As you may know I’m an instructional designer by trade, one of those people who creates the eLearning and training you all have to sit through at work. Also, if you’re here reading my blog then I assume that you know that I am also deeply in love with games that tell a great story!
In a professional capacity, I recently attended the UKs largest learning and skills convention, Learning Technologies 2014. Throughout the day I went to several of the seminars that caught my eye. Two on gamification and one on an eLearning course about story telling skills. I have to be honest, I wasn’t massively impressed by any of these seminars, but they all gave me time to think a little about story-telling in games, and later about story-telling in learning.
Gamification is rapidly becoming common-place throughout the business world and it’s begun to show its face in the eLearning sector too. However, gamification isn’t the holy-grail, nor is it the answer to everything that ails your learning content. You need to use gamification with caution and exercise restraint when you do. You must always balance what a business needs against what’s actually good for the learner!
I’ve heard it said that stories are one of the many elements that you can find in the gamification toolkit. I disagree with that concept on a fundamental level and would strongly urge people to think of gamification as nothing but a tool in your storytelling toolkit. After all, some of our favourite games are based entirely around a story. The game elements and mechanics work together to deliver and present that story to all who will listen! However, that said, this blog post isn’t about gamification or the merits of its use, that’s a topic for another day. This post is all about stories.
For the last three years I’ve been following the blog of Cathy Moore, an excellent instructional designer, who has a lot to say about the use of scenarios in a learning context. Why do I mention this?
Well… What’s a scenario if it’s not a story?
And what makes a story successful?
The answer to that second question’s simple! It’s all about the emotional engagement or investment!! If your story doesn’t evoke feeling and engage the reader then how can you hope for it to be remembered?
During my time at the Learning Technologies conference I began wondering how I could use stories to promote learning. Not just a short scenario that illustrates a single point, but a full blown narrative, a story that evolves with the learners understanding. I thought carefully about how I learn to play a game. How I absorb abstract concepts and adapt my own behaviour to fit within the constraints of the game itself. I thought back to the different rule books that I’ve read over the years, hundreds of them if we’re counting. Some of these books were good, with excellent examples. Others were terrible, filled with confusion and errors. But ultimately, at the heart of every game, there is a rule book that teaches players to drive the mechanics that ultimately deliver the story.
I don’t really want to stray into the realms of discussing serious games or, more accurately, learning games. So, with that in mind, I’ve thrown together some thoughts on how someone who creates learning could go about constructing a story for an intervention. Here’s a handful of tips that I came up with for starting to think about your own learning stories:
Work with subject matter experts (SMEs) directly – Don’t just ask them the same old tried and tested questions! That just leads to stagnation! Ask them about their feelings on certain subjects.
Is there a particularly difficult task?
How does it make them feel?
How should it make the learner feel?
See if you can include some of their personal experiences in the story that you’re building. This will help you build rapport with them and they may even provide you with some story-telling gold.
Keep the story relevant to the learner – Why does the learner care about what you’re teaching them? Appeal to the learner’s intrinsic motivations if at all possible. Simply saying that they will be motivated to learn because it’s part of their job doesn’t count… Whether your employer believes it or not, work necessity is usually an extrinsic motivation, the learner is being forced to care, and therefore is unlikely to actually care on an emotional level.
Take for example a company who wants to reduce the number of accidents at work because they may soon face financial repercussions. Do the workers ultimately care about the repercussions that management have to deal with? Probably not, in fact, they most likely care more about themselves and their co-workers.
So, with that in mind, start creating a story that’s based around an accident. Highlight the personal physical risks and explain what they could do to their colleagues if they don’t act responsibly. Once you’ve got them emotionally invested in the idea, reveal the big picture consequences. Perhaps the company is fined for its accident record. After paying the fine they can no longer afford to operate the business and take the decision to shut up shop. The result? Unemployment!
What you put into the story is up to you, but don’t be afraid to tap in to the way people think, what they like, or what they fear. But a word to the wise, be sensitive!
- Start small and build up to a grand finale – I once heard that a person will only remember the best bit of a course, the worst bit, and the very last bit. So let’s make sure that the last thing we show them makes it worth waiting for. Of course don’t just try and cram everything in at the end, no-one likes a brain dump.
Do not be afraid of comedy – There’s a fine balance between funny and cringe-worthy. But, even so, if you can make your learners laugh you’ll be giving them a small dose of endorphins. Yes you heard it here first, try and make your learners happy!
Forget the teachers of the past who believed that you weren’t in school to have fun.
News flash!!! There’s nothing in the world that says you can’t have fun whilst learning!
Involve and engage the learner – Don’t be afraid to personalise your story, to bring the learner deeper into the world that you’re creating for them. If you can get your courses to pull the learners names from your learning management system then even better! Address important questions to the learner directly. For example, in a first aid scenario have someone asking the learner for help.
“Tom! Help me lift this weight off of his leg!”
Of course, in this scenario you probably wouldn’t want to lift that weight in case the victim had a crush injury. If you lift it and circulation resumes then you may release toxins back into his body and outright kill him. But in a learning solution it’s OK, “no people were hurt in the making of this story” and it’s one hell of a memorable lesson for those that didn’t know about crush injuries.
“Who lifted this off of him? Was it you Tom? My God! You’ve killed him!”
Remember though! Don’t trick your learners into doing things wrong, let them make their own mistakes, let them fail, but never trick them.
Anyway, that’s five little tips for coming up with your own stories to enhance your learning content. I’m not an author of fiction and I won’t pretend that I can provide you with all the guidance you’ll need. But I do hope that I’ve been able to provide something here that will be of use to you in your future stories! Don’t forget though, if you’re developing a game and want to work on a story for it, then you can just as easily apply the five tips to that too. In fact, for any game developer reading this, I highly recommend reading up on some instructional design principles before you start out writing your all-important rule book!