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.

About Joanne