Story-driven Inquiry from a Character’s Viewpoint
Annika Wolff, Paul Mulholland and Zdenek Zdrahal
Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, Walton Hall, MK7 6AA, Milton Keynes, U.K.
Keywords: Narrative, Inquiry-based learning.
Abstract: Inquiry-based learning encourages students to pose questions, find and interpret multiple pieces of evidence
and to present conclusions in a coherent presentation. The goal of this research is to demonstrate that
narrative and story can support inquiry learning on a number of different levels. Characters who undertake
familiar inquiry processes, such as a detective or an investigative journalist, can act as a focus around which
an inquiry task can be conducted and a story can be constructed. These characters are intended to support a
learner by helping them to understand the sorts of activities they may need to do in their own inquiry. More
functional aspects of narrative can also underpin the process of the inquiry and assist a learner in
understanding important relationships between facts. Finally, parallels between narrative structure and an
inquiry process can be exploited to support a learner through the different stages of inquiry and provide help
in producing the output and constructing a story, based on the conclusions of the task.
Since an inquiry-based learning approach has been
shown to increase engagement and have a positive
effect on student learning, inquiry processes have
become more common-place in the classroom. How
teachers choose to interpret the inquiry process can
vary, but essentially students are required to
approach a task through an active phase of evidence
gathering, which is interpreted in view of the initial
learning goal as well as incorporating additional
questions or issues which arise during the process of
In a truly open inquiry, the student will decide
their own topic of investigation and undertake it
entirely by themselves. But choosing a topic,
selecting a driving question (Wallace et al., 1998)
with a suitable scope and then locating and
interpreting appropriate sources are skills that most
students must first learn. Students who are generally
unfamiliar with an inquiry-based approach may not
be used to dealing with multiple information sources
and may have difficulty dealing with the amount of
data they are generating and in relating this to their
inquiry question. They might wonder what to do
when they come across information which is at a
tangent to their main goal, suggests further avenues
for research, or is contradictory to what they thought
they would find. Novice inquiry learners require
help in developing these skills of inquiry (Kirschner,
Sweller & Clark, 2006; Mayer, 2004). Therefore,
most teachers use a form of guided inquiry which
provides a framework and some instructions for
conducting the investigation (Conole et al., 2008;
Dillenbourg and Jermann, 2007; Martin-Hansen,
2002). In many cases, teachers also provide the set
of resources from which the student can complete
the task.
This research proposes that principles of
narrative can be used to guide a student’s inquiry,
help to keep them on track in completing the task
and aid the production of a coherent narrative
output. Since people are primed to remember
narratively structured experiences more easily than
those which don’t conform to an expected form of
narrative (Thorndyke, 1977, Wolff et al., 2007), the
use of narrative should create a memorable tool that
can be easily recalled and reapplied to new inquiry
It is generally accepted that people are narrative-
Wolff A., Mulholland P. and Zdrahal Z..
CHARACTER-EYES - Story-driven Inquiry from a Character’s Viewpoint.
DOI: 10.5220/0003339604020407
In Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Computer Supported Education (CSEDU-2011), pages 402-407
ISBN: 978-989-8425-49-2
2011 SCITEPRESS (Science and Technology Publications, Lda.)
thinkers. Stories have a property of coherence which
makes them easier to understand than events which
are conveyed in a seemingly unrelated fashion.
Thus, organising facts and events into stories and
using this to support learning is a well studied topic
of research. Narrative tools to support learning take
different forms. Some systems attempt to immerse a
learner in a virtual story world, where they become a
character carrying out important parts of a dramatic
plot (Mott et al., 2006; Thomas and Young 2007).
This approach requires that the learner is fairly
constrained in their possible actions, if they are not
to stray outside the prescribed narrative boundaries.
Other tools take a more subtle approach, using
narrative principles to organise content, or to convey
important information in an easily digestible format,
whilst allowing the learner more agency over their
actions (Plowman et al., 1999). These systems tend
to be less dramatic or character-based. There are
advantages and disadvantages to both types of
approach. A dramatic plot can be more engaging,
particularly if it employs narrative effects such as
rising tension and if the characters are well chosen.
