Teaching with Stories

Days with Penguins. It’s the earliest story I can remember writing. I can’t even remember how old I was when I wrote it. I think I may have written it as soon as I could read and write. It was a simple story about four penguins, each explaining one of the seasons in two sentences at most. Of course, eight sentences is too short for a story. So the four penguins then went on to explore each state in the US, for a book that was a total of 54 pages and not many more sentences (and lots of illustrations). For me, telling this story was a way of making sense of what I was learning and communicate this understanding to other people. Not much has changed in three decades. The stories have grown more sophisticated with plots twisted in upon themselves and characters much the same. The stories still serve the same purpose. They are a way for me to make sense of the world within and around me and communicate that understanding to others.

Teaching is essentially storytelling, which is why I have been drawn to it from an early age as well. When I’m in front of the classroom, or sometimes wasted in a Prague hostel surrounded by fellow backpackers, I’m telling stories about things that excite me and that I want others to get excited about too. The best storytellers start with something that catches your attention, build the setting and the characters, and then surprise with the unexpected. Think about your best learning experiences. They often take a similar structure. A teacher hooks your attention with a topic that interests you, develops the world that surrounds that topic, and gives you enough to understand the story but also leaves you wanting more.

But if we take a look at how a lot of science stories in the classroom are structured, they are often the exact opposite of a compelling story. They may have an interesting topic, but delve immediately into world-building before telling you why the world is worth caring about. There are few, if any characters, and no plot. Often you end up with an opening chapter that introduces you to the basics of the world, then a series of loosely connected vignettes. As a tool for helping train future scientists and a science literate audience, our science storytelling methods are lacking.

I had been teaching computer literacy and programming since college before moving into the realm of environmental sciences and Earth history in graduate school as part of my teaching obligations. For each class, I found myself reshuffling the curriculum so that it made more narrative sense. The easiest course to do this with was Earth history, because there is already an in-built narrative … how do we get from the formation of the solar system to humanity? This story found its greatest canvas in my work at Arizona State University in the development of the online astrobiology lab science course Habitable Worlds. The narrative here was even more refined, centering around the search for alien life and using the Drake Equation as a narrative structure. The Drake Equation is a thought experiment that parameterizes the search for alien life into topics that we need to research before we can answer that ultimate question, “are we alone in the universe?”. We need to know about stars, planets, Earth-like conditions, life, intelligence, societies, and our longevity. A narrative like this arguably covers all of science and provides a number of gateways into the vast diversity that is science. The vignettes are no longer disconnected, but feed into each other and build on each other to a crescendo. It is an enticing story that leaves students wanting more because the ending has not yet been written and they could be the ones to write it.

Developing narratives for courses is tricky business and I’ve seen a wide range of quality when attempting to do so. The most successful use beyond Habitable Worlds in the digital science teaching realm has been the offspring course BioBeyond. When conceptualizing the course with the learning designers at Smart Sparrow over a long weekend, we ran through a large number of narratives. In this case, there was no overriding narrative that allowed the teaching of all introductory level biology content. But there were several smaller narratives that fit into a larger one. There’s the narrative of how and why we classify life, a more interesting starting point for students than what’s typical in introductory biology courses (atoms, chemistry, and all the topics that science-averse students are trying to avoid by taking biology). There’s the narrative of how it changes over time. What drives the diversity both in time and space? And where do we fit in that picture? This successful model is being extended to geology via human interactions with it, and chemistry related to human experiences both in the body and the environment. Storytelling in science can be done extremely well.

There are, however, many ways that developing narratives for digital science learning experiences can fail. Digital education experiences are a careful balance between learning objectives, narrative, and game design. The lack of proper balance between the three often yields poor experiences that don’t accomplish any of the teacher’s goals and results in the typical educational game that is neither interesting to play nor tells an interesting story. For example, most educational experiences are intended to satisfy a set of (often too many) learning objectives. Learning objectives can be a useful constraint on a story, but if they are not well-related to each other, it becomes difficult to build a story around them. In these cases, what often happens is that the learning objectives take precedence and a superficial story is wrapped around them. All of us have experienced these kinds of educational games and rarely do any of us have fun with them because we know that the story is immaterial. That it is there to trick us into learning. It doesn’t engage because it isn’t genuine. This can be overcome with a clever gaming mechanic, but those are often lacking in these types of experiences as well. More recently, I have seen experiences that have focused too much on narrative to the detriment of gaming mechanics. Although pretty to look at and click through, there is no replay value because the gaming mechanic is almost completely lacking or poorly matched to the narrative. You have, in essence, a very expensive pop-up storybook with a few moving levers. Finally, of course, there are the experiences that focus too much on gaming mechanics but not on anything else, resulting in something that is addictive, but doesn’t really teach you anything.

The key to successfully incorporating narrative into a science teaching experience is to figure out what story you want to tell and identify the learning objectives you will be able to accomplish within that story. For most science teachers, you are not working with future scientists. You are working with kids or adults who are science-curious and we want them to remain that way. So it’s OK if you don’t cover everything. Many will argue that it is necessary to cover every topic in an introductory level course to prepare students for the next level. But for most introductory students, there is no next level. For those who do move on, their exposure to science is less science stories and more technical training. But the vast majority of the population does not need technical scientific training. They need a reason to care about science. And we can get at that by using the tools that the ancients used to teach and transmit knowledge about the universe … by telling compelling stories.

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