In my other life, I write fiction so I often consider the parallels between instructional design and storytelling.
The analysis phase
Just like outlining a story, the analysis phase of a training program involves:
- Identifying the conflict: What’s the problem that needs to be solved to get a desired performance?
- Learning about the characters: Who are the learners? Who do they interact with in their day-to-day lives?
- Considering the setting: What’s the learners’ environment like?
- Deciding on the form of a story: Should it be flash fiction? A longer story? What multimedia elements should it include? Will these elements support the story or are they distracting fluff?
The design phase
A set-up or introduction: What’s the hook? Why is instruction/training important? In our fast-paced work environments, learners need to be engaged quickly and to relate the instructional story to their own lives.
Rising action: Learning modules need to be scaffolded to create more and more learner competence and independence.
Climax: Assessment activities should allow for the right amount of challenge to allow learners to engage in critical thinking skills, but the climax needs to flow naturally from what’s gone before.
Resolution: Learners should be given performance support tools to enhance transfer. Learners should feel that they haven’t wasted their time, but should know how the training they’ve received connects to their lives and to problems they’re facing.
Development/implementation/evaluation: ADDIE’s no longer linear
Writers generally self-evaluate throughout the process of writing to see if the story’s flowing in the right way, though formal editing may not occur until the entire draft of the story’s set out. In the same way, the instructional designer should be constantly evaluating his or her objectives/design/instructional methods and course-correcting along the way to the development and implementation phases.
When the dust settles, a good writer examines a story critically and asks whether all the content moves the plot forward. Anything that doesn’t support the plot should be eliminated. So too in instructional design, the designer should eliminate information that’s merely nice-to-know and should keep only need-to-know information.
At the same time, just as stories can benefit from the judicious use of narration, designers should consider what knowledge and skills learners need to be able to solve a problem. What are the facts, concepts, and principles needed to support learners as they carry out real-world problems? What processes do learners need to be aware of to consider how they fit into the big picture of their work environment? Throwing learners into the middle of the action without any support or context can leave them feeling frustrated.
Finally, passing the instructional story out to reviewers allows designers to escape “designer blindness” and to see the story from the eyes of the audience.
Using stories as learning tools
Stories also can be great ways of presenting instruction to learners:
- Human beings are natural storytellers
- We pay attention to stories: we want to know how a story ends
- We can readily attach our own meanings to stories
- Stories are generally easier to remember than a long list of bullet points
Learners can be involved in a story in a virtual environment or as part of a scenario or case study. But you don’t need fancy technology to tell a good story and this remains true for instructional design solutions. While multimedia can enhance a story, all the CGI in the world won’t resurrect a plot that’s a stinker.
Having a learner articulate the concepts and principles identified by a story can help learners build their own mental models of what’s important. Similarly, having learners tell their own stories can allow them to synthesize concepts and principles and apply them. Learners can use technology to enhance their stories but it’s not a requirement for learning.
Whether you use storytelling as a metaphor in your instructional design or actually create stories as part of the learning solutions you provide, remember that the story should challenge, stimulate thinking, create emotional resonance, and live on in the minds of its “readers.”