Constraining the plot also makes it easier to
maintain coherence. However, the lack of control
can be frustrating for a user and if the chosen story
does not appeal to them, or if it doesn’t gel with the
topic of inquiry, then this diminishes engagement.
Conversely, the greater control the user has, the less
dramatic elements can be used to good effect and the
harder it is to maintain a coherent story-line. But,
having the freedom to be active in the task is
beneficial for learning. This research will endeavour
to find a balance where it is possible to combine the
best parts of both types of narrative approach to
support inquiry-based learning tasks.
The basic structure of an inquiry process has many
similarities to the basic structure of a narrative, as
demonstrated in the following table. The narrative
version is presented from the perspective of an
author whilst the inquiry is from the perspective of a
learner conducting an open inquiry:
Table 1: Parallels between narrative and inquiry.
Narrative Inquiry
Theme: Introduce the
theme and the main
Topic: Introduce the topic
and background to the
Conflict: Pose a
conflict for the main
character to overcome.
Learning goal: Pose a
driving question to
investigate and provide an
answer to.
Resolution attempts:
Outline what the
character does to
overcome the
conflicts, introduce at
least one further
obstacle that the
character must
overcome before the
final resolution of the
original conflict
Evidence gathering:
Gather and interpret
evidence to see how it
addresses the learning
goal. A good inquiry
question should prompt
some further, more
detailed questions, before
the more complex learning
goal is achieved.
Epilogue: Bring the
narrative to a close, tie
up loose ends.
Conclusions: when all
questions are answered,
what are the main
conclusions with respect to
the learning goal?
Elaborating on the parallels between narrative
and inquiry, the person who is conducting the
inquiry can be thought of as a character,
participating in events which can ultimately be
related as a story. This story offers a particular route
across a set of related facts and events that constitute
the narrative space. The events occur in a temporal
order, although they are not always presented in that
order (e.g. flashbacks and flashforwards). Readers of
such narratives will try to mentally reconstruct a
timeline in order to understand how events are
causally related. If an author fails to indicate
temporal disruptions, then the plot will lose
coherence (Genette, 1980; Kafalenos, 2006). Also,
stories that are told from the same set of narrative
facts may differ in perspective, outcome or even
mode of presentation. Facts may be omitted or
included in accordance with the focus of a specific
story – or, for inquiry, with respect to the learning
goal and the stated questions. Therefore, a narrative
space may yield a number of different story
These sorts of differences can be illustrated
using the example of historical inquiry.
Traditionally, students have learned history by rote
learning of facts from pre-constructed stories, which
generally convey just one particular perspective of
the historian who created it. More recently, history
CHARACTER-EYES - Story-driven Inquiry from a Character's Viewpoint
has been taught through inquiry, using a range of
materials including some primary sources. Students
are encouraged to construct their own stories using
these sources. They thereby come to understand that
historical stories are based on an interpretation of the
available evidence and that multiple interpretations
may exist, especially where there is conflicting
information. Some tools exist to support historical
inquiry in the classroom. These generally provide a
framework for a guided inquiry, but in a historical
context (e.g. GATHER by Anderson-Inman and
Kessinger, 2000; SCIM-C by Hicks et al., 2004
Two related approach which attempt to make the
narrative link much stronger, but in a subtly different
way, are HSI - Historical Scene Investigation
(Hofer, Swan and Whitaker, 2004) and The Mystery
of Sam Smiley (Hicks et al., 2004
). In these
approaches, the task is set in the context of an actual
investigation. In Sam Smiley, the student
investigates a fictional disappearance of a character
called Sam Smiley. They undertake an inquiry
process, but they are in the role of a detective
investigating the case. All of the resources are
themed, so instead of being data sources, they are
witness statements, a list of physical evidence from
the scene etc. This task is intended to be an
introduction to teach students about inquiry. Related
to this is HSI, where the students look at actual
history sources to answer a real inquiry question, but
the task is themed to be like a crime scene, so that
the students can easily relate the processes to
something they already understand. The common
theme is using narrative to both engage learners and
to help them understand some of the actual inquiry
processes that they will need to undertake by
parallels to the common activities of the detective
The narrative support proposed in this paper is based
on similar principles. It is aimed at helping the
learner to understand an inquiry task in the context
of a known story schema. Learner’s must choose a
character for the task, from a selection of detective,
investigative journalist, scientist or archaeologist.
