Tales of disaster: the role of accident storytelling in safety teaching

Andrew Rae
2015 Cognition, Technology & Work  
telephone +61 7 37359764, fax +61 7 37357730 Is it appropriate to tell tales about accidents as a form of teaching? Storytelling about accidents is an intrinsic part of safety education, but the role and nature of these stories deserves critical consideration. Even accident reports themselves are reconstructed interpretations of events, and accident stories are at least one step further removed. Knowledge about specific accidents is uncertain, and unsuitable as a learning outcome. However,
more » ... ent stories play a role in teaching by creating learning experiences through which students can acquire threshold concepts in safety science. The realism of a well-told story, combined with uncertainty and subjectivity surrounding its interpretation, creates an environment that promotes transformative learning. Narrative choices can make the difference between effective storybased teaching and over-simplified hindsight explanations. Tales of Disaster 2 1 Start with a Bang When I begin a lecture with "On the 2nd May, 1970, a DC-9 operating as flight ALM 980 departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport" my students are immediately aware that the tale is not going to end well. The language introduces a story within the genre of accident reporting, and creates expectations consistent with that genre. Once I have established the scene, the students can expect an inciting event setting up a conflict between the best and worst of human endeavour, followed by a climax where the protagonists (the main characters) are defeated by the antagonists (their real or metaphorical opponents), and probably everybody dies. The use of real-world examples -in particular storytelling about accidents -is an intrinsic part of safety teaching. Accident case studies are used to motivate and introduce new knowledge, to illustrate theory, and to show how theory can be applied. Why is storytelling such a common feature of safety science and safety engineering programmes? Does this practice have educational value? If so, is this due to the types of students, the subject matter, or some other feature of the programmes? What determines the effectiveness or otherwise of storytelling as a means of safety education? All accounts of accidents are narratives. A narrative is "a spoken or written text that involves temporal sequences of events and actions" (Maitlis, 2012). The earliest accounts of each accident are witness testimonies, collected by investigators in an evidence gathering process that also collates physical evidence and electronic records. These are typically collated into a single timeline, which guides further investigation and causal analysis, leading to a final report (Johnson, 2003) .
doi:10.1007/s10111-015-0341-3 fatcat:tjacmol2wjbndgpmmibqw72o5m