Thursday, April 26, 2007

Learners Are "Bulletproof"

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' blog)

The title of this entry was inspired by a passage from Craig Wortmann’s terrific book, “What’s Your Story?”. It speaks to both how communication has shifted in recent years and the ineffective nature of the way we often attempt to teach.

Just as lengthy memos were replaced by brief emails, which were, in turn, overtaken by IMing and SMS (thanks to increasingly powerful mobile phones/devices), the way we converse and communicate is becoming more and more staccato’d . Increasingly, we are speaking to each other in fragmented facts and bullets instead of descriptive and nuanced narratives. In pursuit of speed, we have traded away “rich/engaging/compelling” for “fast/efficient/familiar”. In many ways, this is a fool’s bargain, and it’s beginning to show.

Q: What is the longest standing, most tried-and-true, and instinctually natural way of passing knowledge from expert to novice?

A: Leave your laptops, Powerpoints, and Blackberries behind… Forget about books, manuals, and job aids… It’s the ancient art of storytelling.

I’m planning to post a series of entries about the power of Story in Instructional Design in the coming weeks/months, but I figured this observation regarding bullet points was a good place to begin the journey. It speaks to the importance of context and the way we process, store, and recall information.

When you tell someone a set of facts and figures, it can make a temporary impact, but it’s usually quickly forgotten as decontextualized white noise. What’s lacking is meaning and relevance to the listener – in order for something to be understood at a deep level and retained for more than a few days (hours?... minutes!?...), there has to be a personal connection made. Something that relates the new information to old, personal, previously understood information. Something that refines, extends, contradicts, augments, or otherwise changes the existing set of cases and rules that exist in the learner’s mind. Without this comparative review and adjustment, any ‘learning’ that may occur will ultimately be fleeting.

So, we need to move away from the expedient habit of disseminating data in meaningless bullets and rediscover the importance of context, which can be created in the form of stories.

Here's a short and simple example to illustrate the difference.

Consider the following bulleted fact:

  • “Corporate earnings were 3.2 billion (dollars/yen/euros/pounds/rupees) in 2006.”
What does this data point tell you? What image do you have in your head about this company’s standing? What do you understand now that you didn’t understand before? What meaning has this information given you?

OK – now review the following 12 charts (with the red “dot” marking 3.2 billion):

Instantly, and without conscious effort, you probably told yourself a “mini story” to process and comprehend the data represented in each chart. You couldn’t help yourself. Is 3.2 billion a good thing? A bad thing? Status quo? For each chart above, you easily created a plausible tale of “what’s going on” that is grounded in your previous experiences (firsthand and vicarious). This instinctual tendency is part of who we are, at a fundamental level. It provides a compelling insight into how our brains work, and suggests ideas for leveraging this cognitive habit to our instructional advantage.

Imagine the final step in this example chain - instead of being given a bulleted fact, or even a graphical chart, you are provided a compelling narrative of the events that influenced a company's fiscal performance. Maybe a story of how a small oil and gas company played a role in one of the largest bankruptcies in US history? How recognizible and well-understood are terms like "securities fraud" in the post Enron/Worldcom era? Why? Because stories were told - stories of greed, arrogance, fraud, trust, loss, and ruin - that brought obscure accounting terms and practices out of the textbooks and into the personally relevant world of everyday people.

Stories help to add meaning to new data. Meaning is a critical element in increasing retention. Without retention, there's no hope for application.

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