Author Julie Dirksen discusses how to use storytelling during the The Learner’s Journey. Julie is the author of Design For How People Learn (Voices That Matter.
Joe: How does storytelling take a part in learning? It’s not really in your book as much. You always hear that you have to tell stories. You always hear that all the time. Could you put some context to that?
Julie: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a whole slew of really interesting reasons why storytelling is particularly powerful from a learning point of view.
One, it’s easier to learn something if you already have a framework for it. A lot of times, when we’re learning things, when we don’t have any context or framework for something, it’s hard to hang on to the information. I have this analogy about how your brain is like a closet. Experts have tons and tons of shelves, and it’s fairly organized and your novices have, basically, no shelves and a pile of clothes on the floor.
One of the problems is that experts want to take the entire contents of their closet (all the clothing) and just hand it to novices. “Here. I’m just going to give you all this information about something.” One of the challenges with that is that they don’t have any way to sort it or organize it when it’s handed to them. The way that we build closets, structures or shelves for our information is usually by interacting with the information, solving problems and things like that.
Another thing that we do actually already have some structures for how we understand stories. Whether we know it or not or whether we’re conscious of it or not, stories have a pretty predictable structure. I’m going to introduce the main character. There’s going to be an event that happens that kicks off the action. There’s going to be a series of things that cause rising action. There’s going to be a climax that’s going to be the big point of the story. There’s going to be a follow-up and some explanation afterwards about why I’m telling you this story in the first place.
There’s a variation in that obviously. It’s not always exactly identical to that. But once somebody starts telling you a story about this one time, you settle into this comfortable place because you’re pretty able to predict that sequence of things that somebody’s telling you.
When you’re using stories for learning, it actually has (again, I’m going to use this term) cognitive load. It actually has a lure of cognitive load because you already have this comfortable framework for how a story is going to work. So, instead of you trying to remember a big list of information, you already have buckets to slot the story elements into it. That’s one reason why storytelling is great. It’s because we already have a framework for it, and we’re not trying to learn everything about what we’re being told. We can just hang onto the specifics of the story and slot these into familiar buckets.
Another reason is everything that we learn works better if we understand it in context. If I hand you a string of facts about a particular piece of software or something like that, it’s hard to hang onto those. But if I explain the story of when you’re going to use certain things, what you’re going to do and why you might use it, then you have context around it. You have some reason to understand how the pieces fit together, what does it mean and things like that.
A lot of times, one of the things that happen when we’re preparing information to teach it to somebody else is we strip out all that context and want it to be right. We want it to be “the right information.” But when we take all the context out and when we take all the people out of the equation, we take all the stories out of the equation, then I’m getting all these facts but I don’t really know what to do with them. I don’t really know when this is important or how important it is or things like that. Stories have that context and sometimes, stories have an emotional context. Not only what should you think about this but how should you feel about it?
That’s really important, too. It turns out; we actually use our emotional context as a big part of how we make decisions. There’s a brain researcher, Antonio Damasio, who has done a lot of work with people who have had damage to the emotional centers of their brain either through strokes, accidents or things like that. These are people who have normal intelligence, but they don’t report feeling happy, sad or angry. They just have a very flat emotional absence. He looked at the question of whether or not that made them better or worse decision makers. We have this myth of rational decision-making and this western ideal around logic and this Mr. Spock thing. If we follow that line of reasoning, when you take the emotions out of it, people should be better decision makers.
In actuality, people who have emotional absence are much worse decision makers. Even, “Should I out on a blue shirt or a red shirt this morning?” is hard. We rely on that emotional tug to help us decide “Is this important? Is it not important? Should I care about this? How should I feel about it? Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? All this kind of stuff.
When we have that completely missing, it’s really hard to decide what to do with it.
So, when my financial advisors are putting three mutual funds in front of me and ask, “Which one do you like?” I’m like, “Well, I don’t like any of them. I don’t know enough to like any of them. I don’t have any feeling about it. At this certain point, I can’t really make a decision because there’s nothing for me to hang on to, or that nudges me in one direction or another. At that point, I’m picking the middle one. It’s the easiest one or something like that.
Storytelling helps us understand the context. Sometimes it has an emotional context to it. Here’s how you should feel about this because that’s going to help you make decisions in the future.
Additionally, it seems like we have a little bit of a brain mechanism for how we parse and retain story memory. One of the nice things about that is, if I’m giving you factual information over here, but I’m also telling you a story about it, we’re doubling up the likelihood that you’re going to remember it. We’re giving you more hooks back into the information and things like that.
That’s my somewhat complex explanation for why stories are good.
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