Saturday, October 18, 2014

Using Story Morals To Turn Bad Situations into Learning Goldmines - Tip #45

A story without morals or lessons might be entertaining, but does not add value to skills learning.

Morals and lessons promise learners that they, too, can make a "turning point."

What makes story morals or lessons effective tools in learning?

What are the benefits of using story morals or lessons? How do you make sure these key elements are present?

Story morals or lessons have been a staple teaching tool since man started telling stories. Anthropologically speaking, it can be argued that we as a race started relating stories for the purpose of imparting knowledge, values, counsel and the like. As a result, modern humans are hard-wired to listen, understand and remember story morals very well.

After-The-Fact Learning

Alfie Kohn is a proponent of alternative and progressive education from Brown University and the University of Chicago, Illinois. In his book Turning Points, he presents the idea of "negative learning" where people who encounter an undesirable situation tend to figure out what not to do because of the experience. This is also known as a posterior or after-the-fact learning.

Most story morals or lessons take this approach, illustrating what happens when there is a lack of desirable behaviors or skills. At the most basic level, story morals teach by providing cautionary tales. As we learned in error-based learning, making mistakes or experiencing negative situations can actually assist in making the learning more memorable.

Let's Take A Look  At Some Examples

1. Restaurant Business

Story Summary: 

Chris ignores proper safety precautions in the workplace and often leaves the restroom without washing his hands. Eleven customers complain of stomach upset within the span of two weeks and their branch is temporarily closed down while the Health Department conducts investigations.

o   Possible Story Questions
§  Why do you think Chris is haphazard with safety?
§  How can you make "taking precautions" more appealing to an employee like him?
§  How would you address the situation if you were the
     branch manager?

2. Consultancy Firm

Story Summary: 

Jennie leads a team of marketing consultants and she is a passionate and meticulous worker. She likes to take charge of every aspect related to all of her projects. As a result, some of her work tend to suffer because she is spreading herself too thin. She learns, the hard way, that delegating tasks is a successful way to work with a team.

o   Possible Story Questions:
§  Think back to a time when you had to tackle a big project with your team. How did you handle it?
§  If you were Jennie's boss, what advice and guidance can you give her?

Morals and Lessons As Turning Points

Stories that are endearing or engaging to learners can be a strong centerpiece of learning design. These "Turning Points" put emphasis on the positive outcomes that are the results of overcoming the problem, challenge or adversity. They take the focus and value away from crisis or the negative condition.

In the two examples above, the story questions invite learners to imagine how they can make a Turning Point. Through this process, the learner visualizes, identifies and recognizes an opportunity to apply knowledge and create a solution. As mentioned in Incidents of Errors as Basis for Technical Learning Design, the focus of learning is to help learners apply the ideas; not just to memorize or retain them.

Learning How to Figure It Out - "I can do this, too!"

The ultimate inspiration of morals and lessons in stories is the promise that if the characters experience their Turning Points, so can the learners. This is the contract we get into when  using stories for instruction: to motivate learners that they, too, can "figure it out" and make a turning point of their own.


Story morals and lessons are effective techniques to use when we want learners to remember to embed a skill or behavior that is desirable to their role or goal. Most effective story morals are based on real scenarios, and provide quick and instant learning. Best of all, story morals are risk-free on the part of the learners. This means they can experience the story and appreciate the lesson with a freer frame of mind..


Alfie Kohn

Turning Points

Tip #19: Incidents of errors as basis for technical learning design

Tip #29: Trial and Error: Beng, Beng Bingo Learning

Tip #36: Why Experience Results in Superior Learning

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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