Applying the dramatic arc to learning experiences

What can LX designers learn from the hero's journey?




As a learning experience designer, I create, on average, a new workshop or program every month. Regardless of the constraints that I face during the LXD process (especially the often pesky matters of time and physical space), my goal is to create experiential journeys that take learners beyond their perceived limitations in terms of skills, knowledge, and mindsets. I aspire to achieve the following:

A transformative learning experience

Needless to say, it is very challenging to design these types of experiences in a consistent manner. That is why, any time I discover a new framework that resonates with the types of experiences that I aspire to deliver, I like dissecting its elements to see what I can bring into my LXD practice. Sometimes I end up chasing smoke, other times I end up with new tools that help me become a better designer.


Today, I want to tell you about the latest tool that I created based on a framework that comes from outside the LXD world: the dramatic arc. In this post, I will discuss how plot structures - specifically Gustav Freytag’s dramatic arc - can be used to create transformative learning experiences.


Where did it come from?


I first started thinking about how plot structures - the dramatic structures behind our favourite stories - could apply to learning experience design when reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon (a must-read for anyone, especially the creatives amongst you). An image is worth a thousand words, especially to someone visual like me. The following illustration in the chapter “Tell Good Stories” caught my eye:


Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

When I saw Freytag’s pyramid I was instantly reminded of one of my go-to tools in my LXD toolkit, namely the Learning Arches by Kaospilot. It turns out that these two have more in common than what meets the eye. In fact, they can be used as complementary tools in the process of designing new learning experiences.


Hold on, what are Learning Arches?


I am a big fan of the Kaospilot design processes, and have acquired some of my most prized tools through their course, The Art & Craft of Facilitating Learning Experiences.

That’s where I first discovered their Learning Arches. While I still have much to learn on leveraging this tool to its maximum potential, I use the Arches as a visual reminder of the fundamental elements that are common amongst effective learning experiences: there needs to be a beginning (something to “set” the experience), a middle (“something to “hold” the experience) and an end (something to “land” the experience).


Textbook stuff, am I right? Not exactly. You would be surprised at how often one (if not more) of these elements are left out during the design process. Did you ever feel that a workshop ended too abruptly and you walked away overwhelmed or confused? Did you find yourself listening to the instructor for longer than you were actually engaging in the workshop experience? These are just a few examples of learning scenarios that are less than ideal. I am also guilty of having created and delivered such experiences in the past. That is why the Arch has become a permanent fixture in my design process.


There is, however, a less tangible aspect behind powerful learning experiences that the Arches - or your standard learning objectives - do not necessarily capture: the feeling of empowerment you feel once you have conquered your perceived limitations. That being said, how can we design experiences that allow our learners to live this transformation?


There is no transformation without conflict


We have all heard a version of the saying “learning happens outside your comfort zone.” In other words, it happens when you enter the unknown. The further you delve into a new territory, the more uncomfortable you will feel. The novel stimuli you experience in this new context will jolt the brain into developing new neural pathways that allow you to arrive at new ways of seeing the world.


Hence, for a learning experience to be transformative, designers need to bring learners into the zone of discomfort - a zone of inner conflict - where they face the challenges that require them to develop new ways of thinking. This is how participants will leave your workshop having surpassed their perceived limitations. They will always remember the journey that you took them on and how it made them feel.


Achieving this outcome in a consistent manner is quite a hefty goal for any learning experience designer. Thankfully, this is where plot structures can teach us a thing or two about crafting the transformative journeys that define our favourite stories.


Where the dramatic arc comes in


If you are a literary and/or movie buff, you may already be familiar with the hero’s journey, an archetypal story pattern common in ancient myths as well as modern day adventures.


This literary structure pays a lot of attention to the development and transformation of its characters. In the hero’s journey arc, the hero departs from his/her ordinary world, faces a series of trials and tribulations, and ultimately returns home in triumph as a better version of themselves (think of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit).


This brings me to the question: what if we thought of the learner as a protagonist living the hero’s journey? With every learning experience, he or she must be called forth towards adventure, be faced with a crisis, win a victory, and return home changed for the better. The learning experience designer essentially becomes a writer whose novel is lived out by Claudine from the sales team during a two hour workshop.


Just for fun, let’s keep the analogy going. The workshop facilitator takes on the role of the narrator. The physical space becomes the strange new universe which the protagonist has to traverse. Maybe you bring in external coaches to act as the sage guides. And you throw in a few of bureaucratic actors that your protagonist has to defeat. It’s up to you, you hold the pen!


Dramatic arc + learning arches


This brings us back to the plot structure that I initially discovered in Kleon’s book, Freytag’s pyramid. Named after the German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag, this dramatic arc was born through an analysis of Shakespearean and Greek drama. It is a five-act structure composed of the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement (otherwise known as resolution). Similarly to the hero’s journey structure, we see Gustav’s arc present in contemporary literature, television and film.


I decided to merge this dramatic arc with the Kaospilot learning arch and I arrived at this visual model that now defines all my learning experiences:


The LXD dramatic arc, adapted from Kaospilot and Gustay Freytag

Think of the dramatic arc as the skeleton upon which to build your workshop, program, course, or conference. Here is how to interpret each component:


  1. Exposition: Establishes the context of the program (workshop, training, conference, etc.) and sets expectations around the learning experience.

  2. Rising action: (a) Equips the learner with the mindset and skills needed to succeed in this learning journey through warm-up activities, and (b) guides the learner towards the journey climax through group activities that promote divergent thinking.

  3. Climax (“hold”): Challenges the learner to push through the groan zone (i.e. a feeling of discomfort) and to start converging on the key workshop outcomes. This is the turning point in the learner's journey, where he or she starts seeing the light at the end of the learning tunnel.

  4. Falling action: (a) Helps the learner and his or her peers to merge ideas, take decisions and make final conclusions, and (b) allows the learner to give and receive feedback from peers as a way of concluding the learning journey.

  5. Resolution: Guides the learner through a reflection on their learning journey and on the transformation that they experienced.


I encourage all learning designers to use this model as a way to validate whether their experiences have the key components of a transformative journey. Ever since I started using the dramatic arc, I feel like JK Rowling creating the Harry Potter saga. True, my experiences may not be as memorable and life changing just yet, but we all have to start somewhere!


What next?


If great learning experiences take people through a journey of transformation, I am curious to learn more about what makes a powerful story. I am hoping that there is something to be borrowed from other fields in terms of how the learning experience can be designed for greater impact. If you have any thoughts on storytelling as it relates to LXD, I would love to hear them!

© 2019 Diana Baranga

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