Due to a somewhat unusual upbringing, I’ve spent most of my entire life thinking about teaching and training. I was about 8 years old the first time I stood on a platform and spoke in front of a hall of people. The religious organisation of which I was a part liked to start us early and I was keen! I can still remember the nerves, but excitement of those early experiences as I walked onto the platform, dressed like a little man in my jacket and trousers, a Windsor knot tie fixed for me by my dad. As a young child I was counselled and tutored on how to speak clearly, use rhetorical questions, make an argument – even how to use gestures, all of which provided a base for what would eventually become my career, long after I had left the group. Perhaps the lesson that had the most profound influence on me was the use of illustrations and stories to make a point.
Stories, I was told help people to remember and are more appealing than just giving people raw information. This idea stayed with me and throughout my training career I’ve always tried to incorporate real life experiences or made-up stories - parables if you will - during training sessions. When I had to choose a final project for my psychology degree, I designed an experiment to test the hypothesis that facts delivered via emotionally laden stories were more accurately remembered than facts delivered alone. My work was never published but interestingly it did suggest a statistically significant effect.
So what does the published research say about the benefits of stories in training? Does the body of research support the idea? If so what’s happening? Three questions I will explore in the rest of this article.
Grossman and Salas (2011) pull together a number of pieces of research in their paper, ‘The transfer of training: what really matters?’. They point to three types of training input that matter: Trainee Characteristics, the Design of the Training and the Work Environment. The first of these three (characteristics of the trainer), pulls together some innate elements including the cognitive abilities of the learner, and their beliefs about how well they are generally able to influence desirable outcomes for themselves (self efficacy). It also points to levels of motivation and the perceived utility of the training - which seem to be situational. The second element, that of training design includes how close to reality the training environment is and the third area, the work environment looks at the opportunity to put into practice what has been learned.
Significantly absent from these important inputs is an explicit reference to the use of stories in teaching and training but it’s there if you look a bit harder. Within the training design element is the concept of ‘Behaviour Modelling’. This is the idea that encourages the learner to consider scenarios both positive and negative where the behaviour being learned can be modelled and practiced. In training this can be through ‘trying out’ certain behaviour, perhaps during role-play, or importantly through internally playing the scene using the imagination. Artists, writers, actors, film producers and social scientists are in agreement that story telling is the key way for us to learn about ourselves and about the world. I would argue it is the premium way that as adults we make sense of the social world.
A second way that stories help learning is through framing. A well told story can frame an otherwise abstract concept into something that the learner is able to see in a relevant context. This is how politicians and social media influencers work, by framing real life events as an example of the thing they are talking about that fits their agenda, and through which they can build a narrative. Stories are powerful. At this point it should be noted as in the words of Spiderman’s Grandpa “with great power comes great responsibility” so stories can be used to frame events in unethical ways too.
Finally, stories draw us in. We like stories and choose to engage with them, so in training and teaching, stories help maintain the attention of the learner. We are wired to listen to well told tales, and even better if as a listener we can put ourselves in the position of one of the protagonists. Something that is often missed in the experimental work that seems to downplay the importance of ensuring training is engaging, including through stories, is that regardless of the theoretical utility (or lack thereof) of a certain method no-one learns anything if they have switched off or are too bored to listen!
Are there risks in the use of stories in training? Of course. Sometimes educators and trainers use stories that are not relevant or that overshadow the actual facts or content that is required to be learned. Clearly some types of learning are more suited than others to storytelling but the use of well told, relevant and engaging stories is in my experience a key part of the learning experience and something that trainers and educators should develop.
Stephen Mather, Evil Sheep Productions.