Make science tell a story

When science tells a story, students remember more, writes Daniel Willingham.

In a recent study, 7th and 8th grade students read texts about the discoveries of Galileo OR the discoveries of Marie Curie. The texts were “as similar as possible in terms of syntactic complexity, vocabulary, accuracy, and other measures,” but varied in whether the information was presented in an expository fashion or as a story about the scientist.

For example, one section of the expository text included:

And with this simple, powerful tool [Galilean telescope], we can see many details when we use it to look up into the night sky. The moon may look like a smooth ball of light covered with dark spots, but on a closer look through this telescope, we can see deep valleys and great mountain ranges. Through the telescope, we can now see all the different marks on the moon’s surface. 

The narrative version read:

When Galileo looked through his new telescope, he could see the surface of the moon, and so he began his first close look into space. He slept during the day in order to work and see the moon at night. Many people thought that the moon was a smooth ball with a light of its own. Now that Galileo had a closer look through his telescope, he realized that the moon’s surface had  mountains and valleys.

Students who’d read the story remembered and understood more when tested immediately and retested a week later.

Narrative doesn’t have to be the story of an individual or group of people, adds Willingham. A narrative can show conflict, complications and the eventual resolution of conflict. In this broader sense, narrative is “more flexible, and gives teachers more options, and also better captures the aspects of narrative structure that I suspect are behind the advantage conferred.”

When I was in fourth grade, the advanced reading group read a biography of Marie Curie. It started with Curie learning Polish in a secret class because tsarist Russia wanted to stamp out Polish national spirit. I remember quite a bit and it’s been 50+ years.

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  1. I’ve taught biology to hs/cc students for several years, and I have found that incorporating stories about the relevant people helps when it’s possible. They love it when I do a bit of name-dropping about famous scientists I got to meet in grad school or when I tell them about ‘how science really gets done’. These ‘hook stories’, though, don’t teach them the actual science. I try to tell that part as a story too, although it is more of an ‘If you were a cell/molecule and you needed to do this, what would you need to get started/what would the effect of that be?’. I do tell them that learning science as a list of unrelated facts is REALLY hard, but thinking in stories or flowcharts is a lot easier. They may not love ‘stories’ about protein synthesis, but they usually remember them.

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    So of course the “reform” crowd wants to make the majority of reading information i.e. expository

    • D's Squirrel Food says:

      Nonfiction does not not preclude narratives.

      • Mike in Texas says:

        Agreed, but making informative text the majority of the reading will not help. As a Science teacher I try to use narratives all the time, for example the Wright Brothers. Children are fascinated by the idea they struggled for years to achieve flight, and at one time believed what they were attempting to do might be impossible. But under the new standards there won’t be room for stories like this in reading classes.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Really? That seems like “informative text” to me. Students who read and remember it come away knowing something more about the world.

          It is certainly “non-fiction.” If it isn’t “informative text,” then none of history is.

          • Mike in Texas says:

            By that definition wouldn’t all reading be informative? My belief is that the common core reading will be strictly expository and not narrative, and given the usual “reforms” will be extremely top down driven and scripted, levaing no room for narratives.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I think “The Life of Madame Curie” would be informative text. “The Great Gatsby” wouldn’t be. Molly Bang’s “My Light” would be informative text. “The Little Engine That Could” wouldn’t.

            That would be reasonable, and have you ever known anyone in the ed business not to be reasonable?

  3. Mike in Texas, I’m hoping that ‘informative’ is supposed to be synonymous with ‘nonfiction’. In theory that would include narrative (which would include news articles, biographies, etc) and also descriptive texts (the roles of the parts of a plant), comparison texts (pros and cons of some issue, similarities and differences between deciduous trees and conifers), persuasive essays, and others. Not all of these would fit every grade and subject, although I could use all of them with my HS Bio class.

    I’ve said before that we homeschool, and we use Hirsch’s core knowledge as our subject guide. My kid loves the history material and enjoys most of the science. We read directly from the HIrsh books but also check out an assortment of library books on the topic and buy books about favorites. We also read fiction (both kid lit like Aesop and also the fun stuff like Encyclopedia Brown) every day. Although I don’t know enough about Common Core to really have an opinion (and know that it’s different from Core Knowledge), I can say that my kid has enjoyed reading nonfiction and loves being able to tell me new things that he’s learned. I wouldn’t want him to ONLY read nonfiction, but daily reading of both seems to work for us.

  4. There are many stories about science, and I have no problem using them to catch kids’ interest, but there’s a real difference between reading about science and actually learning scientific content and performing necessary calculations. The former should never be used to displace the latter. Unfortunately, some of the popular (but flawed) math curricula (Everyday Math etc) have displaced time and effort on learning and performing mathematical operations with talking and writing about math, and I can see it happening in science.

    • Mike in Texas says:

      Not in MY Science classroom, and Everyday Math is complete and utter garbage.

      • Agreed. Everyday Math should be tantamount to holding people down, to making it so that a caste system sets itself up in this country. It’s that bad – societal destruction, just at a slow pace, like an ice tsunami…

    • This. Learning about the Wright Brothers and their struggle all day long teaches 0 actual science. That’s the background; the actual science begins afterwards. (Not saying you’re not doing that, Mike in Texas; just that I’ve known plenty of ‘science’ teachers that have over the years.)

      • Mike in Texas says:


        As an airplane enthusiast (sadly not a licensed pilot but a skilled RC pilot) I can tell you the actual Science is taught. Just hearing the story leads to many questions from the kids about the Science and the Math involved.