Story Worlds as a Hook for Connected Learning

I have been thinking about the pervasive power of storytelling and its capability to act as a starting point for Connected Learning scenarios. Connected Learning is an interesting model for designing learning experiences. The approach is pretty straight forward: Making a learning experience relevant by connecting it to existing interests and embedding it in a peer network. Basically it tries to relate as many aspects of everyday life as possible to learning. Have a look at for the complete model. The site lists some great case studies for successful Connected Learning scenarios. One of them is the story of the Harry Potter Alliance, which is summarized as follows:

“The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) is a nonprofit organization, established in 2005 by activist Andrew Slack. Inspired by the student activist organization “Dumbledore’s Army” in the Harry Potter narratives, the HPA uses parallels from the fictional content world as an impetus for civic action. It mobilizes young people across the U.S. around issues of literacy, equality, and human rights, and in support of charitable causes.”

It is interesting how the power of a story can have an impact on the real world. I believe what made this happen, was the rich story world created by J. K. Rowling, which allowed the fans to build a strong emotional relation to the characters and the whole fictional universe. The fact that a lot of fans grew up with the story and were engaged with it over a decade is probably another important factor. The emotional attachment to the story and the need to fill the void it left behind can be a great hook for Connected Learning. (Fun Fact: There is a resemblance to a phenomenon that has been dubbed the Netflix Hangover: “The feeling people get after finishing a show, not quite knowing what to do with their lives anymore.”) My theory is that when a story comes to an end, the emotional attachment can still be pretty high and people try to continue being engaged with it.

This may result in reading up on Wikipedia or starting to listen to the soundtrack, etc. In some cases this leads to fans becoming creative themselves: by learning to play the music themselves via YouTube or starting to create fanfiction in order to keep the story going and preserve the intense engagement. Remaining with the example of Harry Potter: lists over 705,000 pieces of Harry Potter fanfiction. These are a lot of people engaging in creative writing for fun. Part of the success of fanfiction is probably due to the given framework of characters, story world and main narrative, which makes the creation of new stories accessible and less intimidating. Other forms of intense fan activities like cosplay (costume play), where people literally become the characters, might be in part due to the same need of trying to stay within the story world.

Less intensive activities like listening to a soundtrack could be attributed to the same mechanic — often soundtracks become appealing not before one has seen the accompanying movie. The music becomes relevant and enjoyable through the connection to an experience. Music can be really powerful in allowing someone to tap into the feeling of a past real or fictional experience. This connection adds up to the given ability of music of impacting ones emotions, which is due to its very visceral nature — soundwaves literally touch us through the auditory system.

It gets interesting when a story and the accompanying soundtrack is also connected to an activity. Listening to a soundtrack can put one in a certain mood, which then can act as a trigger to do something. Think about the urge to get into a Rocky workout montage when listening to Gonna Fly Now. But even when the music is not directly connected with an activity within the story, a new connection has to be established. By restricting the music that is emotional charged (through a story, a vacation memory, etc.) to a specific activity, it might be used as a trigger. The idea is to listen to the emotionally charged soundtrack exlusively in conjunction with the activity. People might even crave to do the activity in order to stay in the specific emotional space.

This mechanic of emotional persuasion could be useful especially in the early “getting-over-the-hump phase” of starting a new habit or activity. As Hartmut Esslinger stated: “People want to be convinced by emotion, not by rational.” Using the classic example: People know they have to work out, but until it has become a habit it is a constant struggle, which is rarely won by thinking about rational health benefits. Another opportunity is the possibility of showing people things beyond their horizon or comfort zone. Considering Cal Newport’s notion of “passion follows skill” – the idea that passion is not something innate, but develops by doing (e.g. working on the perfection of a craft or skill.) – this can be immensely important for exposing students to a variety of useful activities or career possibilities. There is a nice example for such a Connected Learning scenario from Japan. When the Anime series Hikaru no Go was released, it ignited a boom and kids all over the country started playing the historic board game Go, which had become forgotten and not been very popular with younger age groups. See here for a short TV feature about it. I wish this would happen in the west with chess.

Fandoms in general seem to be a good starting point for Connected Learning scenarios. They offer a secure environment, where people can play around without worrying about consequences. A perfect place for building creative confidence and casually “Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out.” A place without any pressure to perform and deliver. The HPA works so well because it has Harry Potter as a foundation and activism just sits on top of it. This lowers the entry threshold immensely and keeps the members engaged with something fun, instead of having solely the serious subject of their activism as a topic to talk about. HPA cofounder Andrew Slack put it quite nicely: „It’s time to go beyond the technocratic rhetoric that we hear too often from activists and nonprofits that keep things intimidating and inaccessible.” I think there is just no place for things like elitism that discouraging people from contributing and engaging — we simply can’t afford to lose the potential of all these people.

This is still just a rough outline, but it offers some entry points for further exploring the possibilities of story worlds in the domain of Connected Learning and thinking about the design of engaging learning environments.