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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Are you sitting comfortably?

Reading George Siemens' blog, "Story telling: Why we love a good yarn" yesterday my thinking about the future of the learning and development industry moved on a notch.

It is difficult to know how far to deconstruct the idea as am I far from expert in any of the areas I am about to pillage and generalise (cognitive psychology, post structuralism, politics and psephology, anthropology and the list goes on). But I think that the reason that we humans like stories is that they make life easier. Our brains are essentially pattern finding systems (I told you I wasn't an expert! If you want to know more read Stephen Pinker) they even find patterns where there are none - think of seeing animal shapes in cloud formations or dreams which are you mind trying to make sense of unconnected impulses, thoughts and emotions.

I stumbled across a remarkable programme on BBC radio 4 earlier this year called Jackonory Politics (there is even a link for the full transcript on the page if you're keen). The programme showed how politicians who spin a good yarn win because they are doing the electorate's thinking for them. It explained quite succinctly why politicians don't talk about issues. Because the electorate don't understand issues and don't want to hear about them. I often accuse one of my friends of never letting the facts come between him and a good story or opinion but it seems the same is true for all of us. Never mind the fact that crime rates have fallen consistently in the UK for years and we live in a society that is safer than ever, every single political party jumps on the "hoodies are going to stab us in our beds" bandwagon. Why because fear gets the vote our more than statistics.


We like stories because they tell us what to think. They have structure (which is annoyingly absent from life) which make it easier for us to understand them. They appeal to the emotions which make it easier for us to remember them. They let us sit back and switch off.

So what does all this have to do with the future of the learning industry?

Well, I think we are the storytellers of change. Behavioural change is what we are about; or at least it should be. Helping people do new stuff. But change is painful, complex, seemingly irrational. Facilitating learning (any good instructional systems design) is about putting the required behaviour in a context, helping students practice the new stuff in a supportive environment and then giving them the confidence and motivation to go out and use it in their lives. Making it comprehensible, digestible, less scary.

The traditional classroom methods of teaching may evolve or even fall by the wayside but the process of helping people deal with difficulty in their lives will never end. It is after all why we tell bedtime stories to our children (and if you don't tell stories to your children, start now!). It helps them make sense of the world.

But we must also teach them to question the storyteller and that is where life starts to get difficult. Maybe I'll go back to reading the Daily Mail and have my thinking done for me.

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