The Power of Storytelling

Our science content intern and recent University of Bristol graduate Rhea Kumar looks the power of storytelling…especially in science.

Storytelling is the oldest method of education and definitely a powerful one. The benefits of storytelling in education are acknowledged but unfortunately often overlooked in STEM subjects. Nowadays, science is taught as a series of facts which students learn by rote, but this attitude towards science ignores the entire essence of it. Science is driven by curiosity, understanding and imagination – all of which are encouraged by immersive and relatable stories.

Philosopher Alasdair Macintyre wrote: “deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted”. The nature of a story itself engages a student’s critical thinking skills at the same time as stimulating the imagination, allowing them to personalise the content. Therefore, for education, a story provides much more than a fact: it provides an experience that solidifies a concept more strongly than is possible via learning by rote. The progression of a story allows a student to view the content from different perspectives which is creatively and critically challenging, leading to a more robust understanding.

In a book called Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story, psychologists Schlank and Abelson state that narrative cognition is the “default mode of human thought, providing structure to reality and serving as the underlying foundation of memory”. When information is taught in a coherent and logical structure, such as in a sequence or story, the learner builds stronger schema and memory compared to learning isolated pieces of information. Therefore, knowledge is easier to recover when learnt in the context of a story and there is an undeniable quantity of evidence to support that.

The success of storytelling for learning is derived from the ability of stories to facilitate three key learning principles: concretising, assimilation and structuring. Stories can make sense of abstract concepts, integrate a new concept into pre-existing cognitive structures and encourage students to apply prior knowledge to new scenarios. This way, a learner can view earlier information from a newly structured perspective to actually apply their knowledge analytically, which is far more useful to a scientist than knowing isolated facts off by heart.

Besides, to be a good scientist means to question the way the world works, so what good is knowledge without context that is relatable to everyday life? Science is not about confined facts, memorisation and regurgitation, though this is how it is currently treated in schools. Einstein – indisputably a scientist – said “imagination is more important than knowledge”. After all, to be good at chemistry means to be able to build models of molecules in your mind, watch them react and infer their behaviour from their structures; all of this occurs via the imagination. Stories give students the tools to gain knowledge through imaginative self-discovery rather than handing them pieces of information they are unlikely to store or fully understand as stand-alone facts.

StoriesA great example of STEM skill development through storytelling is an app that teaches children to code called Detective Dot. Players become members of the Children’s Intelligence Agency (CIA) where they learn and apply coding skills in a problem-solving manner, all in the context of a story. The goal and plotline make the experience much more immersive than could be achieved by a series of commands telling a child how to code.

It isn’t just practical activities that can be taught via stories. On the website there are plenty of stories for each science discipline, shared for teachers to use in their classrooms. Their captivating account of Mendeleev’s creation of the Periodic Table, from its inception to its completion, details all of the element discoveries along the way. In doing so, it not only connects each stage in the development of the theory like a puzzle and thus breaks down the complex science, but it also highlights other key qualities of the journey. The story emphasises the problem-solving nature of science discovery, as well as the need for collaboration and the fusing of bright ideas to spark brighter ones. It proves that real scientific exploration does not involve regurgitation but instead creativity, imagination and individual interpretation. If these qualities can all be demonstrated in the creation of the Periodic Table – the most regimented and ordered concept in science – then every scientific learning journey can be a story of discovery.

Storytelling can be an approachable way to learn complex and abstract concepts and make STEM subjects – that can be otherwise intimidating to some – accessible. Any brain can follow the cause-and-effect chronology of a story. This collapses the potential barriers between an expert teacher and a novice student, and makes a difficult subject like science no longer threatening by relating it to real life. And anyway, people love to share stories, not facts, so what better way to spread science than through stories?

Find out how you can bring science to life through storytelling with Nano Simbox:

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