Bringing Storytelling into the Science Classroom – Some Initial Thoughts and Ideas

Storytelling has played an integral part of human development and evolution over many thousands of years.  I had read this before in various articles (like this article from Time Magazine) but I had not realized the profundity of its importance until recently reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.  According to Harari: “Storytelling is our speciality. It’s the basis for everything we do as a species”.  (Coincidentally, Rory Bell, a fellow member of cohort 9 is currently reading the book as well – he does an excellent job in this post of explaining Harari’s idea in more detail than I will here.)  Although human societies have changed markedly over the intervening years, I would bet that the fundamental elements of good storytelling were essentially identical in the Paleolithic era as they are today.  

(Many cave paintings are the earliest forms of recording stories.  Image copyright: Jack Versloot  Shared under Creative Commons License.)

The importance of storytelling to our species raises several important questions for educators:  How can we as educators harness the captivating power of storytelling to enhance our practice?  And how can we utilize digital tools to help us achieve this?  In my research this week, I found a number of extra articles and resources.  Edutopia contributor Jennifer New explains seven key guidelines for educators looking to incorporate digital storytelling in their classrooms.  Of these seven key takeaways, number two particularly resonates with me – “See technology as a storytelling tool, not as a teaching goal.”  Good advice indeed.  

Shuyan Wang of The University of Southern Mississippi, and Hong Zhan of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, have published a comprehensive paper for educators interested in learning more about enhancing their practice with digital storytelling.  The article, published in the International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education, provides historical context for storytelling in education, a rationale for the importance of leveraging technology to bring storytelling into the modern classroom.  The authors also suggest some tools that can be used, and highlight potential challenges.  

There are many great examples of how to design whole courses around the idea of a story.  The free, online, course “Big History” is a perfect example.  It aims to tell the story of our universe, in which we all play a role, from the big bang to the present-day.  (Watch the introductory video for the Big History Project to hear Bill Gates explain why he thinks Big History is “the best course ever”.)  Big History weaves together a variety of disciplines (science, history, sociology, economics, and more) to tell a modern science-based origin story for humanity. Having taught the course for a semester as part of a program with Global Online Academy, I can attest to the power and effectiveness of framing the course around such a science based story arc. The approach helps students to see that our current world didn’t arrive here by accident or coincidence – but rather through the slow march of time through billions of years.  Watch the video below to hear from David Christian and Bill Gates about the course, and its framework as the story of our universe.  

(How many countless stories has the night sky inspired?  Image source:  Shared under Creative Commons License.)

I have been reflecting this past week how I can incorporate storytelling into my own science classroom.  I reached out to members of my PLN, a number of great ideas came back.  Students could create a GIF (using a tool like Giphy, or a related tool) to demonstrate a scientific concept (example). Another possibility is to have students demonstrate their understanding of a scientific principle in a comic format.  I have to admit, I was skeptical about such an idea at first, but I was given this example by a colleague of mine, which tells the story of DNA transcription and translation to proteins in this humorous and witty comic.  This was done using the Comic Life app from Plasq.  

And finally, as a self-confessed podcast addict, I have been recently reflecting on the elements that make many of my favorite podcasts so entertaining.  And indeed, elements of storytelling are a key component of many of them.  The podcast “The Story Collider” is a perfect example of how good storytelling can be combined with science to produce real compelling stories that also teach.  In their own words: “Every year, we host dozens of live shows all over the country, featuring all kinds of storytellers – researchers, doctors, and engineers of course, but also patients, poets, comedians, and more. Some of our stories are heartbreaking, others are hilarious. They’re all true and all very personal.”  

I’m currently churning a few of these ideas in my head, and thinking about how (and where in the curriculum) I could implement some of these strategies into my own classroom.  For example, what if I used The Story Collider podcast as a template/example, and had my students write and record their own stories about science – how science has influenced or played a role in their lives.  I have no specific plan for such an endeavor at this point, but the idea seems interesting at the very least!  

Thanks for reading this far!  If you have any ideas, lessons, or tools that you have used and/or found effective, please share below!  

One thought on “Bringing Storytelling into the Science Classroom – Some Initial Thoughts and Ideas

  1. Hi Brian, I love your ideas about combining storytelling and science and especially enjoyed watching the video about the Big History Project. It makes perfect sense to historical story of science and I find it very interesting. I love you ideas about how you can incorporate science into your class, I think kids always love presenting learning in the form of cartoons. I think the idea of introducing podcasting. You’ve explored idea of the history of science and the current science stories, I am wondering if you could explore the future of science with science fiction story podcasts? Could students demonstrate their understanding of a certain topic by creating a science fiction of how that would impact the future? Maybe it’s the library nerd in me getting out of control here but could be a cool idea. I know some science teachers who have done zombie apocalypse related lessons, maybe that could lend itself to stories too.


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