Wednesday, February 7, 2018

How Story Characters Help Learners Learn Difficult and Sensitive Topics - Tip #169

Sensitive topics, like sexual abuse or harassment, dealing with personal failures (where learners have an emotional stake) and handling "no correct answer" situations (gray areas at work), can be difficult to teach.

These topics create in learners the following:​
  • Discomfort​ - Even if they are in learning mode, they become uncomfortable since many people have strong emotional sentiments on issues like social justice, protection of the environment, and other "political" and spiritual beliefs​.
  • Uncertainty​ - Real life at work consists of many uncertain situations. There are areas where "the worker looks bad if he does it or if he does not do it" situation. This uncertainty makes lessons hard to learn. Since we teach perfect answers--meaning to say, we teach in the ideal world--we often do not address the gray areas.
  • Fear of consequences, ridicule​ - They feel that there might be personal consequences if their bosses knew of their answers.

If not done right, difficult and sensitive topics could result in uninterested learners and discouraged trainers. Fortunately, story characters can rescue them both. Story characters can help trainers teach difficult topics at a deeper level and create interest and motivation to learn among learners.

Characters as Teaching Moments
One day, HR received a complaint from Nancy. She said she was harassed by another
employee, stating: “He cornered me in his room and started abusing me.” The details
aren’t very clear, but Nancy’s boss, Julian, after learning of her complaint, took it
personally. He became violent and threatened to file a suit against Nancy. Was this
the best move for Julian?

While reading the story above, learners would quickly imagine themselves in a character’s shoes, which is a natural response. According to experts Roger Schank and Michael Corballis, people tend to create versions of the story and insert themselves as a character in it--they become part of the story. This creates a great opportunity for designers to pose the challenge or dilemma to learners.

That’s why our use of characters in stories shouldn’t be accidental; it needs to be intentional. Because every story has a moral lesson, the characters' personalities and quirks, and the specific situations and dilemmas they’re in can teach learners important lessons.

In fact, characters can represent the content. They depict issues in real life. Their actions and behaviors can portray ideas. When characters “do the talking,” they instantly connect with learners and help initiate discovery (vs. spoon-feeding).

Characters Evoke Empathy

John’s boss, Jane, always does things in specific, and sometimes peculiar, ways.
She always insists on following her procedures. One day, John encountered a
situation where Jane’s procedure was wrong. John is concerned about following
and pleasing Jane or doing what he thinks is correct. But, Jane was not there to
help him. What should he do?
Framing the story from a learner’s perspective allows learners to feel what the character feels and imagine possible options. What would they do, or not do, in this particular situation? And, because it’s easy for learners to imagine a character doing something, they can also smoothly emulate or follow what the characters do.

Learners feel less anxious if they see that characters in real-life situations face the same or similar challenges and dilemmas as they do. They can envision the consequences of their actions based on what happens to the characters.

They also feel reassured that although topics are difficult and sensitive, they are learning, privately and allowed to deal with the issues in their own pace and time and allow their own emotions to play.


Tip #55 - Discover the Secrets that Make the Story-Based Lesson Tick
Robert C. Schank. Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence. Northwestern University Press, 1995
Michael C. Corballis. The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization. Princeton University Press. 2011
Tip #59 - The Brain and the Stories We Tell: Top Reasons Why Stories Change Our Behavior
David Holt. Professional Education Using E-Simulations: Benefits of Blended Learning Design. IGI Global, September 2011.
Is It Spoon-feeding or Discovery Scenario Learning?

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

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