How to use stories to make learning stick

Over and over you may have heard or experienced how a story can really make an idea stay with you. You have heard someone relate something that had happened to them and you retell it struck by what the story says about your world and its people.

What about stories that you remember from childhood or from literature? They create metaphors and symbols that we use in everyday life to refer to some kind of truth that we learned through them. The proverbial goose who lays the golden egg, or the black sheep in the family. What about Afrikaans people saying “ek is nie die vark in hierdie verhaal nie” (I am not the pig in this story).

Stories make learning stick because they involve the left and the right brain, they excite the emotions and they connect concepts with one another in surprising but memorable ways. They make what is abstract suddenly concrete and doing so creates aha-moments that stay with you over time. Stories even give you practical solutions and show you things you can do to make your life different.

There is another untapped but extremely powerful way in which stories can make learning stick – not through their content, but through their structure.

If you have read the Bible, or studied Greek mythology, or heard fairy tales from your grandmother, studied some Shakespeare at school, or just seen a few Hollywood films, you would recognize this structure right away. It is the dramatic structure underlying almost all stories and serves the purpose of taking the main character in the story on a journey of self discovery and personal growth.

Stories take the hero on a journey of learning – a kind of learning that not only sticks with him/her the hero, but impacts their entire community and often the land itself: they lived happily ever after,  their people prospered, and their land was fruitful.

A story is designed to teach the hero lessons that will stick – can the same structure do the same for you and your team, client or audience?

There are three levels on which this story structure works: the fictional, the personal, and the communal.

1. The fictional level

When you read or listen to a story you can distinguish the elements of the structure quite easily. Knowing the elements can then help you understand the story and use it to make your own stories.

2. Your own life journey.

Whenever you experience change, uncertainty, or heightened emotion, Once you understand stories, you can apply their meaning to your own life. your story is moving through one of the stages of story structure.

3. The growth of a group, company or community

Entire communities may go through change and again the same pattern is recognizable. You can therefore use story structure to understand and shape the growth of a group, company or community.

If you understand how the story structure of the hero’s journey works, you can use it in the lives of other people to play an important role in their growth. You can

  • shape information to fit into a story so that people are inspired to change;
  • use it to design presentations and proposals
  • design and organize workshops  and events that will help people open up to new ideas and change.

The three levels of the story’s function is very hard to separate from one another. The hero’s personal journey is woven into the journey of her own community.  In your own life too, the stories you read influence and mirror your life and your life influences and mirrors the lives of those around you. If you understand how this works, you may be able to use stories to manage your own growth and play a great role in shaping the stories of those of others.

Playing Mantis offers a one day workshop on Story Strategies for Facilitators where we explore how to use the structure of story as tool for designing learning experiences that will make the learning stick.

Values Clarification: A crucial step in building self esteem

What is values clarification?

Values clarification is the attempt to expose the value systems that function in a person or a group. These value systems need clarification because they are hidden beneath the surface. On the surface are the opinions, actions and behavioural patterns of a person or group, but the values that motivate these opinions and actions are often buried in the unconscious. Clarifying your values then gives you the opportunity to discover your value and so build your self esteem. It is a crucial step for building self esteem.

A value system is the network of presuppositions you might have about perceived reality. I say perceived reality because these presuppositions determine how you interpret life. It is not how life really is, but rather how life is for you In this way values form a frame of standards through which you interpret events as being real/not real, true/false, good/bad, right/wrong.

Values are the presuppositions in the system that hangs together in a particular manner to colour the way in which any given person or group of people views reality. Together the values in the system provide a frame through which life is understood.

Framing is the act of selecting a relevant position from which you can analyse and understand events. The network of presuppositions that shape a person’s value system is not made up of one frame only, but rather a matrix of frames. The framing of reality is an unconscious action natural to the human brain. You do it without even knowing that you are doing it. It is the way people cope with the complexities of everyday life. Because you are yourself part of your own perceived reality, you also interpret your self through the framework of presuppositions.

How does values clarification build self esteem?

The meaning of life

Life becomes meaningful to us relative to the frame through which we are looking at it. Framing enables you to analyse your life from where you are now using the values that are present in your system now. Tomorrow you see things differently because events and circumstances may have changed or shifted your frame a little. The frame is always appropriate to a particular perspective and time. This means that the meaning of life is constantly evolving and changing according to our frames, our value systems.

Values clarification helps you to clarify the meaning of life for you

Knowing the meaning of life for you where you are now helps you take stock of your life so that you can deal with it. ‘Dealing with it’ will boost your self esteem.


Since your frames, or values, are the go-betweens between you and your world, and since your matrix of frames is unique, your frames tell you who you are. Through knowing your frames you get to know yourself and construct (consciously or unconsciously) your identity.

Values clarification helps you to clarify your identity

If you know who you are, chances are you will discover you like yourself. Then you can work on how to express yourself in ways that communicate who you are. This will build your self esteem.

Personal growth

Your frames can become oversimplified, inflexible, or inappropriate to your context – especially if your context has changed for some reason. In such cases it becomes important for you to re-evaluate and adapt your frames. If you do this well, two things can happen. Either you will redefine and strengthen your values becoming more of who you really are. Or you would adapt or adjust them to help you align yourself with the needs of your circumstances. This often means you become more flexible and open to change, but without compromising your self. Either way your self esteem is boosted.

But if you do it badly and make the wrong choices, you could be buying into value systems that pull you further and further away from who you are. You simply exchange your identity for a mask or a false set of beliefs that do not express your inner spirit. Though this could boost your confidence or your status short term, it could have dire consequences for your self esteem in the long run. You lose self respect and confidence in your ability to express who you are.

Values clarification helps you grow or regress

Furthermore, because frames are embedded in your culture, a re-evaluation of your values implies a re-evaluation and adaptation of your culture too. Again you can establish and refine your culture, or chose to disidentify with it and move against it. Again it can be done well or badly with matching consequences.

Refining and strengthening your values will build your self esteem. Denying who you are and going against your nature will weaken it.

Why use stories to help with values clarification?

Since you only perceive reality through your cultural frames you do not have the option of stepping outside the frame in order to see reality as it truly is. The only option is to compare frames to one another and choose different ones that may be more appropriate for you.

Stories enable you to create a fictional setting which allows you to step into a make believe frame and out of your reality. You step away from your matrix of frames so that you can evaluate it by comparing it to some make believe alternatives. This allows you to adapt the frame or choose a different, more context appropriate one. Even better, if you dramatise your alternative by acting it out or imagining it through writing, you can try it out safely without the danger of real consequences. Story acted out or imagined through creative writing is the ideal tool for making value systems conscious, evaluating and adapting them.

Stories help build your self esteem by clarifying your values and so allowing you to
– find the meaning of life for you where you are now
– clarify your current identity and
– strengthen who you are in the present moment

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren