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.

Keep Them Safe Stage 3, part 1 – The journey begins

Klapmuts soup drinkers giving the thumbs up
Klapmuts soup drinkers giving the thumbs up


on the first and second days, it was pouring with rain. When the clouds finally cleared, the mountains were covered in snow. Needless to say, very few kids came to the activities. This proved to be the first of many unforeseen obstacles on the road to running a successful holiday programme.

Because of this, PITCH teams adapted their plans and issued new calls to adventure. They nursed the kids through their doubts and fears with hot soup and warm smiles and an explosive first week line up! .  

For over 3 months we recruited, trained and nurtured about 200 adult volunteers to get them ready, so that they can get us ready. Then the time for preparation simply ran out and the Journey was upon us.

On 11 June Bafana Bafana scored the first goal of the Fifa Soccer World Cup and the following Monday on 14 June KTS kicked off. It was rainy and freezing cold but all over Stellenbosch courageous teams stood ready for kids who needed warm food and entertainment.

It is now nearly 2 weeks later and numbers are increasing every day.

But where do the kids come from? How did they know to come and where to come too? How did they know what they would find when they got there?

While the journey started form the adults and organisers, the kids still needed to be Called to Adventure.

You may have read earlier that we are designing 2 journeys simultaneously.

  1. Keep Them Safe: a story about adults putting together a holiday programme for kids during the Fifa Soccer World Cup
  2. The Perfect PITCH: a story about kids and young people playing and working to express themselves through Arts, culture, sport and entrepreneurship

Of course it is not true that the holiday programme started with marketing. In actual fact, the compassion days each community had to organise in preparation for the holiday programme also functioned as marketing events for the kids and young people.

Many communities followed these up with various events like talent shows and modelling competitions to get the kids’ attention. At the same time we, As back bone team, appointed a group to run a marketing campaign in schools to advertise the programme

At all these events the 3 elements of the Call to Adventure were taking into account:

  1. Who is the target audience? What are their characteristics, strengths and weaknesses?
  2. What do their Ordinary Worlds look like? How are they stuck?
  3. What is our promise to them?

But something went wrong with the marketing… when KTS kicked off, only young kids arrived. There were very few, if any, young people older than 11.  What happened?

One reason was that the schools that were visited with the marketing group were mostly primary schools, so the older kids never heard the Call. Although all Secondary Schools were also targeted, few opened their doors for the marketing group.

Also the holiday programme was designed so that young kids would play from 9 to 12 and the older ones from 11 to 14:00. This was hard to advertise and communicate it seems. Youngsters who did arrive came early with the little ones and then left when they saw too few of their own age there.

When PITCH teams saw this trend, many came up with good ideas in the first week to get youngsters on board. Some paraded through the streets with music and mega phones calling the kids out of their homes and out of the streets. Others changed their programmes by using the older kids who came early to assist with the young ones. Eventually in some communities the two sepearte programmes have now just fused into one.

Finally, a team of photographers and writers have added their weight to our project and have taken it upon them to make the project more visible in the local media. We ar forever thankful to them.  Thank you to the adult Asset Builders of Stellenbosch.

Eventually we are noticing that the best Call to Adventure for the older kids is the content of the programme itself. The longer it runs, the more friends tell each other and the more kids and young people pitch for the perfect PITCH.

The Perfect PITCH programme is its own ‘perfect pitch’.

Why? Because kids, but especially young people are full of fears and doubts and it takes time for them to overcome these and commit fully to the adventure. Maybe more on that next time as we go a little deeper into the design of the programme itself and look at The Perfect PITCH – preparing kids for their journey.