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Rowcliffe Storytelling in science

Storytelling in science
Stephen Rowcliffe

Storytelling is an important part of science teaching, and should
not be overlooked by any practitioner

From the first day of ninth grade, I knew Mr current research into storytelling in science teaching,
Gibbs was different. He perched behind a exploring the idea that storytelling could make a real
wooden podium in his classroom. He told contribution to pupils’ learning, and to make
outrageous stories that may or may not have recommendations as to how science teachers can best
been true, but that got our attention and made a use storytelling in their daily practice.
good point. He’d stand there behind that
podium, yelling, ranting, rocking in his
speeches, making that podium creak and groan
Support for storytelling in
until one day during class it broke. He was the
science education
kind of man who was always acting, but put on It is generally accepted that in order to teach
a damn good show. For that, I’ll never forget effectively, a wide range of stimuli should be
him. (Meghan Pino, former student at Benicia presented to pupils (Kyriacou, 1992). Storytelling can
High School, California, USA) be used as one such stimulus, helping to break up the
Although many science teachers make use of lesson and provide the pupils with an engaging,
anecdotes and stories in their lessons, storytelling is exciting and emotionally involving experience from
not a formally accepted teaching skill: for example, which to learn.
it does not appear in the list of standards required for Johnstone et al. (1997) provide convincing
the award of Qualified Teacher Status in England evidence that the working memory of children
(Department for Education and Skills Circular 4/98). typically cannot cope easily with extended chains of
Beyond 2000 (Millar and Osborne, 1998) envisages a reasoning in science. However, Weber (1993) has
curriculum consisting of a succession of narrative shown that stories are easily incorporated into the
(non-fiction) stories aimed at presenting science in a memory as chains of events, and thus storytelling may
more ‘coherent, memorable and meaningful’ format help children to link cause and effect; hence,
in order to interest and engage pupils, as well as to illustrating a scientific concept in the form of a story
unify the curriculum and to preserve a sense of the improves pupils’ science learning.
‘bigger picture’. The better science textbooks gener- Ideas committed to short-term memory in lessons
ally contain some historical information on topics must be consolidated if they are to be remembered
being studied, but this often appears to be included as long-term. Kalat (1995) states that the more
an afterthought and some teachers I have observed meaningful an event is to a person, the faster and more
neglect these sections, leaving the pupils to read them strongly they consolidate the memory of it. One
if they choose. The aim of this article is to review remembers exciting experiences better than dull
experiences because exciting experiences increase the
secretion of adrenaline into the bloodstream.
Many secondary science teachers face Adrenaline boosts memory by raising the level of
difficulties inspiring their classes. The use of glucose in the blood that is available to the brain.
stories can enliven teaching and improve pupils’ Arousing events improve memory simply by
learning. This article reviews research in this increasing the brain’s fuel supply. Although there is
area and offers guidelines and advice as to how no concrete evidence linking stories and adrenaline
teachers can use storytelling to optimum levels, this evidence does support the idea that exciting
advantage in science.
stories might improve learning for some pupils, even

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Storytelling in science Rowcliffe

