Everyone needs a touchstone. Something or someone you turn to when trying to determine what is authentic, what is a good decision, what is the right thing to do. With regard to how people learn, a question I grapple with every day, Roger Schank was my touchstone. His advocacy of a story-centered curriculum (SCC) really resonated with me and I try to introduce such an approach, whenever possible, into the eLearning projects on which I work. SCC is based on the idea that people learn best via direct experience (aka “learning by doing”), and that we should provide learners with realistic scenarios and projects that can facilitate such experiential learning.

Roger, who unfortunately recently passed away, had a long and distinguished career in academe, and was the founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. He also had a long and distinguished career in railing against the prevailing education system that is based on passive memorization and regurgitation through testing. Roger founded Socratic Arts, a company that helps its clients develop story-based curricula, and also founded Engines for Education, a non-profit organization developing a story-centered high school curriculum.

In a high school environment, for example, a story-centered curriculum may have students learning about the principles of physics by building a bridge or designing a sail boat for speed. Likewise, they may learn about certain ethical principles by participating in a mock legal trial. The idea is that the traditional approach of compartmentalizing everything into “topics” to be “covered” has the effect of fragmenting knowledge and stripping it of its context (not to mention making it as boring as watching paint dry!).

I first heard Roger speak at a distance education conference in Wisconsin back in 1996. He can be bombastic and abrasive, but he is also what I consider a breath of fresh air. Roger said that although the world has changed radically in the last century, the traditional model of education (from primary school through graduate school) has remained fairly constant. As he put it, “Professors talk, students take notes, then there is a test.” Not surprisingly, many students are not very engaged at school at all. They may go through the motions to “get the marks,” but they see it as a game, something to be endured to get the sought-after piece of paper, not necessarily an experience that truly motivates them to grow, experiment and learn.

Likewise, I think much of what passes for workplace training is an equally passive and unengaging experience. Only in this case, it is trainers talk, trainees take notes, and there is a test. And this is as true of in-person training, as it is of most training programs delivered via eLearning. However, a story-centered approach can work equally as well for training as it can for education.

So next time you are approaching an eLearning development project, think of the various creative ways that you can bring the learning to life by wrapping it in a story. For example, have:

  • Salespeople learn the sales process through experiencing realistic virtual sales situations;
  • Employees learn about correct emergency procedures by placing them in virtual emergency situations and having them make choices and seeing the immediate results of those decisions;
  • Managers learn how to properly manage harassment complaints by placing them in the middle of realistic, emotionally-charged scenarios and having to react to these.

Stories facilitate active learning. eLearning developers often start with the idea of gathering a bunch of related topics end to end, presenting these, and testing on this. Instead, maybe we should think of ourselves as script writers creating realistic situations in which learners can immerse themselves. They can make choices, screw up, try again, and learn the key lessons without consciously realizing that they are learning. That’s when learning is the most fun and the most effective. And, after all, that’s how we learn in the real world.

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