What Science Can Learn from Fiction: Utilizing the Power of Narrative Structures to Teach Science

Science is used to inspire the fictional media (i.e., media that depicts concepts or events that are unlike reality) (Hopkins & Weisberg, 2017) that many of us love.

Whether it is comic books about superheroes who gain powers after being hit by lightning, or children’s television shows in which house cats secretly go on adventures in the wild outdoors, science is all around us, including in the fictional media we consume.

So, why is it that fictional media, which distorts scientific information, is more engaging than media containing factually correct scientific information.

Does this have to be the case?

Science, which to many holds the promise of actualizing what is currently impossible, inspires imagination. Maybe we don’t currently have superheroes with superspeed, but what if we could use technology to gift people with such superpowers one day?

That “what if” question is what keeps people reading, watching, playing, or otherwise consuming this media. Curiously enough, more often than not, sources that teach factually correct science information fail to have that same effect.

As a scientist and a student of developmental and educational psychology, I’ve spent at least the last two years wondering why this is the case. Science is, after all, all about answering questions. Human curiosity about the impossible is what keeps viewers engaged with fictional science. Can this curiosity be used to keep people engaged in actual science?

Because I’ve spent the last two years conducting research on educational media, I believe the answer to my former question is “yes”, and I think I know one way we can go about doing so.

I think that people stay engaged in fictional stories because they use a narrative structure. Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. Because of this structure, every event that following the beginning of the story can be explained mechanistically, or through cause-and-effect: Cinderella has to leave the prince at midnight because her fairy godmother warned her that all of her things would change back into their original form.

Given that science is all about finding answers, or explanations to our questions, I began to wonder: Would people stay engaged in science if it sounded more like a story?

That “what if” question is what keeps people reading, watching, playing, or otherwise consuming this media. Curiously enough, more often than not, sources that teach factually correct science information fail to have that same effect.

A variety of research from developmental and educational psychology highlights the use of media for education from early childhood onwards, meaning that children may be used to learning from stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s definitely important to consider the potential harm that science fiction can cause to people’s beliefs in important scientific topics. Nevertheless, it’s also important to consider what science can learn from fiction to keep content engaging.


Developmental scientists are currently examining whether and how children learn science from the media they consume. Children’s educational content often contains fictional elements (Goldstein & Alperson, 2019). For example, Sesame Street features a variety of different puppets and non-realistic animals (e.g., Big Bird).

Children all over the world have learned a variety of skills from Sesame Street, including basic literacy skills (i.e., knowing letters and numbers), scientific thinking skills, and even prosocial thinking skills (Mares & Pan, 2013). Television media has also been used to provide children with information about concepts and ideas they may not have exposure to on a daily basis, like about the cultures and traditions of others (Bonus & Mares, 2019). Additionally, there is evidence that engaging with educational media while young may be related to future educational success: Anderson et al. (2001) found that watching Sesame Street while young was positively related with high school science grades. In summary, education from media consumption while children are young may correlate with success in future scientific education.


In other words, children learn through narratives from early on. If our youngest learners engage with media that often uses narrative structures, then using narrative structures in media for older children and adults make the media more engaging and make it more conducive to teaching science.

As children grow older, their ability to judge distinguish between fact and fiction also improves (Mares & Sivakumar, 2014), and older children and adults may continue to learn from fictional sources: high school and college students report that fictional sources based on science can make science more engaging. Dubeck et al. (1990) reported that when secondary school science teachers showed science-fiction films in their classes, students were more engaged in class: they were “quicker to try” the kinds of math and science problems discussed in the films, and they also tried to identify the scientific concepts that were discussed in the films as they watched (p. 317).

Overall, teachers who participated in this study reported that using science fiction films in their classes improved students’ attitudes toward science and improved their scientific knowledge (Dubeck et al., 1990).


Despite having these benefits, it’s important to remember that fictional media is still fictional: By definition, it inaccurately portrays scientific content.