if all they remember is the story itself and none of the Millar and Osborne (1998) state that one of the
science surrounding it. aims of the science curriculum should be to sustain
Hodson (1998) has strong ideas about the and develop the curiosity of young people and to seek
influence of emotions on children’s learning. He to foster a sense of wonder, enthusiasm and interest
discusses how ‘feelings such as wonder, delight, in science. It seems that stories could be a way of
amusement, interest ... and disgust will impact in achieving this sense of wonderment, enthusiasm and
different ways on a learning task’. He does concede interest in science, provided they are relevant, fun and
that outcomes will not always be positive or even interesting.
curriculum-oriented, but he makes a powerful case
based on socio-constructivist ideas for the importance
of emotional involvement when it comes to the pupils’
personalisation and internalisation of scientific The personification of scientific concepts or ideas
understanding. characterises science storytelling in some books,
One study found that 50 per cent of A-level involving cartoon characters, and the like, taking the
students find physics boring, while 60 per cent find place of principles under study. For example, the
biology fun or interesting (Harvard, 1996). Osborne, Association for Science Education publishes The
Driver and Simon (1998) suggest such findings may adventures of Charlie the Coulomb to teach electricity
reflect the fact that non-specialists are teaching much in secondary physics (Hodgson, 1998), and Banister
of the physics in schools. These non-specialists may and Ryan (2001) advocate the use of a character
lack sufficient confidence in the subject matter to named William Water to teach the concept of the water
embellish their teaching with stories and anecdotes cycle in primary school. I have also observed this
and hence fall back upon didactic teaching methods, approach being used to teach the reactivity series in
which the students find dull. secondary school, with Mr Copper being betrothed
Tobias (1990) conducted a study on American to Miss Sulfate and so forth. Such analogies can be
postgraduates who had not enjoyed science and had viewed as mini-stories featuring characters derived
‘dropped out’. She was interested in discovering what from scientific concepts.
it was about science teaching that had left the students Banister and Ryan (2001) found that there were
cold. Significantly, a high proportion of the measurable increases in primary children’s under-
postgraduates felt that ‘absence of history or context’ standing of the water cycle as a result of the use of
had been one of the reasons that they had found anthropomorphisms in storytelling. Although no
science insufferable (Simon, 2000). This idea has been statistical tests were performed on the data, there is
substantiated by trials at the University of Buffalo, some empirical evidence to suggest that children were
where attendance in science classes has been boosted able to distinguish the factual information under study
from 50–65 per cent to 95 per cent by the use of stories from the character of William Water, and that some
and case studies in teaching (Goldbaum, 2000). The long-term learning had taken place as a direct result
same study concluded that, as a result of the story of the storytelling activity. Tamir and Zohar (1991)
approach, students who had appeared tired and have shown that primary children can accept
disinterested during lectures were suddenly animated anthropomorphic formulations, while remaining able
and involved. to distinguish the factual reasoning behind them.
Relevance of academic study to pupils’ lives is Although there is some evidence that this
often cited as an important motivational factor in approach does lead to academic benefits in primary
teaching (Kyriacou, 1992; Monk and Osborne, 2000). school, and can help children to learn or to consolidate
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) their learning, I am personally opposed to secondary
points out that listeners find a reflection of themselves teachers using too much anthropomorphism for three
in stories. Goldbaum (2000) adds that stories get reasons:
pupils involved in science, not as spectators but as
participants. Campbell (1998) reached a similar " It is unscientific and thus unhelpful to pupils who
conclusion, suggesting that pupils can be encouraged should be striving to be good scientists. For
to view physics as relevant to their lives, rather than example, it would be a disaster if a pupil answered
as a mere collection of facts, by teaching with stories a GCSE question paper along the lines of ‘Well,
culled from the media. Charlie the Coulomb was running around the
circuit...’ This sort of approach is insufficient for

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Rowcliffe Storytelling in science

