Stories are special: we relate to them emotionally, directly, we feel and hear them with our hearts and souls. Stories engage us in ways that elude straight facts. The very process of communication involves stories that we fashion and shape according to our audience: choosing how to narrate them, the speed to tell them, the very words we use and the inflexion we deliver them with. Written stories, oral histories, organisational narratives, stories of joy, loss or love, they reach out to us across the media.
I want to think about narratives and how we use them in learning.
It’s a term that i throw around widely: building personal narratives, co-creating group narratives, developing organisational narratives, so i thought it was about time to take some space to explore the concept in more detail!
For me, the narrative is the underlying story: it’s the structure of the tales that we tell and we use it in learning in various ways.
Organisations shape a specific narrative around a particular topic and, once it’s clear, we build learning experiences that are anchored around it.
Learning is not about parroting what i know and say: it’s about building your own underlying foundational concepts and creating a vocabulary (of words and actions) that are your own, that overlay the meaning. It’s about making it real for yourself and taking action as a result. Learning is about change, but that change is personal, evidenced by your ability to think differently, do things differently, act differently.
As we learn, we develop our vocabulary around a subject, we find ways of explaining ourselves, honed by misunderstanding and mistakes, shaped into the stories that we tell. It’s about practice and feedback and the footsteps that we take out of formal learning.
But learning is not only an individual activity: we create meaning ourselves, but in the Social Age of learning, we come together in communities and, in those communities, we co-create meaning. Meaning is one step beyond pure knowledge: it’s about our agility, our ability to assimilate multiple sources of knowledge and to create meaning from that, to take transformative action as a result. The co-creation of meaning is the building of a shared narrative, in practice, this is often the outcome of the dialogue within forum spaces.
To really gain value from this, we need to take the right stance on moderation, with the moderator often literally documenting the co-created narrative.
The process of writing a personal learning narrative is about taking the learning and making it your own. In practical terms, this may be done through blogging, through a learning diary, through structured tools to create a personal narrative. It doesn’t particularly require the support of the organisation, but it’s valuable to know that there is a safe space to do this (often an informal or semi formal space, like a personal blog or diary).
There is no assessment of narrative, although a learning logbook may form part of a formal learning experience. Narrative is about taking ownership of the learning, it’s a highly practical activity and, in some ways, the onus is on the organisation to relinquish control of the messages and recognise that, once the learning is out there, it’s owned by the community, by individuals, telling their own stories around it.
Building tribal knowledge
There is organisational value in learning narratives, helping to build tribal knowledge: the informal knowledge that resides within communities. If we use the right technologies, as well as the right methods of engagement with learners, we can capture and share these.
We can start to view learning narratives as the building blocks that support organisational culture and that can start to inform future cohorts of learners.
Inherent in learning is sharing: it’s a key trait of a Social Leader, to find, filter and share knowledge and the stories that surround it, as well as for individuals trying to build reputation.
Reputation, in the Social Age, subverts hierarchies, subverts positional power and authority and travels with us from job to job, throughout our lives. The narratives that we build form part of this, they help shape and cement our reputation, snapshots of our learning along the journey.
Crucially, learning narratives are not our magnum opus, they do not need to stand forever: when i look back through the narratives i’ve created through the blog, the earliest ones are virtually unrecognisable to me. They let me chart my own progress and thinking, i can literally see where and how i’ve changed along the way.
All of this forms part of our personal legacy: can you remember what you were doing today, last year? If i look back through my learning narrative, i can at least see what i was thinking about then! Personal and community narratives help us to track our progress and learning, they let us chart our change.
Narrative are important: stories about our learning, individually or community co-created. Organisational narratives bring us together, let us see how change has affected us, over time.
The use of narratives in learning is important: stories are so important to us that the ways we create and share them are significant, not only to engage us but also as part of our own learning and change.
What you can do:
1. Try to incorporate the use of personal narratives within a learning project
2. Think about how you narrate your own learning, and whether you can chart progress over time.
3. Consider how and where you co-create meaning: where are your communities?
Questions for organisations:
1. How does your organisation use narratives?
2. Do your communities draw out shared narratives, or are they lost in the flow?
3. Where is the legacy?