Story-based T&L

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Story-based and research-informed approaches to Teaching and Learning (T&L).
Shortly after completing my PhD, I started to adapt some of the story and narrative theory that I'd learned to the challenges posed in higher education sector by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many universities adopted 'blended learning', an approach to T&L that saw students either fully or partially taught online. Commenting on the 'great chaos' that the pandemic inflicted on education, Frey claims that “In the middle of chaos comes great opportunities".

It's a rare thing to be confronted with creative openings in the ceaseless cycle of plans and activities that characterise the academic year in higher education. Like many others in my position, I began to look for new ways to get students interested and excited about their education. And, I began to ask some tough questions about some of the current approaches to T&L that were being taken in higher education.
Open questions about higher education

• Are current approaches to education compatible with the way young people interact with the world, take-in information and learn new skills?
• Do universities teach in ways that fit the needs of students, or do they teach in ways that fit neatly into the physical, technological and administrative infrastructures that they've spent decades if not centuries building?
• In this digital age, should we expect students to conform to university requirements such as attending physical classes for so many hours per week?

Designer Islands

• Dreamers Island • Makers Island • Trail-Blazers Island • Planners Island

Design students learn best when they're given permission to engage in play. Designer Islands is a digital, story-based, game-like teaching and learning resource. The principle aim is to allow design students to learn in their own time and in their own way. The resource is built on a wiki platform (MediaWiki). Students engage with it in the same way that they would engage in an online video game by taking up roles and achieving goals. The home page sets the scene for an epic journey of discovery that begins with the student being cast away on a remote archipelago. In order to achieve their goal of becoming a professional designer they are encouraged to engage with stories told to them by the inhabitants of four island communities and meet a number of challenges of their own choosing.
Benefits of the resource;

• helps students to build confidence in making choices,
• encourages exploration of given topics through independent and self-initiated learning,
• enables students to acquire knowledge and skills in ways that are aligned with their preferred learning style.

Go to Designer Islands

Revelations: A collaborative story game

If you know that students coming into a programme are, within days of joining it, going to be forced to work online and you have only one chance to bring them together in a classroom before they do, what kind of induction activity do you run? This story game was developed for use as a Design Foundation Year induction activity in anticipation of a second COVID-19 lockdown, which did occur within days of it being played for the first time. The activity was designed to act as an 'ice-breaker' to help students get to know each other and work together toward a common goal.
Room, furniture and materials

Table setup

The activity takes up quite a lot of space and is best played in a well-lit room. Up to six 2m x 1m tables are arranged in a large circle. Chairs are arranged on the outside of the circle in such a way that everyone seated at the tables can see everyone else. In this way, up to twelve students can take part. The tutor guides students through the activity and at times makes suggestions to keep the activity on track. The following materials are placed in front of each chair:

• An A4 cardboard stand.
• A sheet of A4 paper.
• A chunky marker.
• Some strips of masking tape.
• An A3 Question and Answer (Q&A) sheet, and
• Story information package: Three pieces of story information printed on a sheet of paper that is folded in such a way that the information is initially hidden, but can be uncovered one piece at a time during play. On the outside of the package is written DO NOT OPEN. The information on these pieces of paper is different for each player.

The Q&A sheet enables students to keep track of who is in their group and what they've discovered about the story.
Collectively, the story information sheets contain sufficient 'revelations', clues or pieces of information for everyone engaged in playing the game to grasp the whole story.
First, everyone is asked to take the chunky marker and write their preferred name or nickname on the sheet of A4 paper. Then tape it to the cardboard stand and place it on the front of their table where it can act as a nameplate. Then, students are divided into two groups.
The goal of the game
The goal of the game is for each group to discover the central plot and essential elements of a story; including actors, settings, events and happenings, etc. Then, in their own words, tell the full story before the other group beats them to it. The challenge in doing this is to discovering enough about the story through the simple act of asking questions and pieces clues together in a creative and logical way.

• Once the game has started, members of a group can only talk to each other through the question and answer process. There is only one exception, that is when the group is conferring on their readiness to tell the story.
• Questions can be directed to anyone in the circle, but they must address the person who's being asked the question by name.
• Answers must be shared with everyone around the circle in such a way that everyone has a chance to make notes.
• At any time in the game, the person who is being asked a question can answer that question, then, use their turn to ask if everyone in their group is ready to tell the story. The group can have a discussion about their readiness to tell the whole story. If everyone in the group agrees that the story can be told in full, they declare their intention to tell the story by everyone standing up. If the group decides that they are not ready to tell the whole story, they forfeit their chance to ask a question and must choose someone in the other group to continue the game by asking another question.


• The tutor picks a student at random (Student A). They are asked to give a number from 1 to 10 and to declare whether they are left or right-handed. The tutor then counts student positions left or right from Student A until they get to the given number. The student sitting in that place we'll call Student B. Student B is asked to start the game.
• Student B asks anyone in the circle the first question on the Q&A sheet; Who or what are you? We'll call the student who's been asked the question Student C.
• Student C opens one flap of the story information sheet and lets everyone around the circle know who or what they are. When everyone around the circle has had sufficient time to note the answer, Student C poses the second question on the Q&A sheet to someone else around the circle.
• Play continues in this way until enough of the story has been revealed for one group to be able to declare that they can tell the story without fault or hesitation. For the group that has 'declared' that they know the whole story, play stops. The other group then has 5-minutes to use the Q&A activity to finish uncovering the story.

The group who declared first decide who's going to tell the story. This can be done either by electing a spokesperson or by telling the story collaboratively. They tell the story. The other group is then allowed to critique and comment on the accuracy and fullness of the telling. If they can provide enough evidence of faults or omissions they might be declared the winners.
Notes for tutors: Wrap-up questions to pose

• How do you think the story ends?
• What do you think the Game Academy’s reaction would be to Tien and Freeman’s proposal? Would they welcome help from two young would-be students or would they think Tien and Freeman were somehow involved in the crime?
• Given a bit more time, could you complete Tien and Freeman’s story? Do they graduate from the Academy with flying colours or do they get very big-headed, party with all their admirers and flunk the whole programme?


Here you can download paper-based resources to play the Revelations game. Note that the Q&A sheet is provided in two A4 sheets that are intended to be printed out and taped together to form one A3 sheet.
Media:Q n A Sheet Left.pdf
Media:Q n A Sheet Right.pdf
Media:Answer Sheets.pdf
Media:Question reminder.pdf