the depth and complexity of understanding
Incorporating storytelling into
required at secondary level.
" It is patronising. Secondary school pupils these
days are much more streetwise than many adults Simon (2000) points to the prescriptive nature of the
realise. I once tried introducing a class of 13/14 National Curriculum having constrained the creativity
year-olds to Charlie the Coulomb and was met and enthusiasm of teachers in England, and suggests
with torrents of laughter and derision. This sort that this is a major cause of the erosion of pupils’
of approach is divorced from what pupils perceive positive attitudes towards science. If a teacher set aside
as real science. The link between what pupils study three minutes of each lesson for storytelling, it might
and real science is an important one to reinforce, enable him/her to be more ‘zany’ and enthusiastic
as it is known to increase their motivation and about the subject, and this erosion of positive attitudes
belief in the importance of the work they do in could perhaps be reduced.
lessons (Monk and Osborne, 2000). Howe and Johnson (1992) suggest that storytelling
" It presents a model that may be open to can be used in a variety of ways in the science
misinterpretation and does not include the detail laboratory:
required at a higher level. For example, electrons " to present a scientific problem in the form of a
do not ‘die’ when the battery runs out of energy, story for pupils to solve;
as the students in a study by Howe and Johnson " to provide an accessible explanation of a complex
(1992) stated. process;
However, these activities can be a lot of fun for the " to provide an element of human interest in a topic,
pupils, and this is a benefit that cannot be overlooked. for example using role-play and incorporating
‘real-life’ scientific issues that people face in their
Emotional involvement everyday lives.
I would personally add:
Banister and Ryan (2001) suggest that primary
children can learn effectively from anthropomorph- " to put what is being learned into a historical
isms in stories because they become emotionally context, i.e. what did humans think before we
involved with the character or the story and this knew what we know today?
emotional response is instrumental in achieving " to provide entertainment and enjoyment for pupils
learning. and teachers so that they become emotionally
Alsop (2001) found that 24 out of a group of 42 involved and their imaginations are ‘fired up’ by
secondary pupils felt that emotions should not be a learning;
part of their science education; they felt that they " to provide mental triggers that will bring the
would be a distraction and would hinder their work. concepts that have been taught to the forefront of
They believed that science is concerned with facts, the pupils’ memories.
not opinions, and that emotions should not be a
The importance of children telling stories themselves
consideration when contemplating a scientific
has been highlighted by Mallan (1991). Howe and
problem. On the other hand, 12 of the pupils felt that
Johnson (1992) present a case study of a year 8 class
emotions were important in science because they
(12/13 year-olds) who were instructed to prepare a
make the content more interesting and exciting.
story for narration to primary children, where the
Should science teaching be emotion-free? Can this
function of a circuit was explained in terms of a ‘big
image be challenged? Scientific issues presented in
bully battery’ and his ‘army of volts’ pushing the ‘baby
the media, such as bio-terrorism and the destruction
electrons’ around a wire. The pupils employed props
of the rainforest, are anything but devoid of emotion.
for the exercise and had to deliver the story and then
By failing to introduce an element of emotion into
answer questions.
teaching, perhaps via storytelling, we may be failing
Parvin (1996) effectively implemented science in
to demonstrate the link between ‘school science’ and
a cross-curricular context in a primary school, where
‘real science’. This could make science less meaning-
pupils found the inspiration for their scientific
ful and relevant to pupils’ everyday lives, hence
investigations from stories or poems. For example,
devaluing science lessons in their eyes.
an investigation of the speed of an object due to gravity

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Storytelling in science Rowcliffe

was based on a motorcyclist character from a book detective story involving the ink used in forged
called Princess Smartypants. banknotes. The subsequent activities could involve
This technique can be transferred to the secondary the pupils placing themselves in the shoes of the
school science laboratory to give the pupils some forensic scientist, using chromatography to identify
involvement in the ideas they are studying. They may the suspect’s ink and hence replicating the process of
become more motivated and interested in the subject deduction that led to the forger’s apprehension.
matter as a result. An introductory story could present Although this particular example is already in
the pupils with an interesting challenge or problem common use, there are many other aspects of science
centred on an idea, for example the well-known that could benefit from similar treatment.

Box 1 Sources of story material
A selection of potential sources for stimulating science stories is given here. There are of course many
" Terry Deary and Barbara Allen have written The spark files (London: Faber and Faber) using fictional
characters and events to illustrate scientific concepts. Some of the characters are of the opinion that a
phenomenon (such as magnetism) is due to magic, and other characters explain them scientifically.
" Russell Stannard has written several successful fiction books starring Uncle Albert, an accessible
and fun mentor figure who introduces children to complex physics concepts. These books are award-
winning best-sellers, and (although potentially somewhat biased) research suggests that children not
only enjoy the story format but learn a great deal about physics into the bargain (Stannard, 2001).
" The science sections of newspapers can provide up-to-date and interesting scientific information to
add relevance to lessons.
" The Horrible Science series of books by Nick Arnold (London: Scholastic) provides many gruesome
details and compelling historical tales, pitched at the right level for young teenagers.
" The Faber book of science (ed. Carey, J., 1995, London: Faber and Faber) contains fascinating
historical accounts of scientific discoveries and may be suitable to enrich lessons, particularly for older
" The last word: New Scientist (ed. O’Hare, M., 1998, Oxford University Press) contains a series of
commonly asked scientific questions such as ‘does hot water really freeze faster than cold water’ (it
does – try it!) that could form the basis for a class investigation.
" The Darwin awards (Northcutt, W., 2000, London: Orion Books) is a somewhat tasteless collection of
true stories of calamitous events that have befallen people, most of which have a humorous and
scientific element and have enlivened many a science lesson.
" The books Smelly science and Disgusting facts (Hamer, M., 2000, Bath: Parragon) contain many
amusing anecdotes and facts about science, with the former having an entire chapter dedicated to
flatulence. Both are good sources of witty repartee with which to amuse younger pupils.
" A suspiciously simple history of science invention (Farman, J., 1991, London: Pan Macmillan
Children’s Books) presents a chronological account of the development of invention and science since
prehistoric times. I have found it most useful in providing short historical stories or anecdotes.
" My name is Becquerel (Schwenk, E., 1994, Frankfurt: Hoechst Aktiengesellschaft) details the lives of
the great scientists whose names gave us our SI units, and such stories may help pupils to understand
more about the mysterious names and symbols that scientists use.
" The Reading into Science series, published by Nelson Thornes UK, contains historical stories linked
to the key stage 4 curriculum.
" Science Web, a series of books published by Nelson Thornes and edited by Joan Solomon, contains
a series of science stories linked to the key stage 3 curriculum aimed at boosting pupils’ interest in and
enjoyment of science.
" The software, People in science, published by Longman and using ‘Kar2ouche’, allows students to
construct storyboards to explain certain events in the history of scientific innovation.

