Using Narrative to Teach Science
The power of stories
Planet3 is designed to deliver accurate science content, encourage curiosity and exploration, and show students that scientific practice can be applied to nearly all phenomena observed around us. One way that Planet3 demonstrates that science is relevant to all aspects of our lives is through real-world, non-fiction stories and perspectives from around the world and throughout history. Narratives and storylines are central to Planet3’s instructional approach.
Why teach with stories? People specialize in processing information conveyed through stories. A story has at least three major components: a conflict, character(s), and causality in efforts to solve the conflict (Scholes, 1982). The narrative structure encourages listeners to align with characters, internalize their conflicts, and journey alongside causal sequences. Stories are valuable for facilitating learning because people are more engaged (Britton et al., 1983) and more quickly comprehend information presented in narratives compared to expository texts (Graesser et al., 1994). Furthermore, people seek out (Bartlett, 1932) and have better memory for information with causal connections (Meyers & Duffy, 1990). For example, explaining why a scientist pursued a particular area of study serves as a powerful means to teach how an area of scientific study progressed and why it is important. Furthermore, the importance and salience of causality in narratives strongly support the Next Generation Science Standards’ Cross-Cutting Concept goal to identify Cause-and-Effect relationships.
Not only do stories help us process and retain information, they also have the power to move and change us. Witherell and Noddings (1991) stated that “even that which we understand at the abstract level may not move us to action, whereas a story often does.” The emotional component of narratives helps readers relate to others’ struggles and transform their own perspectives. These impacts occur in the moment and are enduring. Stories stimulate emotional responses in people, which in turn enhance consolidation of the information in long-term memory (Klassen, 2010). Thus, Narratives improve memory for the content of the story through the personal impact of the story.
Stories in science education
Stories and narratives have an imperative place in science education. The most common form of communicating content in science education is expository text (Avraamidou & Osborne, 2009). While expository text is rich in facts and terminology, the downside is that it largely lacks context, characters, and causal sequences. Students, in fact, understand scientific explanation best when presented in a hybrid of narrative and expository text (Maria & Johnson, 1989) and when scientific explanation is central to a story’s development (Negrete & Lartigue, 2010). Science concepts benefit from a combination of communication modes.
Storytelling in science education can take many forms. Hypothetical scenarios can stimulate the imagination and problem-solving skills. Historical non-fiction stories can help students visualize times and places where scientific phenomena, discovery, and innovation took place, as well as spark discussions about ethics of science (Solomon, 2002). Sharing personal experiences among teacher and students can encourage interest and personalization. Exposure to many narratives that accurately illustrate science phenomena can support common knowledge among people (Strube, 1994). For example, hearing anecdotal stories of people grabbing a hot pot with a wet dish towel can help learners develop a rich schema for the properties of heat transfer. Science stories should therefore take many formats and be shared in various settings to enhance learning.
Building coherence through Planet3
Science narratives go beyond the delivery of facts and outcomes, and engage the listener in perspectives and motives. Planet3 Case Studies use stories to highlight that the endeavor of scientific practice is rooted in human experience. Each case study is written to pique learner involvement and empathy, and connect memorable narratives to key science content. Some stories discuss instances where the application of scientific practice and engineering helped people innovate and improve the world. Some stories illustrate the profound impacts that scientific phenomena have on human, plant, and animal lives. And yet others illustrate the struggles we face in reconciling technological growth and Earth’s health. The Planet3 Case Studies help students delve into historical events and global perspectives that inform the current state of science and help students think about their role and the future of our planet.
For example, in Planet3’s Plants and Their Environments Case Study, experiences of devastating human-made Indonesian forest fires are told from four perspectives: through the eyes of a baby orangutan named Berani, an Indonesian middle school student named Rahmat, a local pineapple farmer named Zaitun, and a sustainable oil palm cultivator. Each voice pulls the reader into their personal predicaments, challenges, and goals, highlighting the importance of ethics, compassion, and informed decision-making in science.
Students learn through others’ stories, but using narratives in education also involves allowing students to develop their own story. Just as scientists ask questions and pursue research to uncover the unknown and solve problems, students benefit from following this same process. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) refers to this method of guiding learning as storylines. To implement storylines is to design lessons in which students observe phenomena and seek answers to the questions that organically arise from that interaction. Planet3 implements this approach throughout a mission by presenting real-world problems and empowering students to collect relevant evidence to address their own questions. Planet3 lessons also prompt students to connect phenomena observed in the mission to their personal experiences, fostering transfer of conceptual understanding across contexts. In this way, students experience and build their own personal science storyline and can benefit from the positive learning impacts of utilizing narratives.