thought. There are two universal aspects of story structure that combine to give it power. No matter whom the storyteller, narratives are
usually structured in ways that connect cause and effect (X happened,
so Y happened). And stories are always comprised of a sequence
of events that are connected over time (first X happened, then Y,
then Z). Thus, stories enable us to understand cause and effect, and
to connect events. Because narratives are constructed of causal links
and temporal order between events, stories carry the powers of both
instruction and persuasion. People learn from stories because they
present a coherent argument in favor of some conclusion (Herman
et al., 2010).
This fundamental, longstanding place of story in human culture
has prompted scores of educators and psychologists to study the role
of story in learning. They have found that narratives are associated
with increased recall, greater comprehension, and shorter reading
times than expository texts (reviewed in Dahlstrom, 2014). Narratives
also appear to offer advantages in several aspects of information processing, particularly with respect to motivation and interest, the allocation of cognitive resources, and transfer into long-term memory
(Dahlstrom, 2014). With respect to science content in particular,
audiences find narratives easier to comprehend and more engaging
than traditional logical-scientific communication. But this is not
because narratives simplify content, but rather because narratives
embed content within a story’s plot in a way that satisfies audience
expectations. Educational content that is more integral to the plotline
requires less cognitive resources for comprehension and enhances
learning (Dahlstrom, 2014).
The increased cognitive engagement and more durable learning
that a well-crafted narrative enables is the very objective of active
learning. Like other forms of active learning, narrative offers learners
the opportunity to actively construct their own understanding of
content. It is especially conducive to introducing the scientific pro-
cess and fostering a deeper grasp of scientific inquiry. Jerome Bruner,
one of the leading figures of narrative theory notes:
The process of science is narrative. It consists of spinning
hypotheses about nature, testing them, correcting the
hypotheses, and getting one’s head straight. . . The his-
tory of science. . .can be dramatically recounted as a set
of almost heroic narratives in problem solving. (1996,
Just think how many discoveries in biology have been the reward
of some long quest, fraught with obstacles or danger, with no guaran-
tee of success. Darwin’s and Wallace’s epic voyages (the latter inter-
rupted by shipwreck), and the phenomena they encountered and
deciphered, certainly qualify as heroic. A century later, the question
of human origins was still wide open when Mary Leakey went comb-
ing an African hillside one morning for scraps of hominid bone, as she
and her husband Louis had been doing without success for twenty-
four years. She later told the tale in her own words:
Louis got an attack of the ’flu and retired to bed, and so it
came about that on the morning of 17 July I went out by
myself, with the two Dalmatians Sally and Victoria, to see
what I could find of interest at nearby Bed I exposures. I
turned my steps towards a site not far west of the junction
of two gorges. . . There was indeed plenty of material lying
on the eroded surface. . .some no doubt as a result of the
rains earlier that year. But one scrap of bone that caught
and held my eye was not lying loose on the surface but
projecting from beneath. It seemed to be part of a skull. . .
I carefully brushed away a little bit of the deposit, and then
I could see parts of two two large teeth in place in the
upper jaw. They were hominid. It was a hominid skull,
apparently in situ, and there was a lot of it there.
I rushed back to camp shouting out “I’ve got him! I’ve
got him! I’ve got him!”
“Got what? Are you hurt?” Louis asked.
“Him, the man! Our man.” I said. “The one we’ve been
looking for. Come quick.”
(Leakey, 1984, pp. 120–121; Morell, 1995, p. 181)
The fragmented skull was indisputable evidence that Africa was
the cradle of humanity, and the reward for the indefatigable efforts
of these two brave pioneers who were willing to live most of their
lives in the bush in the hope of finding something that would
upend not only the scientific world, but society at large. But is any
of that story—the long quest, the many setbacks, or the moment of
triumph—the elements that make any kind of tale more exciting,
engaging, and memorable, conveyed in a textbook? Nope. Take a
glance at leading high school and college biology texts, and the
story of human origins is all about species names and dates (shrug).
Bruner advocated more than twenty years ago that “our instruction
in science from the start to the finish should be mindful of the lively
processes of science making, rather than an account only of ‘finished’
science as represented in the textbook” (1996, p. 127). Thomas
Newkirk, author of Minds Made for Stories, has noted how the structure of narrative can mirror the act of a scientist coming to an understanding so that as readers, “we are able to follow a mind at work”
(2014, p. 49).
However, although the pedagogical importance of narrative is
undisputed (Hadzigeorgiou, 2016, p. 91), its value is not widely
recognized and it remains underutilized. “Stories are an under-used medium for learning. Pushed to the margins of the curriculum to stimulate art and drama activities, but forgotten or
neglected when the study of more ‘serious’ subjects begins” (Egan
in Hadzigeorgiou, 2016, p. 83). This state of affairs is more than a
missed opportunity—it is a shame.
Without narrative to illuminate the making of science, students
are left to study the finished science, with little context as to what
questions inspired an investigation or how a mystery was solved.
And they get the wrong impression, or perhaps no impression at
all, about who scientists are, what they do, and why they do it.
Science is Their Superpower
Good stories make for good pedagogy. But what makes a good
story? Or more to the point, what makes a good science story—
one that is worth precious time in the classroom, or at home?
There are two key ingredients to any story: plot and characters.
One might think that factual science stories would be at some disadvantage to fictional stories about boys who can fly or a ring with
magic powers. Not true!
Adam Gopnik, a brilliant writer for The New Yorker (and interestingly not a scientist himself), has made a very persuasive case that
science stories offer something special. He argues that both good science stories and good scientific theories are startling; they astonish us
with their claims. For example, he cites this premise for a story from