In the learning field, especially when the approach is learner-centred, we talk of the “learning journey” that people go on as they build their capacity/understanding/competency in a new area. We may also use the words “learning narrative” to describe this learning process to others.

It’s interesting to think how a learning practitioner builds his or her ability to design a compelling learning journey. And I wondered today how storytelling and story writing might help us…

If you look at the structure of a story and that of a learning process (let’s take a week long workshop for example) you might find some of the same steps along the way.

Where a story might introduce the characters at the beginning, in a learning course you would introduce both the participants on the learning journey (e.g. other learners in the room), as well as the issues that will be playing a big role in the week.

After introductions, you might have some time to get to know the characters, including their backstories and ambitions. In a learning workshop you might at this stage have some group development exercises to help people to get to know more about their colleagues, and also go deeper together into the issues and themes of the workshop. As in a good story, all would not be described in a linear or obvious way; you would discover interesting new things, facets and added complexity, as you read. In a workshop it could be the same, new aspects of the theme would be uncovered as the group digs into it and adds their own different perspectives to it (e.g. through group discussion and work, rather than only presented through straight lecture format).

Then, just when you get comfortable (hey, I get this stuff!) there needs to be a challenge – some tension in our story (and our learning) – what ever will our heroes do?!

(And of course there might also be some antagonists – in workshops they call themselves “Devil’s Advocates”:-)

Our challenge may be a real community challenge-like transboundary water conflict or unsustainable fishing practices – to which the workshop participants, with the community members, are trying to contribute some thinking. It might be a learning case study to solve together or a U-process that helps them reflect on a problem, perplexing issue or an unhelpful paradigm. At this point in our story, and our workshop, as we try to overcome the challenge, passions and emotions may be high – can we do it?

Yes we can! (At this point the ending of our story may be personally biased, I tend towards resolution and happy endings, and I think that learning environments often benefit from the same). In our story, this can include that ending summary that we see when the characters get together and talk through what happened (like at the end of Secret Seven books or Scooby Doo episodes). In our workshop it may be a final report back on the conclusions of the group work, presented to the community or to each other. This could be followed by a collaboratively built summary reflection on what happened and what people learned, and some final words.

In stories, as in learning, there are lots of interesting ways to make the narrative exciting for the reader (and workshops for our learners). Unusual and complex situations and scenarios (who gets the land: the farmers, villagers, foresters or loggers?), thought experiments, seeing things from different perspectives, excellent questions, incredible backdrops (I once held a learning workshop on a beach in Thailand, at a wastewater treatment plant in Morocco, and a mountaintop in northern Mexico) and more.

So, where can you find insight and inspiration for the design of your learning narrative? Read any good books lately?

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