The human brain is hard-wired for pulling meaning from stories and internalizing the lessons learned. It is one of the most ancient and powerful teaching tools an educator can have in their toolkit. The problem is that not everyone fancies themselves as a storyteller or writer and trying to remember stories you’ve heard in the moment when it would be applicable is difficult to rely upon.

To this end, there are formulaic means through which a teacher can turn a learning objective into a meaningful narrative.

“Find the story in your content and let it follow a natural flow. This doesn’t mean each slide needs to tell the thrilling story of Jack and his climb up the beanstalk while also sharing your content, but it does mean finding the connection between the different points of information. Help learners see why this information matters and how it is relevant to them. Find the thread that holds everything together and find a way to tell a story with the content.”

Cammy Bean – Instructional Designer

Turning Learning Objectives Into Stories

Learning objectives typically contain 3 main elements: a measurable verb, the conditions under which performance is to occur, and the criterion of acceptable performance. Let us take a look at the following objective taken from a health class curriculum:

To demonstrate how a positive attitude can affect you and the people around you.

This particular objective has the three elements as described above. From these elements, we can outline some very specific details about our story which can help get the proverbial ball rolling:

Measurable verb: “To demonstrate…”

This presents the action for the story. In this case, the word “demonstrate” suggests that a character’s actions ought to reflect the acceptable performance criteria. To make their actions more explicit, it would be beneficial to show how they “used to be” and contrast it with their new practices. This juxtaposition makes the desirable behaviour clearer and more measurable.

Conditions: “…how a positive attitude…”

This provides clues about the setting/context. In this case, we may encounter someone who possesses a positive attitude and put them in contrast to others who do not. To accomplish this, perhaps these characters could belong to a business, market, or sector that is notorious for negative attitudes – taxi drivers, for example.

Acceptable Performance: “…can affect you and the people around you.”

This provides insight as to what the outcome of the story should be. In the case of our taxi drivers, we may write about a customer’s expectations and reactions to the driver’s attitude and practices.

Beefing Up The Story

The next thing we need to do is put some meat on these bones and answer some questions that this framework elicits (this is where some creativity may come into play). These questions will be slightly different depending on the objective and the story you are building, but the elements of the story they point to ought to be very similar.

Q: What sorts of things will the taxi driver do that will set him apart?

A: Offer complimentary beverages; provide business cards; make his mission statement and commitment to customer service known to his customers; allow passengers to select the music station; offer a listing of local stations.

Q: How will the effects of his efforts be made clear to the reader?

A: Client will ask if he has always treated customers this way to which he will respond with his story of inspiration and growth.

Q: What is the driver’s inspiration for challenging the norm?

A: Heard an inspirational speaker on the radio one day talking about ducks and eagles and how ducks quack and complain, while eagles soar above their competition.

Q: How will the effect on the client in the story be evident?

A: The client tells the story to other cab drivers extolling the virtues of this approach to taxi driving.

The Resulting Story

Using this framework, here is the training story that was built: (Courtesy of Harvey Mackay)

Harvey was waiting in line for a ride at the airport. When a cab pulled up, the first thing he noticed was that the taxi was polished to a bright shine. Smartly dressed in a white shirt, black tie, and freshly pressed black slacks, the cab driver jumped out and rounded the car to open the back passenger door for him. He handed Harvey a laminated card and said, “I’m Wally, your driver. While I’m loading your bags in the trunk I’d like you to read my mission statement.”

Taken back, Harvey read the card. It said: “Wally’s Mission Statement: To get my customers to their destination in the quickest, safest and cheapest way possible in a friendly environment.” This blew Harvey away. Especially when he noticed that the inside of the cab matched the outside. Spotlessly clean!

As he slid behind the wheel, Wally said, “Would you like a cup of coffee? I have a thermos of regular and one of decaf.”

Harvey half-jokingly said, “No thanks. I prefer soft drinks.”

Wally smiled and said, “No problem. I have a cooler up front with regular and diet Coke, water and orange juice.”

Almost stuttering, Harvey said, “I’ll take a diet Coke.”

Handing him his drink, Wally said, “If you’d like something to read, I have The Wall Street Journal, Time, Sports Illustrated and USA Today.” As they were pulling away, Wally handed Harvey another laminated card, “These are the stations I get and the kind of music they play. If you’d like to listen to the radio, just let me know which station you prefer.” And as if that weren’t enough, Wally told Harvey that he had the air conditioning on and asked if the temperature was comfortable for him. He then advised Harvey of the best route to his destination for that time of day. He also let him know that he’d be happy to chat with him and tell him about some of the sights or, if Harvey preferred, he would leave him with his own thoughts.

Harvey was absolutely amazed and asked the driver, “Tell me, Wally, have you always served customers like this?”

Wally smiled into the rear view mirror. “No, not always. In fact, it’s only been in the last two years. My first five years driving, I spent most of my time complaining like all the rest of the cabbies do. Then I heard the personal health guru, Wayne Dyer, on the radio one day. He had just written a book called ‘You’ll See It When You Believe It.’ Mr. Dyer said that if you get up in the morning expecting to have a bad day, you’ll rarely disappoint yourself. He said, ‘Stop complaining! Differentiate yourself from your competition. Don’t be a duck. Be an eagle. Ducks quack and complain. Eagles soar above the crowd.’

“That hit me right between the eyes,” said Wally. “Mr. Dyer was really talking about me. I was always quacking and complaining, so I decided to change my attitude and become an eagle. I looked around at the other cabs and their drivers. The cabs were dirty, the drivers were unfriendly, and the customers were unhappy. So I decided to make some changes. I put in a few at a time. When my customers responded well, I did more.”

“I take it that has paid off for you,” Harvey said.

“It sure has,” Wally replied. “My first year as an eagle, I doubled my income from the previous year. This year I’ll probably quadruple it. You were lucky to get me today. I don’t sit at cabstands anymore. My customers call me for appointments on my cell phone or leave a message on my answering machine. If I can’t pick them up myself, I get a reliable cabby friend to do it and I take a piece of the action.”

Wally was phenomenal. He was running a limo service out of a Yellow Cab. Harvey says he has probably told that story to more than fifty cab drivers over the years, and only two took the idea and ran with it. The rest of the drivers quacked like ducks and told him all the reasons they couldn’t do any of what he was suggesting. Wally the Cab Driver made a different choice. He decided to stop quacking like ducks and start soaring like eagles.

Wally is a prime example of how a positive attitude can positively impact the people around him in that he provided Harvey an enjoyable and memorable experience instead of a mundane, forgettable cab-ride. The message of soaring like an eagle instead of quacking like duck strikes at the heart of the aforementioned learning objective and the story has a high potential to stick with the students long after the class has concluded.

Finally, this formulaic approach to creating narratives from objectives ought to apply for any subject. Consider, for example, how pervasive and relevant word problems are in math class. Presenting a student with a scenario in which math is the means to an end can have a lasting impact on how they view and retain the required knowledge and skills.

We all have our favourite stories from which we have learned valuable lessons. Whether they are curriculum-aligned or not, we’d love to hear a story that made an impact on your and/or your students. Share your story in the comments below.


Written By: Matt Murphy

Written By: Matt Murphy

Matt Murphy is the Educational Designer for Zorbit’s Math Adventure, a K-3 game-based learning platform for the classroom. Matt has a Masters degree in Curriculum Design from the University of New Brunswick and has over five years of experience working in educational technology as an Instructional Designer, and Gamification/Game-Based Learning Consultant.



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