Storytelling: How Narrative Theory can be used for learning

This blog post discusses Narrative Theory and its application to eLearning courses.

Storytelling is just as much part of our human culture as it is part of our being. Every day, we are confronted with action, conflict, emotion, resolution and vivid, beautiful detail. We internalize these experiences, we shape our actions and reactions for future events from them and process this information through storytelling. Beyond its traditional means of entertainment, storytelling is also a valuable learning tool. 

Think about an instance where someone has told you a story–one where they chronicle in harrowing detail some misfortune or triumph they encountered, one concluded with a phrase like “and that’s when I learned how to/how not to do something.” Not only was there a story, but there was also a lesson, a teachable moment for both the person it happened to and for you, the listener. Through this story, they have equipped you with the knowledge of experience.

Should you find yourself in an analogous scenario, thanks to that narrative, you have the necessary information to discern how to/how not to deal with a similar circumstance. 

By constantly defining experiences through narrative and shaping how we interact with the world around us through these experiences, for example, acquiring a skill or behavior, we enact the Narrative Theory. Project Narrative at The Ohio State University describes the theory: “Narrative theory starts from the assumption that narrative is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience, such as time, process, and change.” Carolyn Clark and Marsha Rossiter, in a study for New Prairie Press, write, “narrative is a fundamentally human way of making meaning.”

Essentially, we use stories as a means of communication and structure to ‘make meaning’ of our surroundings. 

Let’s break this down a little bit further. Take, for example, learning not to touch a hot stove or surface. It just takes one burn for us to understand that stove equals heat, and, when touched, heat equals burn. It’s painful but a learning experience. We burn our hands once as a kid and tell the tale for the rest of our lives, to both share the experience and to exchange information (and hopefully save someone else the pain). This type of learning extends into adult life and learning. Since adult learning draws heavily on past experiences, we can use the narrative of the hot stove and extrapolate it to other situations to avoid harm. 

Okay, so our narratives can help us learn some personal life lessons, but how can narrative be useful for eLearning courses? 

Story-mode. It’s often seen in video games. One plays as the main character, following a narrative to accomplish tasks and beat the game. eLearning companies have combined this gamified concept with aspects of the Narrative Theory to create robust eLearning courses. 

For example, using narrative gives context to the eLearning course. By establishing a setting, characters, conflict, and objective, the learner is given all of the necessary information to navigate the course. Throughout the eLearning course, they can complete tasks that will aid them in addressing the overall conflict–typically something they will address in real-life working scenarios. Once the learner completes the training course, they will be able to draw on the narrative experience to address the tasks at hand. 

Roundtable developed an eLearning course for a manufacturing company that follows a manager through a literal nightmare in his company’s warehouse. Throughout the course, the learner can identify where crises began and what could have been done to stop them. At the end of the course, the character of the manager wakes up from his nightmare and can identify potential hazards. With this application of Narrative Theory, the learner should also be able to learn from both the narrative and fictitious character’s experiences to avoid conflict in the real-world workplace. 

If you are interested in seeing how a narrative-based eLearning course could help boost your company’s training program, get in touch with one of our experts.

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