Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Learning Facts and Foundational Knowledge with Stories

Facts – whether foundational or advance – can be related to real-life occurrences to engage learners and help them find context while gaining required knowledge.


Does story-based learning only apply to experienced learners?

What is common among these photos?
I am teaching a course on interactive elearning design at the University of California, Irvine and a nagging question has surfaced. Is story-based learning only applicable to audiences who have experience on a given subject or does it also work  in teaching foundational and factual knowledge?
For our conversation here, we define factual or foundational knowledge as scientific formulas and technical processes and procedures.  We also define story-based learning as a design method using narrative and interactive stories rooted in real-life events. Click here.

In preparing for a response to the class, what comes to my mind quickly are the works of Richard Feynman – Nobel Laureate, B. Audoly and S. Neukirch – Breaking Spaghetti and teaching kids measurement units.  

What can we learn from these examples and how can we apply them to the elearning design?

How bent spaghetti breaks

In this experiment, the use of spaghetti aids the scientists to link a common day to day experience- breaking spaghetti- to the explanation of the dynamics of elastic rods.
The scientists use spaghetti all throughout the presentation and makes it as a reference point. Readers and students understand the scientific facts better because they are presented with a commonly understood representation – spaghetti.
Please see more.

Feynman Lectures – Boat Time
Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, used real-life examples to state his problems. In this case, he used the boat’s travel time to compare two methods. Access the link, click on “Exercises” and select “Boat Time.” You may also see other examples here -

The Little Inch Worm – Teaching Units of Measurements

From the website of Shorecrest Preparatory School, I found this interesting illustration. “While learning about the letter Ii and units of measurement, the Junior Kindergartners read "Inch by Inch" by Leo Lionni. The story is about a little inchworm that must measure different things. When threatened that he'll be eaten if he doesn't measure Nightingale's song, he uses his imagination to get himself out of a tough situation. As an extension, the children used one-inch square paper number tiles to create an inchworm. They had to find the correct numbers and glue them in order to create their useful friend.” See more.

Making facts and new knowledge familiar – challenge and solution

The above examples illustrate how factual knowledge, whether foundational (kids on measurement) or advance formulas (Feynman’s “ Boat Time” and B. Audoly/S. Neukirch’s “Spaghetti Break”) are best learned by using familiar real-life-events or stories. Selecting these stories can be approached in this manner:

1.   Understanding how stories aid our natural instincts to face challenges and find solutions

The narrative elements of stories become a form of goal-seeking device, relative to presenting  a challenge to the learner. The interactive elements of stories, on the other hand, aid in the quest for resolutions. In this pursuit for answers lie the opportunities for interaction by the learner. Natural instincts compel learners to be in Constant Readiness mode for learning.
The examples above show some form of a challenge and a quest for a solution. This is at the very core of the design that engages learners. Feynman always used problems and solutions to engage learners.

2.   Transforming the fact into a common or familiar real-life experience

Boats, spaghetti and worms are common or real-life occurrences. The purpose of selecting a real-life episode is to help the learner visualize and simplify the theory and fact in their minds, as it “happens in real life.”

The easiest way to achieve this is to think that all theories, facts and foundational knowledge do exist in real-life situations; that theory and fact explain real-life phenomenon.
I recall a quote from a scientist

“I observe nature and then I construct a theory.”

This is similar to the very familiar illustration of “Newton’s apple” on gravity.
eLearning designers can ask the question, “Facts are based on reality. Therefore, what is the reality behind the facts?” This is a good place to start connecting the real-life experiences and facts.

The “dynamics of elastic rods” do happen in spaghetti.
But why use spaghetti and not rods? Well, spaghetti is obviously more familiar to many of us – it’s fun, it’s food – hmmmm.  Rods, who cares?

3.   Supplementing lack of experience with imaginary stories

In the example above on “The Little Inch Worm – Teaching Units of Measurements”, children had no prior experience of measurements. By creating or connecting a parallel story, which is anecdotal or mythical and adding the challenge and resolution (children used one-inch square paper number tiles to create an inchworm), the children learned the concepts of inches and measurements.  However, they learned the real-life meaning first and then the factual concept of inches and measurements.

In eLearning for adult situations, this is accomplished by case stories and fables.
Why worms? Why not caterpillars? Worms evoke the image of the dark side of things, the fear in us. 


Everyone has some experience of the real-life meaning of facts. Facts are rooted in real-life events and therefore are observable or relatable. Stories present challenges and need for solutions, which is a natural learning instinct. In the absence of experience, the creation of  imaginary stories allows learners to visualize facts.

Related Posts:

Engaging Technical eLearning – Tips on Design and Delivery

See more eLearning stories: Story Impacts eLearning System

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