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Why the best way to engage learners is with storytelling

As humans, we are emotional creatures and retain information best when it relates to something we care about. In this article, Nick Shackleton-Jones argues that to best engage learners, educators should be using stories, rather than rote learning.
26th Jan 2021
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In 1885 Herman Ebbinghaus did something incredibly stupid. He was researching human memory and, seduced by a trendy new approach called psychophysics, decided that it would be a good idea to create a ‘pure’ stimulus with which to experiment on memory; something for people to remember that had no special significance for them at all, so that their pesky personal experiences wouldn’t interfere with the results.

Information without personal significance is just ‘mental garbage’ to the mind, and is disposed of as quickly as possible.

He created nonsense syllables – three letter trigrams like ‘RUP’ and ‘SFH’ to give people to learn. Participants in his experiments were given these nonsense syllables, each for a set period of time, then later asked to remember them.

His mistake was rooted in an intellectual tradition stretching as far back as Plato. In this philosophical tradition, reason and emotion are separate.

Plato uses the model of the chariot and the charioteer – the charioteer representing rational thought, and the horses the more ‘animalistic’ emotional aspect of our nature (both positive and negative). The lesson is clear though: we should use dispassionate reason to steer our emotions.

Centuries later, Rene Descartes deepened the reason/emotion divide. As an arch-rationalist, he describes the mind/body duality equating the emotions with the misleading physical aspect of our nature and the mind with the true, divine side. Body=bad, mind=good. Emotions=bad, reason=good.

You can still see the impact of this age-old prejudice today in our stereotypes about men and women for example, with women traditionally perceived as more prone to emotional assessments of situations and men likely to assess them rationally.

In Western society we celebrate the ‘dispassionate’ and ‘objective’ nature of business or scientific decisions (all of which turn out to be emotion in disguise).

Ebbinghaus probably believed he was doing a good thing. By studying information in a ‘pure’ form, devoid of any meaning or emotional significance, he could get a more accurate picture of the way the human mind processes information. Sadly, though, he achieved precisely the opposite.

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The significance of stories

Human beings are storytellers. Our minds are finely tuned to the emotional significance of events – so much so that making words into a story can improve retention seven-fold. On the other hand, our memory is exceptionally efficient at getting rid of everything boring, i.e. stuff with no personal significance. Stuff like Ebbinghaus’s trigrams.

When Ebbinghaus plotted the results he found (predictably) that the majority of the nonsense syllables were forgotten in a short space of time.

The forgetting curve

What Ebbinghaus thought he had discovered was something called the ‘forgetting curve’, a steep curve that illustrated how information is typically lost from memory.

The Forgetting Curve

Unfortunately, he hadn’t. Although he didn’t realise it, he had actually discovered something far more important: namely that memory is all to do with meaning. He had discovered that information without personal significance is just ‘mental garbage’ to the mind, and is disposed of as quickly as possible.

Psychological ‘force-feeding’

At this point the sensible thing to have done would be to concede that personal significance is clearly integral to the process of remembering. Had he introduced meaningful trigrams into his lists – like, for example FLY or TEA – he would have discovered that these were far more likely to be recalled than the nonsense ones, and our story might have ended happily.

He didn’t. Misled by his assumptions, he went on to investigate means by which the mind might be forced to retain nonsense. He discovered that by repeating the meaningless information over and over again, at intervals, some of it could be retained. He discovered a kind of psychological force-feeding method.

Your memory needs to be efficient, so it only stores the stuff that matters - but which stuff matters? Answer: the stuff that has an emotional impact.

What Ebbinghaus accomplished was the metaphorical equivalent of discovering the best way to use a smartphone to hammer in nails - his research was both accurate and grossly misleading at the same time.

In other words, whilst there probably is a best way to hammer in nails with a smartphone, if you’re doing that in the first place you are a bit of an idiot.

Why practice doesn’t always make perfect

As is often the case with primitive psychology, the patent ridiculousness of the approach didn’t prevent it from being widely accepted as a model for memory, learning, and ultimately for education. Today we still employ this barbaric technique in the method known as ‘rote learning’, both at school and at work, forcing people to repeat things over and over so that they can memorise them just long enough to pass a test - and then forget them.

In our normal lives many important lessons are learned the first time. There are good reasons for this. After all, a creature that had to be bitten many times by a tiger before learning that tigers are dangerous wouldn’t last long.

Our starting point for the design of any environment designed to help people learn must be the individual, and those things that matter most to them.

A child doesn’t need to burn their hand on a hot stove repeatedly. Of course, some things take a few attempts: but as a rule of thumb, the deeper the personal significance, the more reliably something is learned – we don’t often repeat our more embarrassing mistakes.

It makes perfect sense for memory to work in this way. Your memory needs to be efficient, so it only stores the stuff that matters - but which stuff matters? Answer: the stuff that has an emotional impact. This is rather an elegant system, since what has emotional impact to you can be both programmed from birth and shaped by your development. As an infant you can experience pain, then life introduces you to a whole world of pain you didn’t know existed.

Scientists use the expression ‘homeostasis’ to refer to the way in which creatures are set up from birth to seek out conditions that are good for them and avoid those that are bad. At the most primitive level, pain and pleasure, fear and attraction steer us in the right direction.

Individualised learning

As big-brained creatures we have the ability to elaborate and extend these reactions to an extraordinary degree, up to and including our choice of smartphone. Our starting point for the design of any environment designed to help people learn must therefore be the individual, and those things that matter most to them. This, and only this, forms the basis of their learning. This is why putting the audience at the heart of the design process is essential.

Sadly, what Ebbinghaus ultimately encouraged was ultimately a form of abuse – he had discovered that you can fit a square peg into a round hole - if you hit it again, and again, and again (rather than, say, wondering why it didn’t go in the first time).

If you point this out to people who work in education they will usually get quite angry and defensive and come up with all manner of excuses for doing horrible things. At heart, this is because people tend to get emotionally attached to conventions, and build a set of justifications around them.

Memory versus remembering

One of Ebbinghaus’s contemporaries was also deeply disturbed by his experiments. Frederic Bartlett had spent decades studying cross cultural transmission of information – the way in which cultures store and pass on learning normally, for example through storytelling. In sharp contrast to Ebbinghaus, he viewed memory as a constructive process, in which we continually ‘re-create’ what we know in the light of personal significance and our environment.

In every culture, people tell stories. In fact, this is typically a big proportion of the time they spend talking to one another – perhaps as much as 80%.

In no culture are people routinely required to memorise lists of meaningless symbols. To imagine that one could discover anything interesting about learning in this way is quite perverse. Bartlett pointed out that by stripping a stimulus of any personal meaning, Ebbinghaus had destroyed the very phenomenon – memory – that he was attempting to investigate.

Sense-led learning

By contrast, Bartlett’s research showed that people process information in terms of the things that are most meaningful to them. We take images, stories, and we store them in terms of what matters to us. Learning is a holistic experience. Unlike computers or books, living creatures have something at stake in the world. We are connected to the world via our senses, and by the reactions that those senses engender. Those reactions are not incidental. Instead, they form the basis of our way of making sense of the world - they tell us what to care about.

Humans do not store or acquire information in the way that inanimate objects do - as we have learned by trying to make machines function like people. Instead, they react to the world and those reactions form the basis of what we remember. Our memories are the traces of those reactions. Our learning, therefore, revolves around our cares.

This article is adapted from from How People Learn by Nick Shackleton-Jones ©2019 and is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.  

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