It almost seems absurd that I would feel compelled to write an article espousing the inherent value of story-based learning in adult education. Storytelling has been integral to the way in which human beings learn since before recorded history. Huddled around campfires for safety and warmth, we shared our stories, our cultures, our identities, and presented our knowledge and experiences to any who would listen — for generation after generation.
So why, then, is learning through storytelling all but abandoned after childhood? Have tales of witches and slippers and hoods so exhausted the potential of story-based learning paradigms that the further and greater depth and breadth of communicable human experience is wholly unsuited to such childish methodologies? The answer, of course, is no.
Let us, then, take a look at some of the reasons why stories are just as suited to empowering our adult learning journeys as they were our early development by considering the concept of Situated Learning.
Situated Learning (sometimes referred to as Situational Learning), is a powerful and effective form of learning based on narrative structures. As humans, and from an early age, we contextualize our experiences by ascribing meaning to them through storytelling. Stories, in that respect, are not limited to narratives told to us by others, but also those that we internally craft in order to recall abstract information in a concrete manner later in life.
When we experience an event, we are flooded with somewhat amorphous sensations and stimuli. Sights, sounds, aromas, tactile sensations, shifts in body chemistry, our nervous system response — all serve to flesh out and complete a feedback loop of information to both quantify and qualify the experience. Without our ability to turn that cacophony into a personal narrative — our own history — it would readily be lost to time as a swirling and dizzying mess of disparate and disconnected factoids.
Luckily, we are imbued with a natural talent for this process and prodigiously distill innumerable micro-experiences into a recountable version of the event. What’s more, by formalizing these abstracts, we can then develop and utilize our own abstractions later on in a variety of analogous situations.
For instance, let us take the canonic life lesson combining “too hot” and “owie;” the child who touches a hot pan on the stove and gets a burn. So many details make up that moment; more than anyone could completely retain and recall. So we filter and distill the moment down to those elements we determine to be most useful to our gaining from the experience. We note the location (kitchen), the implement (pan) and its material (metal) and color (glowing red), the catalyst (fire), and various other details of our choosing.
If the value of the narrative ended there, of course, we would be restricted to identifying and applying our knowledge in purely identical scenarios — not very helpful as we would have to experience every possible variation of a scenario in order to reasonably prepare ourselves to handle the experience should it again occur.
The real power of this storytelling process, this distillation of data, is how it forms the base upon which further abstraction can occur. The specific kitchen becomes all kitchens. The specific pan becomes a general representation of metal objects and what we learned about their reaction to not just fire, but perhaps heat in general.
We are now equipped with tools to guide us through similar, not merely exact, situations:
“If I were to touch the glowing, red hot, metal spoon that someone left by the campfire I will regret my actions.”
“If even non-metal objects are near fire or heat or glow red, then they are likely also hot enough to burn me.”
“If metal becomes heated by proximity to heat, then the heat source is, itself, a potential hazard.”
The above is intentionally simplistic as it is meant to illustrate the lessons we learn as children that we carry with us throughout our lifespan. The key here is not the specific lesson learned, but how it was learned.
Adults are exceptionally good at drawing upon research, rote memorization, and the use of logic to piece it all together when working to solve a problem, and I am certainly not advocating that we abandon those gifts. Let us, though, consider again just how much impact our “owie” lesson had on our lives, how readily we recall it in a myriad of situations throughout our life, and how much we are able to extrapolate the information from this single event and apply it across disparate and ever-changing circumstances.
It goes without saying that the more we experience, the more we are able to draw upon experience and, consequently, the more adept we become at developing and utilizing our inherent logic to guide us through life’s twists and turns. Today, we are better equipped than we have ever been in human history to leverage narrative as a learning tool.
With the aid of technology, we are able to produce virtual experiences with non-linear narratives and variable outcomes that can be repeated often and at-will and will adapt to the learner and their ability level. Though not the same as “being there,” that ability to “try, try again,” without the same fear and reticence that cause us to shy away from real-world experiences, has value in its own right. Instead of relying exclusively on either our own personal experience or our ability to theorize based on those experiences, we can put our theories into practice and, in doing so, hone our analytical skills and our powers of observation and deduction.
In future installments, we will explore specific narrative learning theories and methodologies, especially as they relate to adult learning, but for now I will simply ask you to reflect upon the role that stories have played, and continue to play, in your own learning and life.
Storytelling is so much a part of what makes us human that it significantly defines our humanity. Our relationships, our behaviors, our perspectives, our very identities — these things both shape and are shaped by our stories. Something so central to the human experience, so integral not just to our formation but to our continual growth and evolution, should never be limited to the confines of childhood.
Though we might outgrow many other “childish ways,” we never outgrow our stories. We recount them and reshape them, over and over and over again, ever-learning new things about the world that surrounds us and, most importantly, about ourselves.
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