We are told that learners are no longer able to concentrate on content that’s more than four or five minutes long. And there’s no doubt that, when it comes to consuming information, we’d prefer it concise. After all, we want that information to help us achieve some goal and we don’t want to take too long in the process. GIGIGO – get in, get it, get out. That’s our aim.
But meaningful learning does not usually take place in minutes; it can take days, months or years of testing ideas out, reflecting and discussing, honing our skills and building our confidence.
Our content can play a valuable role in that process, not just by informing the learner of what they need to know and do, but by sparking ideas, generating insights, challenging assumptions and enabling them to take their first steps along the skills journey. But that takes time – four or five minutes will not be enough.
In this section and the one that follows, we discuss two elements in learning content that can hook learners in and not let them go; that will give you the time to make a more meaningful difference. We start with storytelling.
A well-told story – whether real or fictitious – will immerse us in someone else’s world and make us care about their problems. We can concentrate on stories for many hours – just think how much time in a week we spend reading novels, watching films, catching up on soaps or wading through box sets.
As Jeremy Hsu writes in Scientific American, ‘Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history.’
For more than 27,000 years, humans have been communicating by telling stories. I’m sure that if you were to open up our brains and tip the contents onto the floor, what would come out would be piles and piles of stories. According to a 1997 study by Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool, personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations. That seems like an underestimate to us.
Here are seven ways in which stories power learning:
- Stories speak to us as humans
- Stories hold our attention (because we want to know how the situation resolves itself)
- Stories engage us emotionally (the elephants at least)
- Stories provide us with examples of how to do things or how not to
- Stories provide us with insights intro important principles
- Stories help us to remember lots of other stuff (when we remember the story, we remember lots of details that would otherwise be hard to recall)
- Stories are likely to be shared, increasing our reach
Any subject can be made more interesting through storytelling. And many subjects could probably be taught using storytelling alone. Think back to the most memorable experiences you’ve had as a learner. Chances are your favourite teachers told lots of stories. Well, so can good learning content.