“Take me somewhere”, a young girl tells her mom as she tries to unwind from the day and fall asleep. In a soft, gentle voice the mom describes a peaceful location – the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the feelings – all unfolding, setting the stage and transporting the girl to the Land of Nod. We all know stories have the power to transport us, teach us, and help us remember vital information. This is nothing new. Fables and tales have been around for thousands of years for these exact purposes. Where would be without “The Boy who Cried Wolf” or “Little Red Riding Hood”? But why are stories so powerful in conveying messages and lessons?
Stories can set the stage for learning; drawing learners in; getting them ready to learn. Consider this: a course is being delivered to newly hired mobile phone equipment installers. These installers must frequently climb to remote equipment installation locations. Their jobs are harrowing, requiring precision in the most difficult climates. Perched high above the ground crew they must remain in constant contact with the ground crew for proper completion of the installation process. So, here are two ways to begin the course; one traditional, one story-based. Decide which grabs your attention, raises your curiosity, and pulls you into the learning.
Course introduction one: “Good morning, everyone; after today’s session you will be able to describe the required steps for installing mobile phone equipment properly. While reviewing the details of each step we will explain why it is important. Here are today’s learning objectives. Let’s get started.”
Course introduction two: “Help! After reaching your remote equipment installation site you drop your walkie-talkie; watching it plummet and shatter into a million pieces on a platform far below you. What can you do? You do NOT want to climb back down the narrow staircase – another round-trip of 1,200 steps; it will waste half the day! But how will you communicate with the ground crew during the installation? How will you know what adjustments need to be made? Don’t worry! That’s why you are here today; to learn how not to wind up in this situation. Shall we get started?”
Which of these beginnings best captured your imagination? Which one transported you to a work situation for a new mobile phone equipment installer? Which one set the stage for learning? Captured the importance of what must be learned. Even if you are not mobile phone equipment installer you may want to tune into the learning, find out what they face while doing their jobs. Curiosity is raised.
Once the stage is set and learner attention captured stories can make irrelevant information relevant to specific learners. Simple stories can set the stage for learning, raise learners’ curiosity, and personalize information for better recall. Consider this scenario:
A high school biology student complains it is a waste of time learning about photosynthesis. After all she is not planning to work with plants in the future. However, instead of diving into a dissertation on photosynthesis, the process, and the importance it has on our environment the teacher responds by questioning the student about her interests. Confused, the student answers she enjoys baking. Knowing of her interest in baking allows the teacher to relate photosynthesis to baking. He does it in this fashion: both require exact measurements of ingredients (or nutrients in the case of photosynthesis), both require an exact process of bringing those ingredients together, and both require exact temperatures for exact amounts of time to be successful. Any deviations, even small ones, to any of those steps and the process will not work properly. This is true for photosynthesis. This is true for baking. The student’s response is one of intrigue, listening to what the teacher has to say. By finding out the student’s interests the teacher was able to relate the learning to the student. Even though the student may never need to know about photosynthesis in her future life she’ll be able to better recall information about the photosynthesis process because of the relationship built by the teacher between baking and photosynthesis. Tying photosynthesis to something familiar in the student’s life makes irrelevant information relevant. Instructional designers do this during needs analysis. Facilitators do this during a course delivery. By assessing the learners’ interests and needs seemingly irrelevant information can take on new meaning and importance when tied to something familiar.
Stories are powerful instruments for bringing learning alive, transporting learners, making the learning more than simply words spoken by an instructor, giving the information meaning. Transporting, teaching, and imprinting information on us better than other methods. The power of a story does not necessarily lie within its own complexity but within its relativity to learners. Stories can set stages for learning, raise learners’ curiosity, and relate information to the learners. Discovering what is important to your learners, using that information to tie the learning experience to them, makes for a richer, fuller, more meaningful learning experience. It transforms training into learning. Use stories to set the stage for learning, transport the learners to where the information will to be applied, and embedded it in the minds of the learners. Stories are powerful instruments.