Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Learning Through Stories

My father has told me countless stories and continues to be a good storyteller. Whether it is to share his opinion or advice or just generally talk about his experiences, he has always kept a story ready! First it was us, and now it is his grandchildren. And so, I have always liked stories; both telling and listening to them. And I hope to continue my father’s legacy by sharing countless stories with my daughter.

While I have always enjoyed stories, I only really understood their importance when I was developing a training workshop recently. A few weeks ago, I completed the development of a training workshop on saving organization skills. The goal of the workshop was to help employees learn how to identify and capture critical knowledge and skills that are present today but may leave with the generation exiting in a few years. In the workshop, I included the use of stories as a major communication tool that can help pass on critical skills and knowledge in a communal, social, and emotional way. For the workshop, I researched and read several case-studies about how corporate storytelling has led to the success of knowledge management initiatives. And I learned this yet again that if our learning programs resembled stories instead of a download of information, boring lectures, and online page-turners, we will be far more successful in our training goal.

Here are some of my insights on stories and their connection to all things learning:

1) Stories help us gain knowledge and solve problems just like all good learning should

When there was no written text, stories was the main communication tool to both preserve and pass on the knowledge about life, culture, society and critical skills to the next generation. Using cave drawings, early men shared their knowledge and skills with their children and many generations after that. Religious scriptures in both Indian and Western mythology are based on stories that pass on morals, values and beliefs. These stories almost always include characters that solve real-world problems and deal with everyday issues. And there is enough to tell us that stories work. So, it makes sense to continue using stories in our training interventions including inside classrooms and in elearning.

2) Stories offer both entertainment and education just like all good learning should

What is in a story that makes us laugh, cry, and think? A good story is a narrative that is engaging not only to our eyes and ears but also our mind. If it leaves us with a good point, it makes is worthwhile to have spent that time seeing and/or listening to a story. In that sense, a moral is a critical aspect of a story. In the same way, all good learning should leave us with a ‘learning point’…something that we can take back from the classroom into our life. On a related note, stories are entertaining and educative but never really about pure facts and information. All good stories are about tacit knowledge, about sharing experiences and wisdom that are embedded deep into our lives. So should good learning be – about education and not information.

3) Stories are participatory and help make it real just like all good learning should

There is something about an exciting narrative that makes us want to participate. Infact, I think stories are one of the very few things that can actually engage multiple intelligences. There is something for all kinds of learners whether visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, or a combination of these. Also, storytelling has always had a social context. After all, no one would tell a story to themselves! To make stories a success, you need a good storyteller and a captive audience who participates and feels involved. Good story-telling is about ensuring that the plot and characters are something that we can relate to. Same is the case with learning. If it is not social, if it doesn't involve us, and if we can't relate to it - it wouldn't make sense.

4) Stories are emotional just like all good learning should

Stories touch cords that are deeper than just intellectual. Stories are about emotions. And these emotions transcend geographies, culture, and even language. If it doesn't invoke interest, awe, surprise, empathy and other such feelings in our hearts, it isn't a good story! Reflecting back on our childhood, we will realize that we remember all the lessons taught to us through stories either by our parents, teachers, or coaches. If it didn’t invoke emotions – good or bad – we are not likely to remember those stories. Same is with good learning. If it doesn’t stir up anything, how will we ever learn to do things or do them differently? Just like James Stephens says “What the heart knows today the head will understand tomorrow”. So, all learning needs to go through the heart to the head.

5) Stories stick just like all good learning should

Good stories are memorable. What makes a story memorable is the excitement, surprise, curiosity, and learning they generate. And above all, we are involved in the thoughts and actions of the characters. In that sense, we are actively involved in every step as the story unfolds. We think, reflect, and think some more about what’s going to happen and how it will all end. All these memories often create fabulous conversations later. These conversations can lead to generating new knowledge through analysis and reflection. In that sense, stories stimulate our minds at the point when we are listening to them - and later when we get a chance to either apply what we learned or reflect on what we know. Good learning has to be like that so that we can use it at the right time. It needs to stick and stay in our heads for a long time. Good learning needs to keep us engaged from the time it starts to the point it ends and then transfer itself into our life.

I’d like to end by saying that stories help us transform ourselves. I have had several stepping stones into personal growth and development owing to many stories that my parents, teachers, and coaches have shared with me. Stories have motivated me, inspired me, and enabled me to embrace change. I think good learning has the same power just waiting to be harnessed.