Sunday, October 25, 2009

Unforgetable Learning: What Master Storytellers Can Teach Us About Designing Transformative Learning Experiences

This post is the story of the dissertation I didn't write, the book I would like to edit to make up for it, and how you can help.

Have you ever been channel surfing and came across a documentary about a topic that, until this pivotal moment, was of mild interest and found yourself, within 10 minutes, fully engrossed in every aspect and detail of say, the life cycle of a shrew, the mating rituals of the common slug or the travails of a nomadic Mongolian family whose camel has rejected her calf? Do you find yourself telling your co-workers the next morning with great enthusiasm about the way computer chips are manufactured or how FedEx sorts packages or how sea turtles migrate thousands of miles to the exact same beach on which they were born to lay their eggs having never visited it again in the intervening decades?

My dissertation was going to be a deep study of the structure of the most engaging, memorable documentaries designed for a general audience. I wanted to extract principles of how to engage and enthrall learners who only have a passing interest in a subject. It seemed to me that our field could learn a lot from those outside the field who had mastered this craft. Alas, I couldn't muster enough interest among my faculty and had to move on to another topic.

Master storytellers design their narrative to completely invest their audiences in their story; and audiences willingly give their rapt attention and full emotional involvement in return. I want to know how that is accomplished by the best storytellers in (at least) the following genres:
  • Documentaries
  • Feature Films
  • Television Series
  • Plays
  • Musicals
  • Dance Performances
  • Poetry
  • Short Stories
  • Novels
  • Video Games
  • Role Playing Games
  • Theme Park Rides
I believe much could be learned from a minute by minute analysis of the structure of some exemplars, by interviewing their creators, by interviewing their loyal audiences (or eavesdropping on their public online discussions), and by carefully studying those who experience these for the first time. I also believe that the narrative traditions, folk wisdom, and design tools of the individual genres could be mined for insight. For example, I did a minute-by-minute analysis of the NOVA episode on the Wright Brothers and found very clear and compelling structures designed to draw in and hold audiences with different levels of familiarly and interest in the topic.

I would love to serve as editor or co-editor on such a book, with chapters written by you or people you know who would be ideal candidates. I would be interested to hear from those who would like to participate or who know people who would like to submit a chapter or could recommend a publisher that would find such a book particularly interesting. Actually, I would just plain like to know what you think of the idea.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Matthew Langton said...

Wow. Super interesting. I'm actually a first semester master's student in IP&T and am currently studying Parrish--looking at his work with Wilson on transformative learning as well. Enjoyed your thoughts especially concerning the principles of compelling narratives found in so many different mediums. There's actually a student in our program whose interested in implementing mini-docs, or mini documentaries that teach different aspects about a culture in 5-7 min. segments. Reminded me of what you mentioned were your initial research interests in the program.