marie curie

There are two books sitting on my bedside shelf that I have been reading in short chunks for a long time. One is The Evolution of Childhood by Melvin Konner. The other is The Richness of Life, acollection of essays and book excerpts by Stephen Jay Gould. One is essentially a textbook; the other is full of stories. Both are great books about science in their own right. I’ll eventually make it through each. But which one will a remember better? Will I learn more from the expository text or the narrative essays?

Probably the one with the stories, and there’s research to support that hypothesis. Prof. Daniel Willingham at UVa writes on his blog about a new paper explaining an experiment with middle school students reading two different science texts on Galileo or Marie Curie.

Students read either a straightforward expository text about the work of one scientist or the other, or the students read a narrative text explaining Curie’s of Galileo’s work. The students who read the story retained more information shortly after the reading and then again when tested a week later.

This is an interesting finding in and of itself, but Willingham pushes things further, arguing, “I’d like to broaden the view of ‘narrative’”:

You don’t have to think of narrative just as the story of an individual or group of people; you can think more abstractly conflict, complications, and the eventual resolution of conflict as the core of narrative structure.

In this formulation, narrative structure becomes a schema for organizing information. If a scientific story needs characters, conflict, complications, and resolution, then scientists are the characters, the problem or question is the conflict, complications and rising action are the fabric of the experimental process, and the resolution is what a scientist learns.

But I couldn’t read Willingham’s synthesis and not think about the teacher professional development I’ve been doing recently. Much of the PD that I’ve created is purely expository: here are the ideas, the definitions, the information. But if explaining an education program requires generating a schema with which teachers can organize information, then perhaps a story of how an instructional approach was developed or worked in a real classroom would be the stronger approach. At the very least, it would likely mean more entertaining professional development time; I’d rather tell a story than just flip through slides.

Image: Marie Curie by flickr user ashura.