Each character-type specialises in slightly different
types of inquiry, so the choice may be influenced by
the attributes of the task. Specifically, the character
choice and the driving question must be consistent
so a detective might tackle solving a ‘mystery’
which involves collecting and analysing evidence
within a fairly small time-frame, an investigative
journalist might try to offer a new perspective on an
old story by looking for new evidence or
information that conflicts with an accepted
viewpoint, a scientist would deal with data driven
tasks and an archaeologist might try to answer
questions that involve longer periods of time and
have an emphasis on location. The learner then
‘becomes’ their character, undertaking the inquiry
and creating an appropriate output, e.g. a detective
produces case-notes, a journalist creates a news
report, a scientist outputs a scientific paper and an
archaeologist curates a display of artefacts based on
their findings. The learner isn’t overly constrained
by the story or their character with regards to the
types of activities they can undertake as part of the
inquiry, they are free to choose what they want to
do. The story is, at this level, meant as a prop to help
the learner and to keep them on track with the
process, through analogy to the pre-supplied story-
In the next stage of the inquiry process, the
learner will undertake a generally iterative process
of browsing resources, evidence gathering and
reflecting on progress towards answering the inquiry
question. During this process the learner should be
able to effectively discover, from the available
resources, the set of events that can ultimately be
used to create a chain of reasoning, in the form of a
coherent narrative, to support their eventual
conclusion. A learner might begin this process by
first specifying some more focused questions to
drive their research and then looking for this
information amongst the resources. Alternatively,
they may immediately begin looking at the
resources, using only information from the driving
question as guidance on what to look for, and then
adding further questions as they arise during inquiry.
In either case, it is likely that the relevant events and
information will be encountered out of sequence and
that the learner must somehow restructure the
information in order to firstly generate hypotheses
and then to create their narrative output.
In this stage, learners will be assisted in making
summaries of the resources, by way of tagging
(under five categories: event, people, place, objects
and time, which are informed by narrative
principles) and through the creation of surrogates
(either thumbnail images or short text descriptions)
that can be more easily manipulated. A resource
summary should describe either a single event or
else some potentially relevant background
CSEDU 2011 - 3rd International Conference on Computer Supported Education
information. Therefore, a resource may be linked to
more than one resource summary. These summaries
provide a more manageable unit from which the
learner can create narrative. The process of building
the narrative involves firstly grouping the surrogates
- using the summaries as a guide - according to
either low-level features (such as people, place) or
thematic links and then organising them in a way
which will assist the learner in identifying important
relationships between them. In narrative, an
important sequence is temporal order, with causal
links in between events on the timeline (or to
background information). To this end, the learner
will be assisted in constructing a timeline of events,
within which they can visualise common patterns
amongst events and also to recognise where
information is missing or contradictory. This
information can be automatically visualised to the
learner, based on the tags they have supplied to each
resource summary. Examples include:
Inconsistency: a person or object is indicated
as being in two different places at the same
time; the same event is shown to occur at two
different times.
Pattern: the same sort of event was
happening in different places/at different
times; a similar set of objects were found at
place A, time A as at place B, time B – is
there a connection? archaeology, if
century household objects are found at
location A and 16
century ones are found at
location B, which is close-by, might there
have been an event which would have caused
a community to move from one place to
another at that time?
Missing Information: if the same event is
happening in different places, is there a
common trigger that can be found, e.g. an
event that occurred in the same time-frame
prior to each of them? Might one have
influenced the other?
