The universal appeal and pedagogical power of stories are well established, yet
they are underutilized in biology classrooms. I suggest that stories have an
important role in helping students understand how science is made, and in
offering glimpses into the hearts and lives of scientists.
Key Words: science teaching; story telling; creativity.
Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll
believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart
— Native American Proverb
“All children, except one, grow up.”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .”
Do I even need to say where these opening lines are from?
These phrases have been etched into our memories from the
moment we first heard or read them. And how we love the stories
they begin. The third quote is, of course,
the first line of the first Star Wars movie in
1977, the start of what has turned out to
be the largest grossing movie franchise of
all time: thirteen films have earned more
than 9 billion dollars and been seen by
about 40 percent of American adults.
From Dr. Seuss to Disney, Harry Potter
to Game of Thrones, we grow up and live in
a world teeming with stories. In all forms of
media—books, films, television, radio, and
the internet—stories are the currency of
Yet they are strangely absent from most science classrooms.
Despite a universal appreciation and thirst for stories, and consid-
erable evidence for their pedagogical power, stories are underutilized
in formal education, and in learning science in particular. One of my
main goals as a scientist, educator, and storyteller is to encourage the
use of stories in science education. Here, I will focus on two main
questions: Why do stories have an important place in the science
classroom? And, what makes for a good science story?
Rudyard Kipling once said, “If history were taught in the form of
stories, it would never be forgotten” (1970). The author of The Jungle
Book and the youngest writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1907) certainly knew how to tell memorable stories. But he
could not have known that in the ensuing century, a new branch of
psychology would emerge that has amply confirmed his instinct
about the power of stories.
One of the central tenets of “narrative theory” is that human thought
is fundamentally structured around stories. People record and recall life
experiences—their own as well as others’ experiences—in the form of
stories. This has been true since or before the dawn of civilization.
Before the advent of writing, some reliable means
was needed to transmit lore and information faithfully from generation to generation (Egan, 1989).
All oral cultures, including those that survive to the
present day, use storytelling. Stories typically embed
content into vivid imagery and characters that
inspire our imagination and arouse our emotions.
No doubt our ancestors discovered that knowledge
embedded in story form was more memorable. It
has been claimed, and reasonably so, that story is
one of the most important human inventions (Egan,
1989). Indeed, we are such storytelling and story-seeking creatures that numerous experts have
dubbed our species Homo narrans (the storytelling person).
One important thrust of current research in this area is to understand why and how narrative plays such a crucial role in human
Mark Twain said
famously that the
truth is stranger than
fiction. One could
add that the truth is
stronger than fiction.
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 80, No. 8, pp. 557–559, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2018 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2018.80.8.557.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER THE POWER AND PLACE OF STORIES IN BIOLOGY CLASS
FEATURE ARTICLE The Power and Place of Stories in
• SEAN B. CARROLL