and experience, access new learn opportunities and provides space for considering how the experience gained will be used in similar situations in the future.

The stories for the e-learning were constructed around the required learning outcomes for these projects with the learner acting as one of the protagonists, making decisions that fundamentally affected the stories as they played out. Opportunity was provided for the learner to reflect back on the decisions they had made and their impact, asking the learner to consider what influenced their decisions (ie were their decisions based on previous “retrospective” experiences) and whether the ramifications would now change their behaviours and decision making approaches in future live situations (prospective learning).

The key thing here though is that the stories were not fantasy, they were multi-pathed, TV soap-like  in construct, using high quality video and professional actors and the verisimilitude portrayal of the subjects gave the learner a positive context in which to operate and use their existing skills and experience as well as the new learning they were gaining.

The responses from the learners so far have been that they felt “responsible” for the situations, “under pressure” to make the right decisions, they experienced “emotional labour” in dealing with some of the more challenging characters.  They gained a deep sense of immersion in the stories that made the learning provided feel completely appropriate, embedded in the context of the story in a way that allowed them to practically learn from the experience.

So I agree with Gottschall that to “change beliefs” purely through “argument and evidence” is unlikely to be successful.   Argument and evidence will allow the learner to consider different perspectives and use their critical thinking to consider their own standpoint.  For learning to be effective learners need to space to experiment, to try out different approaches including the opportunity for failure.

Using meaningful stories that were believable, rooted in real life with scripting and characterisation that did not flinch from representing the unpalatable and unattractive elements of dealing with the public meant I was able to “excite, frighten, please” and “motivate” the learners to take action, consider their own emotions/reactions and learn about themselves and what they needed to change in their own behaviours to cope in these challenging situations if they met similar ones in the future.

We learn from experience – to me that is a fact.  And whilst there has been masses written and debated about learning through social interaction, learning in the workflow and serendipitous learning etc, in many jobs, the right situation to learn critical skills does not always come along when you need it to, in fact you might not want it to ever come along.  And there is the problem.  How do you prepare for these situations otherwise?

Learning in a crisis when your decisions are potentially life threatening comes with high risk.  Therefore creating true-to-life immersive learning situations that merge compelling, meaningful storytelling with relevant context and sound instructional design makes sense to me. I acknowledge that many learning providers have been doing this for years using live scenario-based rehearsals (NATO, emergency services etc) but the resources to do this are beyond the reach of many.  Using technology imaginatively has provided an alternative that is practical and affordable.

I’ve been asked to design more of these, and I’m both delighted and excited to be doing so.



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