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?

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The Grey Matters: How Adversity May Impact Children’s Creative Growth and Development

Alex, a six-year-old child, and her six other friends are trying to divide 11 cookies evenly amongst themselves.

At first, this is a difficult problem to solve: who gets one cookie and who gets two? The children discuss different strategies of dividing the cookies, including each taking one, and leaving four in the jar for their other friend who is at home sick, or cutting up the remaining four cookies in halves so they each get one and one-half of a cookie. They finally agree that 4 of them will get one cookie, 3 of them will get two, and who gets two cookies will be decided by playing rock-paper-scissors.- The extra will be left for their sick friend for when she comes back to play group. Next time, those who only got one cookie would be the ones who get two cookies. An adult might have suggested that the children each take a cookie, and leave the remaining four cookies for another day, or, that they each take one and one-half of a cookie. But what fun would this be when, through creative thinking and problem-solving, some of them could enjoy two cookies instead of just one?

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