Precision Could Kill your eLearning Lessons

Share this article

Our belief:
At Vignettes Learning we use stories in eLearning; however, we make them interactive. The emphasis is getting learners involved in the story and not just telling the learners the story.
Storytelling is about making an emotional connection just as it is about conveying  information. Tyler Dewitt of MIT gives a compelling talk on how the ‘tyranny of precision’ could  kill the essence of storytelling. eLearning developers should  shun the “tyranny of precision”  when  developing storylines for interactive narratives.  __________________________________________________________________________

Image Source:

We, eLearning developers, always face the temptation of overloading our narratives with  detailed information and data. In our eLearning development work, it might be best to follow the unwritten law in flirting:  Don’t show too much, leave something for the imagination.

Surprisingly, even people from science think that the best way to teach science is by not sounding scientific.  If science people can absolve themselves from the burden of data overload, we, eLearning developers should do the same.  However, this is not to say that information and data are not important – they are. But the old adage that too much focus on the trees can make us not see the forest, rings true here.

In his entertaining talk at TED, Tyler DeWitt cautions storytellers about the ‘tyranny of precision’ and how it could kill learning. Part of the talk transcript reads:

“You know, I keep talking about this idea of telling a story, and it’s like science communication has taken on this idea of what I call the ‘tyranny of precision’, where you can’t just tell a story. It’s like science has become that horrible storyteller that we all know, who gives us all the details nobody cares about…

Because good storytelling is all about emotional connection, we have to convince our audience that what we’re talking about matters. But just as important is knowing which details we should leave out so that the main point still comes across. I’m reminded of what the architect Mies van der Rohe said, and I paraphrase, when he said that sometimes you have to lie in order to tell the truth. I think this sentiment is particularly relevant to science education.

Now, finally, I am often so disappointed when people think that I’m advocating a dumbing down of science. That’s not true at all. I’m currently a Ph.D. student at MIT, and I absolutely understand the importance of detailed, specific scientific communication between experts, but not when we’re trying to teach 13-year-olds. If a young learner thinks that all viruses have DNA, that’s not going to ruin their chances of success in science. But if a young learner can’t understand anything in science and learns to hate it because it all sounds like this, that will ruin their chances of success.

This needs to stop, and I wish that the change could come from the institutions at the top that are perpetuating these problems, and I beg them, I beseech them to just stop it.

There’s still so much work left to be done, though, and if you’re involved with science in any way I urge you to join me. Pick up a camera, start to write a blog, whatever, but leave out the seriousness, leave out the jargon. Make me laugh. Make me care. Leave out those annoying details that nobody cares about and just get to the point. How should you start? Why don’t you say, ‘Listen, let me tell you a story’.”

What can we learn from here?

• In developing interactive stories, create an inventory of data and information. Classify your data accordingly: important, not so important and useless.  Include only the data which are necessary and exclude those which are only ‘ornamentals’.We call this “must learn” versus “learn on need.”

• Blend the data with the narrative through the help of  metaphors and visuals.

• Test the draft presentation with a pilot audience and see if they got your message across.

Related Blog: 

Information Overload, Interruptions in Flow – Reduce Productivity


Tyler DeWitt: Hey science teachers — make it fun ( transcript)

Ray Jimenez, PhD

Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”