Pull-you-in Storytelling

Today I read Robert Krulwich’s fine blog with a post about a fascinating video about a little-noticed phenomenon. As he notes in his post, the video is made by someone with technical training but whose main occupation is not scientific storytelling, teaching, or journalism. Except for the musical soundtrack, I think the video is great. It introduces an interesting phenomenon, describes the science needed to understand it, then explains it clearly. The video has some great macro-footage of the droplets of wine endlessly dripping down the sides of the glass. But the reason I’m taking the time to write about it now is because of the following passage from Krulwich’s post:

One last thing: For most people, science is what tickles you when you’re in grade school learning about bugs and dinosaurs, and what dulls and drives you off when you meet the Krebs cycle in 9th grade, and you have to memorize long lists of chemical transactions. In high school, the pull-you-in storytelling stops, and for many, science becomes one long slog through short answer quizzes. But look what Dan did in his video: He shows you a puzzle — wine magically climbing a wineglass. He asks the right question: “Why?”

And the way he builds his answer — with a dab of laundry detergent scattering pepper flakes on a plate, with an escalator that can’t unload its people — is totally engaging, true to the science, and makes you want to know more. That’s the key. Science writing should be impregnating. It should make you lean in, not out.

I have a problem with how Krulwich seems to view science education. Children in grade school are not ready to handle heavy, abstract concepts in science. Developmentally, it’s just not appropriate to expect them to understand the Krebs Cycle or Stoichiometry. Instead, we should teach them to observe their world closely. Teachers and parents need to give young children exposure to events and phenomena that cry out for scientific explanation. Take the kids outside and talk about why the Sun rises and sets and why the Moon has phases. Show them how to keep the water from falling out of an overturned bottle using nothing but a piece of paper. Tell them stories about our world when it was young, about trilobites and dinosaurs. Let imagination and wonder rule the day and guide your explorations. Our every move should increase a child’s curiosity and deepen his or her appreciation of nature.

But when a child grows older and more capable of abstract thinking, let us begin to introduce them to the wonder of mathematical modeling. Let’s teach them algebra and trigonometry so them can understand the laws of motion discovered by Galileo and laws of inertia and acceleration discovered by Newton. Let’s teach them about chains of enzymatic action and molecular motors and the hydrolysis of ATP. Certainly, let us never stop telling the interesting stories. Never stop posing questions and problems that pique curiosity and pull you in. I know that as a teacher of 11th-graders, I am always looking for new ways to introduce my students to the joy that knowing brings me. I do frequent demonstrations in class, both to underline what we’re learning and to show my students things they’ve never seen anywhere else. I have even taken to assigning “Real Life Chemistry” reports in which students perform a simple science demonstration at home and report back on it, with pictures and further research. I tell stories and try to make the material engaging.

The problem is that all of this is not enough for many students. They still find the material dull. They are driven away by the drudgery and tedium of the classwork and the quizzes. When you teach science at this level you are confronting students with cognitive challenges unlike any they have ever encountered. In Chemistry, particularly, I need to teach them about entities they can never see in order to build up an explanation of the things they do see. Ultimately, the nature and behavior of atoms and molecules explains phase changes and chemical reactions. To make matters worse, one of the tools I need to use to teach abstract ideas is itself an abstraction: mathematics. Many students balk at this because they think they are no good at math. That’s a topic for another day but it’s a barrier that means that in order for my students to find success I sometimes need to give them dull, repetitive work in order for them to get enough practice to learn a new skill or to really understand a complex topic.

The storytelling and wonder do not have to stop when students reach higher grades. I would argue that they are even more essential than ever as young people become distracted by a thousand other interests. But I would like to say that dull drudgery has its place. If students are going to be prepared for the rapid pace of learning of abstract and complex topics then they are going to have to do some work that is not immediately mind-expanding and full of wonder. A video like the one Krulwich praises is excellent as a starting point. Anyone can enjoy it and come away with a deeper appreciation for nature. But that’s not all I’m trying to do in the classroom: I also want students to be skillful abstract thinkers who have encountered a wide variety of natural phenomena and who appreciate the work required to develop a deeper understanding. The mind is expanded not only by beautifully crafted stories but also by steady application of mental effort to solving difficult problems. One does not climb a high mountain without some scrambles up steep, difficult slopes. But having surmounted those challenges, the view from the top is all the more beautiful.

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