Visualisations may help a learner answer one or
more inquiry questions, or else may prompt a further
inquiry question to be added, e.g. to find missing
information, resolve conflicting information or open
up a new avenue of inquiry. Since it is not always
possible to find missing information or conclusively
resolve conflicting accounts, the learner (in the form
of the character doing the inquiry) must be prompted
to speculate some reasonable explanations to fill the
gaps so that the narrative can be completed
coherently. Another measure that can be used to
indicate coherence is that the learner has answered
all questions. But the learner must also recognise
when to prune questions which lead away from the
learning goal. In order to drive the inquiry, the
student will be prompted to consider what questions
remain unanswered and how to answer them, as well
as whether the remaining questions are still valid.
This whole process of posing questions,
browsing and tagging resources, grouping and
sequencing resource surrogates and revisiting the
questions is an iterative one. The grouping and
linking may start out tentative, but subsequent
revisions and the addition of new information
should, over time, lead to a coherent description of
events and the relationships between them sufficient
for constructing the narrative response to the original
inquiry question.
The main focus for producing the narrative
output surrounds the questions and answers.
Students will be supported in organising all their
data around the questions, in adding new questions,
or in removing questions that lead off on tangents.
The driving question must have a related conclusion
in order to create the story and sub-questions should
also have answers if they are to be included in the
narrative. Students can organise their questions to
reflect the order in which they want to convey their
narrative. When they come to produce their output,
in whatever form it takes, the overall structure must
consist of the topic introduction (which may be
summarised from what was originally presented to
start the task), a statement of the learning goal and
all of the evidence (which is the questions and
answers created during the inquiry process) that will
support the conclusions.
Learners who are unsure of the story-schema, or
how it relates to an inquiry task, can choose
additional passive, or active, help. If they choose
active help they will undertake a tutorial task which
grounds the activity in a more standard story-setting.
So, the detective will solve a real detective task,
such as investigating a disappearance, or an
archaeologist will be piecing together evidence from
several excavation sites to decide who lived there
and what those sites were used for. Alternatively,
these tasks might be used by the teacher as a training
tool, prior to giving a real inquiry task. Passive help
is similar but instead of actively doing the task, the
learner is given examples of activities that their
chosen character might do at that stage of the
inquiry, e.g. “A detective would build up character
profiles and construct timelines to see when events
occurred” or “An archaeologist would try to find
multiple pieces of evidence to support their
CHARACTER-EYES - Story-driven Inquiry from a Character's Viewpoint
Work has begun on implementing the interface,
using Drupal, through the development of four
distinct modules. These are:
1. Story Schema: Choosing and applying a story
schema. This story schema is then applied to
the inquiry interface and affects
presentational aspects and is also used to
provide learner help that is specific to the
types of tasks that the chosen character might
2. Inquiry Questions: Handling the setting,
modifying and sequencing of questions and
subquestions as well as the learners
responses. The driving question should be
consistent with the character choice. This
module allows questions and subquestions to
be proposed, re-ordered and answered and for
resources and their associated tags and
comments to be linked. This module is where
the narrative is created out of the inquiry
process, as all of the information that is
collected during inquiry appears here in an
organised form. In the final narrative, the
learner can choose to show or hide elements,
or add in extra lines of text to improve the
narrative flow.
3. Resources: Tagging and summarising
resources and creating surrogates.
4. Visualisations: creating groupings from the
surrogates, sequencing them and identifying
relationships between them. This is both
learner-led and supported by reasoning
strategies applied to the resource data.
This paper proposes that narrative can support
inquiry learning in two distinct ways. Firstly, by
providing a story framework within which the
processes of the inquiry can be more easily
understood and by using this schema to provide both
pre-task training and in-task assistance to the
learner. This framework, based on characters such as
detectives and journalists, is also intended to
increase engagement with the task. Secondly,
narrative can support the organisation of information
into coherent units that constitute the narrative space
from which stories can be constructed. Furthermore,
the similarities between the four stages of an inquiry
process and the four stages of a narrative can
provide a starting point for creating the story, by
indicating important narrative elements to include
(theme, conflict, resolution attempts and epilogue)
all of which have been created in some form through
the inquiry process.
Future work will involve implementing the core
narrative functionality and conducting studies to see
if narrative elements have a positive influence on
performance in an inquiry task.
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CHARACTER-EYES - Story-driven Inquiry from a Character's Viewpoint