Aristotle knew that humans love to learn. He said that “to learn gives the liveliest pleasure”. He included the theme of learning in his discussions on drama, because he knew that to learn is to be entertained. When we are fully engaged in a moment of learning, we lose sense of time and space.
Our society tends to describe learning as boring and entertainment as exciting. The truth is that great movies and video games are engaging because we learn as we watch and play.
While teachers struggle to create classroom experiences that compete with Hollywood and the XBox, we can integrate some entertainment principles into our courses.
Jesse Schell from Disney studios says that “Every entertainment experience can be thought of as an unfolding sequence of events” and, “the quality of an entertainment experience can be measured by the extent to which its unfolding sequence of events is able to hold a guest’s interest”.
A course we create online is an unfolding sequence of events. We must think of our courses in terms of story. To hold the interest of our students from their first lesson to the last, we need to craft a narrative which gives context and meaning to our content.
Mr. Schell says that, “Much true understanding is achieved through storytelling […] the more compelling the story, the more focused the listener will be – and the more likely that true understanding will take place. We are the most alive when we are entertained.
People who are well and truly entertained are focused, alert, alive, and enjoying themselves. To entertain someone is to fulfill, at least partially, the needs and desires of another person. To understand entertainment is to understand the workings of the human mind”.
Our ultimate goal as educators is for students to learn what we teach. We believe our course will benefit anyone who masters our content. For students to receive that benefit, we have to focus their attention, activate their imagination and include historical or fictional characters they can empathize with.
For example, a math course can include a biography of the person who originally conceived the mathematical concept covered in a lesson. If the innovator suffered because the concepts were controversial, students will naturally be drawn to learning about the person and their ideas.
New online tools allow us to create our own content and arrange it to create narratives that are compelling and interesting to our students.
So, what makes something interesting? Schell describes three key elements that cause something to grab our attention: inherent interest, poetry of presentation and psychological proximity.
Content is inherently interesting when it includes well-crafted details, unusual characters or locations and some element of risk. Schell says that the beautiful presentation of our content is interesting and compelling to our students.
Psychological proximity means that a student feels a personal connection to the events presented in a lesson. Events that just happened or that happen directly to us are “more interesting than events that happen to other people”. Project-Based Learning is an example of putting our students in the role of protagonist in their own learning.
Even if our lessons do not include direct student participation in an educational project, we can write content that includes characters with whom students can easily empathize.
As they get to know the characters, students begin to care about what happens to them and their interest in the subject grows. They can also watch characters discover new truths and apply old knowledge in new ways.
Games are another element we can include into our lessons to capture student attention. Schell says that, “Most games feature a series of goals, each more challenging than the last, each building on the previous goals”.
He warns that, “If guests find a particular goal uninteresting, or too difficult, they may give up on it, putting an end to the entire experience. Similarly, if the goals are not communicated well, players may give up on the experience, which may feel pointless without a clear goal””.
His research deals with the challenges of combing interactive games and linear stories that can naturally capture and maintain the attention of our students.
In games, a series of goals often, “takes the form of a linear story, which has the benefit of increasing the guest’s interest by featuring a plot, characters, and sequence of events that the guest actually cares about”.
The sequence of events in a story or game string together and build on one another. Our lessons also build on one another. The sequence of lessons throughout our courses serves as the narrative backbone which gives meaning to the scope and sequence structure of our content.
Each lesson should relate to previous knowledge. New lessons should also be slightly more difficult and complex than previous assignments. A common thematic narrative should run through our entire course to give continuity to our instruction and to challenge and entertain our students.
Schell reminds us that, “”All forms of entertainment share a common basis: They all take place in the human mind, using the mechanisms of focus, empathy, and imagination.
Understanding these mechanisms is important, for the better we understand entertainment, the better we understand ourselves”. And the better our students will learn important and meaningful knowledge that will benefit them throughout their lives.