Using Stories in Learning

I was brought up in a culture where storytelling was an important way of communicating between the generations. My grandfather was an injured war veteran. For a young man born of the Catholic faith in Northern Ireland this was unusual. He told truly amazing and inspiring stories of how he enlisted at the age of 16, whilst the actual recruitment age was 18. His stories of perseverance, teamwork and working hard to understand others shaped how I now think about life and work.

I am fascinated by the power of the story to really break though our adult learning barriers of “the curse of knowledge”, or in other words, cognitive bias. By the time we reach a certain age and level of experience in life and work, learning new things may take more work than we all realise.

How can we use stories for learning?

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the privilege to work as the lead Instructional Designer in the development of a learning portal for the Irish Heath Service. The portal – has been developed by Mr. Pat Kenny in partnership with Belfast based eLearning company AurionLearning. They have 60,000+ registered users with thriving communities across different healthcare disciplines, including Nursing, Mental Health Services and Allied Healthcare Professionals (Physiotherapists, Speech Therapists etc.).

Pat, a trained social worker, is currently working to collate and record stories from both patients and clinicians for use as core learning content within the portal. Listen to his views on the value and impact of stories to bring about change and learning.

Stories as a tool for personal and professional reflection

As Pat explains, in health and social care education, patient stories have gained important recognition as a reflection tool for both patients and clinicians. Patients who experience sudden and acute, or on-going chronic illness, for example, often report losing themselves in the system – losing a sense of their individuality and just becoming a mere disease or condition. Someone recently diagnosed with cancer becomes a cancer patient or someone recently suffering a stroke becomes a stroke victim. By forgetting the human being at the heart of the disease or condition, clinicians can often focus on the disease rather than working with the patient in a more holistic manner. Encouraging both patients and healthcare professionals to tell stories of their experiences within the healthcare system can help both to better understand and communicate with each other.

So, why are stories important?

If you drive a car, chances are that you know and UNDERSTAND the rules of the road. But does that mean you never break the speed limit? No – it doesn’t. Unfortunately for the families who suffer loss at the hands of people who may only be a few km/per hour over that limit, their stories become important lessons for us all. To foster long term behaviour and attitude change, we sometimes must go beyond merely understanding the facts. Stories can put us in touch with emotion and empathy, which can play an important role in learning. Sparking an emotional reaction can also make learning stick.

Using stories in workplace learning

So where and how might we use stories in workplace learning? With L&D’s current emphasis on just in time learning and performance support, does storytelling really have a place?

I suppose if I was in a hurry to answer a specific question, such as what is the procedure for ensuring that I protect a customer’s data, the last thing I’d want is a “story”. Do I really need to hear from a customer talking about how they were impacted by a company handling their data poorly? In many cases, no – but what if your workforce had continually been trained on data protection, yet data protection breaches were still happening?

I think the real power of stories lies in helping us to uncover tacit knowledge. Or to put it more simply, we all know more than we think we do. We are all a product of our experiences and we all have wisdom to share. I don’t have all the answers just yet as to how stories can be used effectively in workplace learning. My experience of healthcare education tells me that stories can be a powerful learning and communication tool. It is certainly something worth exploring.

Please join us to discuss Using Stories in learning, on Thursday 18th April at 16:00 BST / 11:00EDT / 08:00 PDT

Look forward to seeing you there!

PatKennyPodcast by:
Pat Kenny, National eLearning Manager,
Health Service Executive, Ireland

CQSW; Adv.Dip CPW; MSc Applied eLearning.

Further links

Social History Story Project – Fiona Quigley

Towards a Working Theory of Learning: The Affective Context Model

Patient stories from Pip Harding – Patient Voices

McMillan Cancer Support

The transcript for this chat is now available.

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