Twenty-six heads swivel at once, turning towards the door. “That one?” asks one student pointing at the 10-story building across the street. I nod. “Imagine, that it isn’t really a building. All of a sudden…it starts moving. And sprouting flippers.” The students start laughing. “And when it opens its mouth, a huge tongue comes out. A tongue that is the weight of an adult African elephant.” The students laugh again. “Did you know, this huge whale that lives in the ocean has the same set of bones as this tiny hummingbird?” I walk around the tables with my hands cupped pretending to hold a small bird. As I release my hands pretending to send the imaginary hummingbird into flight, the students in front of me flinch with expectancy. They laugh again.
When I used to teach this lesson in homologous structures in my traditional science classroom in Chicago Public Schools, I was typically met with half-sleeping, apathetic students. Here, I watch as everyone is completely engaged: leaning forward in their seats, laughing, and comparing ideas with classmates. There is real brain science behind using stories to connect to complex ideas and help kids engage and create personal meaning.
The Disconnect to Traditional Science Teaching When our kids are young, they learn through stories and picture books. Yet, when they start learning math and science, they are mainly being presented with concepts and facts.
As scientists, we have been trained that data, and our knowledge of the content, is of the utmost importance. We are suffering from the “Curse of Knowledge” as outlined in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick. This happens when something is so well-known and important to us, we just assume that other people will be equally fascinated and able to understand it.
When I was getting my PhD, I would present my research seminars on gene chip expression analysis, with presentations that were just slides of data tables, graphs, and facts. I thought that since it was fascinating to me, that my audience would be equally enthralled with a presentation full of data tables, graphs and facts.
Our goal as educators is not to embed science facts, but to find ways to connect to young students so they can appreciate and understand the overall science concepts.
Our Brains on Storytelling: Engaging, Connecting and Making Meaning of Complex Ideas Neuroscientists have discovered huge variations in the brain when listening to facts vs. stories. Listening to facts mainly stimulates the two language processing areas of the brain: Broca’s and Wernicke’s area. However, when hearing a story, additional parts of the brain beyond the language regions are activated. Brain regions involved with senses and motor movements are activated helping listeners actually “feel” the descriptions. As neuroscientist, Dr. Uri Hasson explains, “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.” Narratives help these worlds come alive.
Storytelling Helps Students Engage, Connect, and Make Meaning of Complex Ideas Neuroscientist Dr. Paul J Zak further explains that when listening to a story, chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin are being released. Dopamine increases motivation and attention. It keeps listeners engaged and regulates their emotional response. Oxytocin promotes social, empathic behavior. In storytelling, this enables the listener to more greatly connect with the narrative. The stories help the listener make the information being delivered more personally meaningful.
How I Have Used this in the Classroom Knowing the science behind the story, I decided to test out some ideas using ongoing storylines through a series of lessons. I chose the two topics which I found fact-heavy and relied on standardized tests for assessment: plant biology and functions of the human body.
In the plant biology unit, I decided to use stories to first capture their attention then make real inter-curricular connections. We learned about medicinal properties of plants, ancient potions, poisons, and remedies. We connected this to popular fictional stories like Juliet’s sleeping potion in Romeo and Juliet, the idea of the poison apple in Snow White, and what’s really happening in Harry Potter’s potion classes. Instead of assessing learning through a standard test, students invented their own species of plant, made a 3-D model, and had to explain basic functions of how the plant worked. `
I created another storyline when teaching about the functions of the human body. I taught it through the perspective of a zombie apocalypse where we had become zombies and we now needed to learn to care for our bodies and appendages to prevent rot and deterioration. Our final project was to create a Survival Guide with explanations of how our bodies function to help other future zombies survive longer.
What I Saw Instead of just mindlessly copying facts from a PowerPoint presentation, the students were now engaged and making connections to what they’re learning with their previous knowledge. Using the brain science behind storytelling, helped the students personally connect and create more meaning behind complex scientific ideas. They were taking more ownership of their learning and creating more self-directed inquiry.