Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Using stories to encourage learning

A wee while ago, I grabbed James' copy of Neal Stephenson's Anathem in return for a blog post on it. As it's been 3.5 years now, I figure I should probably write that post...

Of course, as time has ticked on (and my memory of the book fades), the pressure on myself to write an ever-better post has upped and upped. If I delay any more, I'll only be happy once the post outsells the Da Vinci Code, so I've opted to swap quality for a brief, focused insight.

I enjoyed Cryptonomicon by Stephenson a lot. It combined a keen description of what code is with an epic, engrossing fiction scattered through history.

Anathem is intriguing because it swaps a historical context for a mythical one, which feels like a slightly twisted, subversive parody of our own society, while keeping the same idea of introducing the reader to mathematical and physical concepts. These aren't necessary to the plot, but are explained in more detail through Appendices. Being a compulsive completionist, I duly read through these with some interest.

I don't know if it's just me being more into crypto than geometry, but Anathem didn't hold together as much as Cryptonomicon, overall. I liked the premise, I loved the ending, but there were a lot of words in there.

But the idea of using fiction to teach is pretty cool, and not done enough, IMHO.

Three other Internet-based puzzle games spring to mind in this vein. One was The Stone, which had no story but did have a series of puzzles which had to be unlocked. Each puzzle related to something - a person, or an event, or a place, etc.

The second game, Planetarium, involves a story mailed out on a weekly basis, based round a character called the "mathemagician". I think you had until the next installment to find and solve as many of the puzzles in each "chapter" as you could, but it seems to still be running so give it a go.

The third, the much larger and more obviously commercial Perplex City, involved a much more complex plot which unfolded in "real-time", plus puzzles spread across the internet and cards which could be bought. Puzzles often needed some calculation, like the Mathemagician, or some research, like The Stone, or just some good old-fashioned brute-force crypto cracking.

All three of these involve puzzles, rather than direct education, but at the same time they all encourage learning through narrative, in the same way that Anathem and Cryptonomicon do. And a good narrative is a good puzzle - it involves the reader into wondering how the information they have now will become an outcome next. The main difference with the three examples above is that it's not the author doing the puzzle-solving, but the reader(s).

Narrative gives us context, which makes it easier for us to remember why something is how it is. Applied learning involves more than just knowledge - it gives that knowledge a place, and a reason. Experience isn't about what we'be done, but what we've learnt while doing it, and maybe stories are just a simulated way of recreating this. By associating with the experience of another (a fictional character), we have all the fun of experience, but far less of the pain if it goes wrong (and if it does, we know that someone else - the author - made it happen).

What if we hooked tutorials up to TV programmes? What if school curriculums needed character development and arc plots? What if newspaper articles set brainteasers about the stats they spouted?

We have stories, all around us. And we try to force ourselves to "learn" stuff all the time. Maybe all we need to tie the two together is just a little more imagination.

(And like James, I'm happy to pass the copy of Anathem on - get in touch if you're interested.)

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