With the veritable explosion of new digital learning trends, how can training scenarios and video differentiate themselves from the pack? Ironically, the answer lies in one of humanity’s oldest technologies: storytelling 

Make no mistake, storytelling is a technology, as innovative a method of distributing and retaining information as the printing press or the blog. Shakespeare knew this. When he had Hamlet posit that “the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” he meanit quite literallyEngaging stories possess an innate power to exploit existing pathways to penetrate and affect the mind. The human brain is evolutionarily hardwired to learn through stories, gaining valuable lessons through the experiences of others. Using a compelling narrative provides special access to increase someone’s engagement and retention. 

This is especially true in the learning industry, where stories are the foundation of the training, scenarios and videos that help bridge the gap from entry-level to expert learnersBut learners are savvy, so these stories must go beyond simple cookie-cutter tales, where Bob confronts the new software system and clicks his way to success. Instead, they need to be highly engaging, while remaining laser-focused on the learning objective. That is the goal of the story-based learning approach presented: to provide a systematic, yet customizable, method to generate powerful, experiential narratives that translate the observed and interactive experiences of a story’s protagonist (the story’s most prominent character) onto the learner  just as the best stories have always done. 

The Story-based Learning Model can help formalize the informal, often murky, creative process of crafting a good story; it is a process designed to generate engaging content that supports the learning objectives while enhancing the learning experience. 

The Story-Based Learning Model 

The purpose of any model is to distill experience, observations and data into a simplified relational construct to formalize the informal. In this case, the Story-based Learning Model demonstrates: 

  • A systematic, repeatable process that anyone can use to enhance any type of training topic. 
  • The relationship between both familiar and new story elements.
  • How to adjust the variables of these elements to heighten the story’s engagement. 

To use the model, start with a clearly stated and properly scoped learning objective. For example: “Distinguish appropriate methods for responding to a variety of severe weather events, as depicted in various scenarios.” With the learning objective in mind, identify the point of view (POV), the lens through which the learner will experience the story events. Typically, the POV will be either:  

  •  First Person: The narrator is inside the story, seen through the protagonist’s perspective: 
    • First person example: “I was worried about a tornado striking our house.” 
  • Third Person Limited: The narrator is outside the story, viewed through a limited perspective (only conveying the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings while they observe the body language of others): 
    • Third person limited example: “She was worried about a tornado striking her house.” 

It is worth noting that there are other POVs available, such as second person (where the narrator speaks directly to the reading, using the word “youor third person omniscient (viewing many character’s thoughts at the same time). However, those don’t tend to work as effectively for story-based learning scenarios and structures. 

To determine a story’s POV, it helps to identify the protagonistthe primary character whose experiences must map onto the learner. Consider these questions: 

  • Who is the audience? In this case, it is adults, as opposed to children or first responders. 
  • What role does this protagonist have in the story? In this example, they are a parent of school-age children.
  • Why choose this character and not another? They have the most safety considerations to balance. 

The best protagonists provide a unique or instructive perspective to the story events and are relevant to the learners. For example, given the learning objective used above, the protagonist could be Jessica, a working mother of two children, whose husband, Brad, often travels out of town for business. 

Conflict and Setting 

Stories thrive on conflict, and this struggle typically stems from pitting the protagonist’s motivations (whether internal or external) against the obstacles set in place by an antagonist and/or environmentRemember that the protagonist’s motivation should align with the story’s learning objectiveSo, expanding on the earlier example, Jessica’s motivation is to protect her family and herself, mitigating the effects of any weather event. 

In this case, her obstacles are more environmental thastemming from a human antagonist or arch-enemy out to undermine Jessica’s goal. Here, the inclement weather is the antagonist. This is one example of using different story elements, adjusting variables to customize the narrative. 

The important point is that the obstacles must be overcome, such as safely surviving the tornado scenarioAs long as the antagonist (whether it’s a person or environment) presents challenges that may prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her motivation, then a struggle exists, creating conflict and suspense.  

However, conflict is not the only source of tension that can help create an engaging story. The use of setting (the time and place in which the story unfolds) can also provide a powerful source of intensity to the narrative. Here, the use of metaphor, or even fantastical elements, can provide effective levers to increase engagement in the story. The setting, no matter how outside of the everyday norm, must still have plausible realism that allows the learner to suspend disbelief, as any engaging story does. However, this should never be used at the cost of relevance to the learning audienceonly to enhance it.  

The key to creating tension through setting is to remember that it is the clash of cultures. One group happily engages in the current set of cultural norms, the status quo. Whether for social and/or economic reasons, this group wishes to maintain things as they are, for better or worse. In the earlier example, the cultural norms are that Jessica’s neighbors and friends are complacent about severe weather events and, thus, are not prepared for their potential harm.  

But there is always some sort of counter-culture bubbling out at the edges. This counter-culture may be silent or vocal, but it reacts to cultural norms by promoting change to the status quo through resistance and/or revolution. Perhaps Jessica has one friend who takes preparations for weather seriously and encourages her to do the same. 

The point is that using the inherent tension between these two groups can drive drama and suspense, and prove a powerful narrative lever in story-based learning. This is especially true when each group thinks they are in the right, and who is framed as the heroes and villains depends on how the story is framed. 

Plot, Confrontation and Revelation 

As the story narrative begins, the plot unfolds. This is where the protagonist and other characters are revealed, the setting is established and the inherent conflict of the story is discovered. There are many ways for a plot to unfurl in pacing and flow of time:  

  • Mountain Structure (Classic Arc): The standard story form, with beginning exposition, rising tension with confrontations, culminating in a climax, and ending with falling action. 
  • Fractured Structure (False Start): Time order is broken, with opening action that then jumps back to a new beginning, or the entire story is told out of order. 
  • Circular Structure (Hero’s Journey): The classic monomyth where the protagonist travels into the unknown, survives ordeals, undergoes change, and returns home different.
  • In Medias Res Structure (In the Middle of the Action): The tale engages by beginning in the heat of the moment before recounting how the protagonist got into that situation. 

As the story evolves the protagonist will inevitably encounter a confrontation involving the story’s conflict (the obstacles to the protagonist’s motivation). In the Story-based Learning Model, this confrontation is an opportunity to evaluate the learner’s absorption of the content by having them decide the protagonist’s course of action.  

The initial outcome of this confrontation is not always successAt first, the learner and the protagonist may encounter a setback resulting from failing the evaluation in which remediation is required. Otherwise, success demonstrates change and growth of the learner through eustress, the positive and beneficial type of stress that comes from challenging the learner — just the right amount — to improve his or her performance.  

These evaluations continue to occur through a rinse and repeat” pattern, where timely feedback and debrief of each confrontation/evaluation occurs before moving on. Thus, through a series of confrontations, setbacks and changes, the protagonist and learner experience the revelations needed to achieve the overall objective. 

When designing these confrontation/evaluations, consider these two important questions: What dynamic change does the protagonist undergo through these confrontations? How does this growth align with what the learner gains from the experiential learning? 

As the tension of the narrative rises to a climax, a final confrontation/evaluation occurs and the protagonist transcends the conflict challenge and achieves his or her goal (the learning objective) and the learner basks in the same achievement as the protagonist. 

Finally, with the falling action of the story comes a final debrief to wrap things up. This can be a reflection on what was learned, the struggles endured or even looking forward to a future goal, where the learner now knows they are up to the challenge. 

Thus, the Story-based Learning Model allows the systematic generation of customizable stories. And through this narrative, learners are engaged through the proper story tensions to experience the necessary eustress and true performance improvement. 

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