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

Science has long been 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 media we consume. While engaging with fictional media may be entertaining, the same cannot always be said about engaging with science. Developing the same scientific knowledge media content creators use to develop fictional media is not always intuitive, let alone easy to learn. However, does this have to be the case?

Since science is present in the fictional media, can fictional media be used to learn science? Some argue that fictional media is an undervalued resource for learning science. Others argue that fictional sources may present misinformation which may confuse the lay learner, resulting in misunderstanding scientific concepts. I argue for a middle ground: if fictional media makes it is easier for students to process science information by using a narrative structure (i.e. explaining events based on how one event relates to another), then implementing a narrative structure in delivering scientific information to students maybe an effective tool for science education.

The Use of Fictional Media in Learning Settings, from Childhood to Adolescence

Children’s educational content often contains fictional elements (Goldstein & Alperson, 2019). For example, