Real World Problems in an Unreal World or Can my fantasy be a learning experience?

David Merrill is a researcher and educator who has studied the concept of how learning takes place.  He has a list of five principles for education that should be incorporated into a learning plan to provide for effective learning.  His first principle is that when you write a post on a blog about genre fiction, you shouldn’t start with two sentences about educational theory.  Just kidding, I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

His first principle is actually that learning happens best when the learner is solving real world problems.  In other words, those story problems you were forced to do in first year algebra really were the waste of time you thought they were.  You may now feel justified for those doodles of your teacher where his/her/its face was on a fictional beast of some kind.

So what does all this have to do with genre fiction writing anyway?  Well, I suppose it depends on how you view stories.  If you see them only as a form of entertainment or escapism, then the answer is nothing, and you can stop reading straight away.  (You’re welcome).  However, I tend to see stories as having the potential to go a step farther, and be useful for developing a finer point.  It’s not they always must – sometimes a story is just a story.  Yet, the stories that really stick with us are the ones that draw us to look beyond ourselves, that push us to grow in some way, and above all, really make us think.

Okay, so how can we make the story a proper environment for learning to take place?  Well, if we want to apply Merrill’s first principle, we want to bring in real world problems and address them through our fantasy, sci-fi, or horror situation.  Wait, what?

Actually, that really isn’t very far-fetched, and maybe you didn’t think so anyway.  After all, human nature is what it is, and regardless of setting and the details of the situation, what we find is that how people act and react with each other is generally the same.  Furthermore, sometimes the best way to work through a problem is to come at it from a very different direction.  The different direction can take the form of a fantasy world, fantasy characters, and a fantastic situation.

Take, for example, the issue of friendship, and what happens when something nasty creeps into the friendship and starts to drive the two friends apart?  Tolkien explores this with Frodo and Sam, as the Ring begins to darken Frodo’s mind and soul, and Gollum comes along and seeks to play them off of each other.  We see Frodo failing at being a good friend, and Sam could choose to play the part of the victim.

“Fine, be that way! See ya later, and I hope you make it Mordor on your own, because it won’t be with me!”

And how often have we taken that route – or been tempted to – in a friendship?  And yet, Tolkien shows us the better route, which is for Sam to be loyal and gracious, despite the challenges to the friendship.  It’s that loyalty that ends up being the key to victory, and what makes Sam the true hero of the story.  And we all learned something!

Now it’s your turn. Can you think of some examples of real world life lessons that show up in your favorite stories?  Alternatively, what is a real world issue that you might bring up in a story, and how would you address it?


One thought on “Real World Problems in an Unreal World or Can my fantasy be a learning experience?

  1. See also: the best (and worst) episodes of Star Trek and Twilight Zone.

    One of my favorite episodes of Twilight Zone is “Eye of the Beholder,” about a woman who longs to be healed from a terrible accident. She’s been given experimental treatment to try and make her face something beautiful again, like it once was, and not like the monster she is now. The entire episode, all we ever see is her face wrapped in bandages.

    The last little bit: the wrappings are taken away, to reveal a beautiful woman… and the doctor jumps back in shock. Finally we see the doctor’s face, as well as his nurses. They’re all terrible monsters.

    Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder — and what we consider beautiful may not be so.

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