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Telling Science: the D-N model & narrative structure

When I say my research looks at science stories people are often surprised. Sometimes shocked: "but how could the children tell the fact from the fiction, wouldn't science stories just confuse?". Personally, I think views like this are simplistic nonsense.

There are several arguments I have in defense of the story as a tool for science education. Without getting into a whole quarter of my thesis, now I want to overview just one of my arguments for science storytelling, and discuss the proposition that stories have a "logic" which particularly suit communication of scientific ideas.

Fritz Kubli, in a rare article applying theories of narrative to science education*, emphasises the German world for storytelling has the same route as counting, arguing that the story has a very logically put together plot. This plotting is something which happens in science, although it tend to go under different rubric ( e.g. the deductive nomological model).

A children's science story I have done a reasonable amount of research on is Russell Stannard's Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest, a tale of a little girl who goes on adventures within the world of the very very small to learn about quantum physics. In this Stannard chooses to give us first the atom, then the nucleus and electrons, then quarks, then their strange behaviour. Going straight to the uncertainty principle would appear to come out of nowhere, but with Stannard's story we are first introduced to entities to provide "logical" reasoning behind it.

We meet x then are told y, thus z must be true.

As anti-realists might be fast to point out, logic does not necessarily make something true, but it can give the persuasive appearance of it.

There are stories, and forms of science for that matter, that do not suit this. They invert common ideas of narrative structure or eschew logical reasoning as a route to knowledge. But I think this is one way in which we can see science and the story fitting together quite well.

There is, within this, Hayden White's problem of emplotment. But I'm going to leave that for now.

*reference: Kubli, F (2001) Can the Theory of Narratives Help Teachers be Better Storytellers? Science & Education, vol. 10: 595-599


It is interesting to think about the 'narrative' aspect of deductive logic – I've been looking at narrative and non-narrative structures in non-fiction books, and it seems a useful extension of this to employ fiction, which is necessarily narrative. From a design perspective, I've looked at the constraints posed by presenting scientific processes as single images, which is a bit like the opposite problem. For example, a diagram of the nitrogen cycle must build a whole 'story' (or process) into a single image. I'll be posting on that in the future!

But back to useful fictionalisation: there may also be something there in terms of a social/cultural 'ontology recapitulates phylogeny' thing? Describe quantum physics in the order in which discoveries were made (the little girl discovers ever smaller particles in the order they were really discovered in reality). This seems perfectly reasonable as understanding one concept presumably helps to understand the next, in reality and in the story. This approach has been argued in other subjects; for instance in learning to write, children may be taught aptitudes in the order in which reading and writing have more widely been acquired over the centuries (the source escapes me at the moment, sorry).

There are a lot of that sort of thinking around the use of stories in science education. The idea that you can teach children older science because it is simpler.

The discovery learning movement is related to this - it was popular in the 70s, and suggested that the children could be left in the classroom to discover the sciecne for themselves.

however, to be honest its not an arguement I have much sympathy with.

If you (like I do) imagine that scientific ideas are, at least in part, the consquence of the cultural context they were developed in, then the arguement doesn't work. Under this way of considering sicence, what you are effectively asking children to do is imagine what it like to live in the 1600s AS WELL as understand laws of physics.

I think my main arguement is that I don't really think science developed logically or linearly so a historical approach to teaching wont get you anywhere.

Plus it takes longer. Why bother with the stuff we don't belive now?

Yes, I completely agree about the importance of cultural context; so maybe the advocates of that method of teaching have got it backward? If it makes sense to present information in the order it was discovered it might be a happy coincidence, not something to be used as a guiding principle. But i'm far away from my field here.
Another thought: isn't it impossible to tell how 'old' a lot of science is, because knowledge keeps being re-invented and re-assessed anyway? Even the 'ontogeny recaps phylogeny' model i mentioned above is not going theory in biology -- just a fun conceptual tool for talking about different developmental problems in social sciences…  

I think some History of Science can be useful for science ed'n, just its not going to work from a evolutionary view.

That's a really interesting point about "carbon dating" science.

I'm not sure how much reinvention there is in the physical sciences, mainly because ideas of "progress" and "revolution" are so important that people tend to work in opposition to what happened before. That's not to say things don't reappear (just its not often this will be explicit)

"In the physical sciences ones stands on the shoulders of those who went before; in the social sciences one steps in the face of those who went before. " (Joel Greenspan)

I guess the grass is always greener…