Storytelling and Instructional Design

(How to Provide, Guide, and Reinforce Learning by Writing Instructional Stories.)


This morning, as I read through David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants, I couldn't stop myself from marvelling at the ease with which the ID principles apply to writing novels and short stories, and then I thought how the opposite is true too. In his newsletter, Mr. Farland spoke of the Intellectual Payoff vs. the Emotional Payoff of a story. In his words, "A great story, in my estimation (and Plato’s), doesn’t just entertain, it enlightens. It doesn’t just amuse the reader, it offers insights into life and the human condition."

The Instructional Designer in me agrees. A great story goes beyond entertainment - it educates, it has a takeaway that is greater than the satisfaction of having read a good story, it is the satisfaction of having emerged a more knowledgeable person, post reading the story. Similarly, a great learning experience goes beyond small tricks that would make the audience laugh or smile, it is remembered for its takeaways that are translated into the confidence of doing a job well.

Not all readers of stories are looking for the same kind of entertainment or enlightenment; similarly not all your audiences are looking for the same kind of knowledge or ability. Try to determine what your audience is looking for. There will be times when the answer would be simple, but there will also be times when despite all your efforts you will fail. This is why no program has a 100% success rate. Yet there are programs that have reached the minds and the hearts of most of their audiences - because they don't just entertain and enlighten, they help the learners feel confident of the skills they acquire.

Instructional Storytelling for learning transfer and reinforcement of learning.

Instructional storytelling is one of the most potent mechanisms of transferring learning. In fact, it's been around for as long as we humans have walked this earth in our modern form. There was a time when stories were considered to be the vehicles of knowledge that had to be transferred from one generation to another - all verbally, for they hadn't invented writing yet. Even today, when you tell a story and tell it well, it remains in the learner's mind for a longer duration.

I'll shortly repost an older and more comprehensive article on Instructional Storytelling. In this post however, I'd like to list a few things that make an instructional story go beyond being a mere vehicle of certain concepts.

The Concept
Soft-skill trainings can use the concept as a vehicle for the story. Concept is the central idea or the main thought in a story.

An example of using the concept as the vehicle of learning in accent-neutralization could be the story of a brilliant young man with accent issues, who joins a software company and is sent to the US for executing a project. His accent makes it difficult for him to communicate with others and also harms his self-esteem. It's easy to write an interesting story around the concept of accent-neutralization, and even weave in a few methods of the actual learning process in it. It could be somewhat difficult to make the learning ride on the concept in the case of a technical training though.

The Characters
The characters can be used to help the learner understand and apply the concepts of content-areas such as management, psychology, etc. As the focus of these subject areas is people, you can put different characters in a setting and create a relevant conflict.

An example from Personnel Management (or HRM) could be to train a team of managers on providing performance feedback. You can use either a role-play or a case study for reinforcement, but none of these two methods lend themselves well to providing and guiding learning. How about stringing a case-study/role-play within a story? Begin by telling a story that has different characters (two team-members and one boss?) and one of them achieved A+ and the other a B-, and talk about the fallout of a bad review. The team-member with an A+ leaves because the dis-satisfied non-performer influences the performer. Discuss the issues in the feedback in view of reactive behavioral fallouts and ease the group into a discussion/role-play/case-study.

The Conflict
It isn't easy to use storytelling in technical programs, especially if you are not the technical expert, but if you are, you can use the conflict/series of conflicts in a story to make a class more interesting and sticky for your audience.

I recall an example from a Math eLearning tutorial that I had created a long time ago. This tutorial was on time and distance, and I had developed a detective story in which a lady's house is robbed while she's away. The clues given by those who saw people coming into her house and leaving, were provided in the form of time. (So, Mrs. X saw a bum stop at one of her windows and talk to the maid for about five minutes and this happened exactly when her clock struck 11.)

So, the learner answered the questions, got them right (or wrong, and was given feedback,) and eventually solved the problem by figuring out who the culprit was.

The good news for us, the instructional designers, is that instructional storytelling doesn't require that you kill yourself illustrating the characters, the situation, and the setting; instead it requires that you embed the learning into the story really well, without losing sight of the fact that the primary goal of stories is to entertain.  The moment you begin a story, the audiences begin to prepare themselves for something that will make them feel lighter, and leave them happier. However, they also expect to learn. Use the hooks of the concept, the characters, and the conflict to ensure that the transferred knowledge stays anchored in the learner's mind.

- Author: Shafali R. Anand


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