What links Greek and Roman myths, ancient Indian epics, medieval fairy tales and fables, PR and advertising, and even politics? Answer: the need for a good narrative.
Stories matter. If you look at our history, you will soon notice that storytelling is fundamental to all humans. It unites us, no matter what culture we are from. For thousands of years before writing was developed, the oral tradition of storytelling was the means by which knowledge was passed on down the generations. We use stories for entertainment, for preserving history, for teaching morals, and for educating ourselves and others.
Because stories are so intrinsically tied to who we are and where we come from, they are also an ideal tool for training and learning. They enable learners to connect with topics in a much more personal, even emotive, way and embed the information conveyed much more deeply.
Have you ever sat in a classroom or training room fighting to stay awake listening to a presenter who only talked about theoretical concepts, stats, figures, or historical dates? What did you remember afterwards? Chances are very little. Now imagine a trainer who weaves real-life examples into the theory, who connects the stats and figures with something personal, who tells the story of real people who lived in the past. Much easier to remember, isn't it?
So why does it work?
It's quite simple: Stories stimulate the brain. For example, if you read the word jump, then you also activate those parts of the brain that you use when you are actually jumping. So, if you read or hear a story, your brain almost acts as if you are experiencing the action and therefore, it makes it much easier to remember things and understand new concepts.
Research from 2014 showed that reading a novel and therefore a story can even lead to persistent changes in brain connectivity. Participants in the study were given parts of Robert Harris' Pompeii to read, and then their brains were scanned. Although the fMRI scans were done while the participants were not actively reading, they still showed there was heightened connectivity or 'shadow activity,' almost like a muscle memory. The same applies to listening to stories.
Storytelling and learning
When it comes to learning you need to remember three things to tell a story that really connects. It should be relevant, useful and new to your audience.
Many trainers who deliver ITIL or PRINCE2 courses are already doing this. They combine the training material with real-life examples, either their own experiences or stories they've been told by course attendants. These are usually things they experienced within a professional environment, which makes them relevant and useful. And they combine it with a solution based on the theories they are teaching — so it becomes something new for their audience.
At AXELOS, we have also started introducing narratives into our study material. When we released the first part of the ITIL update last year with ITIL 4 Foundation we added a story to the guidance to show how to apply the theory. The book features the fictional company Axle Car Hire which is undergoing a transformation to modernize its services and improve its customer satisfaction and retention levels. For this, they are using ITIL.
The narrative includes characters that fulfil various roles, e.g. CIO, product manager, IT delivery managers as well as customers. Using this approach helps candidates understand service management, how to apply the ITIL 4 practices and how to co-create value — one of the central themes of ITIL 4.
Interactive learning and apps
Storytelling is also becoming relevant in interactive learning, which generally refers to adding digital technologies and e-content such as videos, quizzes and animations to the learning experience. And we have already started to incorporate this in our digital learning approach and our apps.
But why apps? Why not just focus on books? Well, while pen, pencil and paper were enough in the past, today's learners expect a lot more — especially the so-called digital natives who grew up in the age of the internet and digital technologies (and probably learned with computers at school).
For us it is of paramount importance to seek to constantly improve the learning experience for those who take our qualifications. And with the current pandemic, interactive learning has become even more important.
Apps and storytelling
Last year, we launched our first two apps together with our publishing partner TSO. This June we added our latest app which is a study aid for those who are preparing for their PRINCE2 Agile Foundation exam. And our Axle Car Hire case study features in all those apps.
Apps are a fun approach to learning and allow the user to tailor the content to their individual learning style and to their own pace. We based our apps including the latest PRINCE2 Agile Foundation one on a three-step approach: study, practice and test.
There's a "Golden Thread" narrative which follows Axle Car Hire on their own PRINCE2 Agile journey, as well as a comprehensive glossary. But the app also includes practice tests which allows users to track their results and review their answers with rationales. And finally, users can sit a timed mock exam with exclusive questions.
Our aim was not to simply produce a shiny new learning tool, but to combine the digital technologies available with a narrative approach. And by doing so we want to reach the widest audience possible while still focusing on the key messages that are necessary for acquiring new skills and expanding our candidates' knowledge.
From our ancestors gathered round the campfire to a budding project manager on her phone on the morning commute — technology and storytelling have always found a way of working together. We are confident that our exam apps provide a rewarding blend of learning approaches that meet the needs of the modern learner.