Teaching Versus Storytelling in eLearning

As children we have an innate love of stories and many of us take that love into adulthood as we choose the escapism of a good book or movie to fill our free time. Through these stories we have subliminally learnt lessons such as, never trust the advice of a man in difficulties; appearances can be deceptive; a liar will never be believed; and there’s always someone worse off than yourself. Of course all these examples come from Aesop’s Fables but when deconstructing any story you will always find a message and you will also realise that somehow you’ve uncovered and understood that message.

Just as we become involved and embroiled in the lives of the characters we read about and watch on the screen, so using forms of storytelling to educate encourages learner interest and participation rather than the age-old passive methods of rote learning and memorisation. Learners are not simply fed fixed answers which they receive and believe, but they begin to ask questions, see things from the points of view of different characters and consequently gain a deeper understanding of what is being taught.

It could be argued that there isn’t actually much difference between teaching and storytelling. They both position learners as the audience, not necessarily allowing them to construct their own knowledge. It is merely the delivery of information that is different. The subject content is still the same.

However, it is the quality of the transfer of content which is essential when ‘teaching’. The turgid mumblings of a lecturer spouting facts is bound to be less effective than the same facts being constructed within a narrative which sets a scene, builds action, proposes and resolves a problem and finally makes its point. Storytelling allows us to learn from others experiences, real or fictitious.

When adapting this to e-learning, case studies are the best ways of telling a story. They are used to illustrate principles in a way that statistics and unfounded generalisations just can’t. They allow the absorption and construction of technical knowledge whilst anticipating and solving problems, exercising roles, linking theory to practice, exposing several different perspectives, making sense of experience, encouraging critical thinking and encapsulating the complexities of a multitude of situations.

Teaching vs. storytelling is a contentious topic and there will always be those for and against both. Research has shown that adults only remember 50% of what they hear, which is probably not a startling fact. It causes problems however, when in order to learn we need to succinctly store the information that is being conveyed. The same can be identified within e-learning. Would you rather sit and read pages of stilted text, fact after fact, or involve yourself in a case study that uses personable characters and their experiences, encouraging you to participate, evaluate, understand and most importantly, retain.

About the author

As HR Manager at RWA, Amy worked as both internal practitioner and consultant to RWA clients. Whilst undertaking the role of HR Manager to RWA employees, she coordinated the on-boarding of new recruits, manages employee absence and assisted with performance reviews and disciplinary/grievance situations. Amy left RWA in 2021.

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