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Rowcliffe Storytelling in science

In the same way, pupils could be presented with a and Welsh schools must study science up to age 16,
historical perception of a scientific problem, and do science teachers have more of a responsibility to
challenged to take the place of the scientist during make their subject interesting for the pupils?
their experiment to discover the solution. It is obvious that storytelling can never become a
Box 1 lists a selection of possible sources of stories main part of any science lesson. However, a good
to stimulate science. This is clearly not an exhaustive teacher uses a range of techniques, and if storytelling
list but it should provide some inspiration and at least can be used as a motivational tool, then why not?
a starting point for any science teacher planning to Three minutes per lesson is a small price to pay if a
incorporate more stories into their teaching. teacher is rewarded with motivated pupils who are
eager to learn and who enjoy lessons, resulting in
enhanced learning outcomes.
Delivery of stories Many teachers would benefit from the use of
Storytelling is a skill that can be acquired and honed. stories, from non-subject specialists resorting to
The NCTE suggests that teachers rehearse their stories didactic methods, newly qualified teachers struggling
before telling them. The use of a cassette recorder is to make their teaching more interesting, to the older
advocated to ensure that timing, inflection and vocal generation of teachers who may be demotivated
tonality are suitably entertaining. NCTE also suggests themselves and no longer motivating or interesting
that teachers listen to good storytellers and try to their pupils.
absorb some observed qualities into their repertoire. There is clearly much in the research presented
It is easy to find a story being told well on the radio here to suggest that storytelling can provide an
or television; it is simply a matter of concentrating enriched learning experience and that pupils enjoy
and then reflecting upon what made the story effective, (and are more willing to attend) lessons that have an
interesting or engaging. element of fun or historical perspective. There is also
I would personally advise finding the ‘bare bones’ physiological evidence that long-term memory of
of a good story, and embellishing it with your own ideas can be enhanced by the use of stories. Moreover,
flourishes and style. In this way, you can adapt a story there are suggestions that a failure to include some
to the class being taught and to the mood in the element of storytelling in science teaching could be
laboratory, so as to exact the maximum excitement harmful to secondary science education, as pupils fail
and emotional involvement from the exercise. As the to be inspired to be inventive, or to see the relevance
saying goes, ‘It’s the way you tell them’. of what they are studying. All this clearly points to
The use of ICT in storytelling is an emerging field the fact that storytelling is an important part of science
and professional development for teachers is now teaching, and should not be overlooked by any
available in the USA; see practitioner.
Finally, the function of science education goes
further than the provision of future scientists
Conclusion and service to the institution of science. The
Goodwin (2001) has pointed to the fact that many development of scientific literacy is essential to
science teachers complain, when met with demands a participatory democracy. The decline in the
to include elements of ‘wonder’ into their lessons, study of science post-16, for all groups of
that ‘We don’t have time for that sort of thing now students, indicates that we are failing to
we’ve got the National Curriculum’. The question convince children that science is the most
must be asked, should we, as teachers, pander to the significant achievement of Western civilisation.
alleged short attention spans of our pupils, or would The central question that teachers need to ask
it be better to impose a greater degree of discipline? of their practice is ‘How can we make science
Perhaps in the days when science was optional it more appealing?’ (Simon, 2000)
would have been acceptable to expect pupils to work
without any ‘entertainment’. Now that the National
Curriculum has dictated that all children in English

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Stephen Rowcliffe teaches biology at the Grange School, Santiago, Chile.

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