Sometimes, it’s easy to distinguish between truth and fantasy: Even a five-year-old could tell you that there’s no Magic School Bus in real life. Other times, though, scientific fantasy can be more complicated, and more convincing: The 2009 film 2012 scared many people into believing that the world really would end in 2012, as the Mayan calendar predicted. The film depicted multiple natural disasters, such as earthquakes, the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, and mega-tsunamis causing cities to collapse, and entire continents to sink below sea level all in the span of a few days.
Looking back a decade later, I wonder about the impact this movie left: was scaring people a good thing, because it portrayed climate change as a serious issue? Or, did the fact that the world did not end in 2012 make climate change seem like a less serious issue? Thus, how useful science fiction is to science learning is questionable.


Further, we expect scientists and science educators to become experts on various scientific topics by learning from textbooks and peer-reviewed articles; not from videos, movies, and storybooks. So, why should we not expect current students to do the same?

To me, the solution isn’t to depend on fictional (though engaging and enjoyable) sources, but to find ways to make credible science education resources more engaging.


This is where utilizing the narrative structure that’s used in fiction may come in handy.
Narratives encourage relational processing, or connecting pieces of information to construct a framework of understanding about a specific topic (Fazio et al., 2015). Giving stories a beginning, middle and ending is what encourages people to believe in them: In Fazio et al’s (2015) study on misinformation, college students read either lists or stories, both containing false information. Students were more likely to learn false information from lists rather than stories, suggesting that the narrative structure used in stories made them more believable. Narrative structures may make information easier to process: as students observe narratives unfold, they see how one event in the story influences the proceeding one.


My own experience learning biology as a college student has informed my own understanding of why learning science through relational processing is effective. Rather than having our class memorize bulleted lists of facts about why and how certain biological processes occur (e.g., photosynthesis), our instructor trained us to draw flow diagrams of these processes (i.e., illustrate by using arrows how and why one biological component or process affects another). On tests, we were asked to apply our knowledge of these processes to problems (e.g., a broken protein in the plant is keeping it from photosynthesizing properly: describe what might be wrong with this protein and why might the plant not be able to photosynthesize?). Because flow diagrams taught us to learn about biological components and processes as they related to one another, it became easier to recall and understand the information that was going on in class and use it to solve novel biological problems on tests.


In summary, my research on educational media, and my own experiences learning science, have taught me that there are many ways science education resources can be more engaging, more understandable and more accessible. I believe that the fantastical content many of us enjoy can be used to inspire how we design science education materials.

Slipping some dragons, wizards, and other fantastical beings into education content is one way to go, but borrowing just the narrative structure could be a better tactic. If accurate science books and television shows sounded more like fictional stories, maybe people would be more likely to stay engaged.


References


Anderson, D. R., Huston, A. C., Schmitt, K. L., Linebarger, D. L., Wright, J. C., & Larson, R. (2001). Early Childhood Television Viewing and Adolescent Behavior: The Recontact Study. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 66(1), i–154. Retrieved from JSTOR.


Bonus, J. A., & Mares, M.-L. (2019). Learned and Remembered But Rejected: Preschoolers’ Reality Judgments and Transfer From Sesame Street. Communication Research, 46(3), 375–400. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650215609980


Fazio, L. K., Dolan, P. O., & Marsh, E. J. (2015). Learning misinformation from fictional sources: Understanding the contributions of transportation and item-specific processing. Memory, 23(2), 167–177. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2013.877146


Goldstein, T. R., & Alperson, K. (2019). Dancing bears and talking toasters: A content analysis of supernatural elements in children’s media. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000222


Hopkins, E. J., & Weisberg, D. S. (2017). The youngest readers’ dilemma: A review of children’s learning from fictional sources. Developmental Review, 43, 48–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2016.11.001


Mares, M.-L., & Pan, Z. (2013). Effects of Sesame Street: A meta-analysis of children’s learning in 15 countries. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 34(3), 140–151. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2013.01.001


Mares, M.-L., & Sivakumar, G. (2014). “Vámonos means go, but that’s made up for the show”: Reality confusions and learning from educational TV. Developmental Psychology, 50(11), 2498–2511. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038041

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