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.

Story course 2.5 – The task and the team

Once all the characters have worked through their first twilight zone and
decided how they will respond to the Call to adventure, the journey section
of the story commences in earnest. For the heroes of a story, nothing will
ever be the same again. Their world has changed forever and they must
respond to it in a way that makes sense to them.
The middle stage of a story is filled with mostly two things: people and
problems or the team and the tasks. The heroes meet both friends and enemies
and they meet with tests and trials, some of which they master, but most of
which they fail. Then finally an inevitable confrontation looms.

Again I see 3 elements in this part of a story:

1. Tests and trials: the hero meets obstacles, but experiments with
changing the way s/he used to do things. Sometimes they triumph, but mostly
they fail. The hero must try new alternatives and take drastic measures.

Because of this... (The hero faces the fist challenge)

2. Allies and enemies: As the hero tries to accomplish the goal s/he
had set, there is both support and resistance from other characters. Usually
a side kick or loyal supporter is balanced with a sceptic who is not so sure
about anything. Emotions and reason battle it out at every obstacle. And the
hero meets a contagonist or difficultator who threatens his/her mission. 

But... (Obstacle 2: tradition/temptation/distraction)

3. Approach to Inmost Cave: The hero regroups for a final onslaught and
prepares for the most difficult task. This is also the task that will test
his/her character to see if they had learned from their trials. . The group
is restructured and the original plan revised. Stories about the community
are told to inspire and encourage them.

Because of this... (Hero becomes more aggressive and passionate,
regroups and makes plans)

In our story we have done the first test. Armed with wisdom from Ouma
Nollie, the wise old Oracle, two groups formed. Lord Charles and the Queen
grouped together as they ride out to gather their armies. Jemimah and Mariana
stay behind with Ouma Nollie to see what Mariana's magic sword can do for
them as it begins to lurch and hum in Mariana's hands.

The queen has managed to recover from her jealousy and weakness. Like a true
queen, she has suppressed her personal problems to deal with the matters of
her people. Now she wants Charles and his men to ride with her to the land
of Id to negotiate a settlement. Charles, of course wants to finish the
battle and then ride up to attack Id and destroy him by force. They are on
each other's team, but have different ideas for the solution. Finally they
part each to his/her own army to meet later for the final confrontation:
Charles will cross the waters to Id, capture him and bring him to the queen
for talks.

Back in the dungeons under the burnt out palace, the sword in Mariana's hands
pulls her towards Jemimah. It reels and rumbles and Mariana cannot make out
the meaning of this. Jemimah is flustered and distressed. Ouma Nollie
repeats the words she had spoken to them earlier as the echoes gave her
answers to their questions. To Mariana she repeats: 'All is not as it seems'
and to Jemimah she repeats: 'Stand up for what you believe'. Under great
strain Jemimah grabs the sword, captures Mariana and admits that she is an
agent for Id. She calls for her dragon and kidnaps the Lady to the land of

We have not yet come to our 'Approach', but the stage is set. Not only must
Charles capture Id, but he would also have to free Mariana. Would the Queen
now consider riding to battle in support rather than waiting for Charles to
do all the fighting and saving? What will Ouma Nollie do? How will her words
for Charles and the Queen manifest?

Watch this space for next week's episode of The Rainbow Land of Isle...

Please send me your characters' questions and the echo's replies by leaving
a comment here. Thanks.