The power of narrative learning

The power of narrative learning

I lost count of the number of times my wife or I read aloud books like Big and Little or Goodnight Moon to our sons when they were pre-schoolers. Perhaps you, too, have experienced the wide-eyed enthusiasm the very young have for hearing the same story over and over again. Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around being read to by mother or father, and to this day I can remember the stories (and illustrations) from those books (The Golden Cockerel, The Story of King Arthur and his Knights, The Wind in the Willows, and many others).
There’s a reason for this (life-long) delight in stories. Storytelling has deep evolutionary roots. We are wired to learn from stories. We fashion meaning from them, and they help lend order to our world. We connect naturally with narrative structure and its sequential resolution of conflict. Stories provide our minds with vivid pictures–ones that we are more likely to remember. (A fascinating new book by Brian Boyd (On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction) connects human evolution to the development of story telling, including fiction).
Narrative can become a powerful learning tool in the classroom and beyond, bringing abstract concepts to life. My favorite teachers relied on anecdotes, sayings, and stories when they presented new material.

We are wired to learn from stories. We fashion meaning from them, and they help lend order to our world.

Narrative techniques are at the forefront of today’s innovation in adult learning — case studies, interactive scenarios, games, graphic nonfiction stories, and simulation. The narrative structure appeals to learners who, for example, can compare the arc of a brief business mini-case with what they have experienced in the workplace.
One guiding principle in developing narrative learning is that any scenarios or situations presented should be accurate and realistic. (Our experience at MindEdge: learners quickly tell you if they don’t find the narrative believable). To insure realism, rely on subject matter experts and/or practitioners during the instructional design process to validate the content.
Narrative learning can help improve comprehension and mastery of concepts; it can also challenge learners to analyze, synthesize, and make decisions – the sorts of more complex cognition that tests the ability of learners to apply what they have learned.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders