Learning Stories

Once upon a time, nearly twenty years ago, as a newly qualified and enthusiastic teacher I could have been found standing in front of a class of thirty teenagers delivering one of several courses for ICT or computing.  Many of the courses that I delivered involved a mixture of both theoretical understanding of topics and practical exercises to develop and demonstrate that understanding.  This would often mean that a typical week would involve some elements of “chalk and talk” in front of a whiteboard, and some elements of practical demonstration and mentoring.

Scroll forward to today, and I spend almost all of my time working in front of a laptop developing tools to enable others to deliver a wide range of learning experiences as effectively as possible.  Looking at the way that different people deliver their training can be interesting, and highlights that although the delivery methods have changed dramatically over the last ten years, the same basic principles hold when creating courses. 

Teaching or training on any given topic can be thought of in terms of telling a story, and like all good stories can be broken down in to three phases – a beginning, a middle and an end.

In the beginning, it’s important to outline what the course is for.  This can be a formal list of objectives that you refer to during the course, or can be simpler than that, maybe just a short statement to identify what you expect learners to get out of the course.  Knowing who your learners are is also key to developing a successful course – it’s important that your learners get something from the course, but also important to manage expectations.  Setting out the basics at the very start means that you reduce the risk of people attempting training that’s at an inappropriate level and increases the level of engagement by ensuring the topic is relevant to the individual and their role.

Once you’ve started the course, you need to use the understanding of your audience to pitch the content at the right level and use the right language.  It can take time to get this right, and you’ll find that learners will always surprise you.  The best content tends to have a clear structure – based on the objectives – and give plenty of opportunities to demonstrate understanding.  You don’t have to go crazy and put dozens of multiple-choice questions in every course, or sprinkle in large numbers of on-screen assessments.  Sometimes, it’s best to let the learner control their own assessment – using simple prompts such as “Can you think of an example of this in your own workplace” can get learners to start thinking more widely about topics.  Similarly, providing prompts for learners to make notes, such as “Try writing down three examples of ….” can also get learners thinking more creatively – especially if you follow up the exercise with some examples of your own.

Finally, everybody likes a happy ending – including learners.  Providing simple rewards such as badges or certificates for completing key topics successfully can be a great motivational tool and can empower some of the more reluctant learners to engage more with learning and development – a nice win for them and for their organisation.  For complex topics, it might also be helpful to provide some sort of reference material that learners can keep and go back to in the future to support them when carrying out their normal role.

Storytelling can be a useful way to lead learners through a topic and provides a way of helping people remember key content.  Producing training courses can seem daunting, particularly when you start developing material yourself for the first time, but it can be incredibly rewarding and doesn’t have to be complicated.

If you’re interested in exploring the concepts of learning through storytelling further, why not have a look at some of the Scenario modules on the Development Zone.  For example, the case study around Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace provides a great introduction to dealing with employees in a range of situations through the use of short scenarios.  Alternatively, you might want to start telling your own training stories via the range of custom content formats available – you can find more information about the formats via the DevZone Academy.

Happy storytelling.

About the author

After gaining a degree in Computer Science, Tim spent nine years teaching in a number of secondary schools (11-19 year olds) in Wales.  For the majority of his time teaching, Tim led a highly successful team of teachers delivering vocational ICT qualifications and reached the level of Associate Assistant Headteacher before leaving teaching.  He has also been a senior examiner and moderator for one of the UK's largest awarding bodies.  Since 2013 he has been the senior developer for the Development Zone.

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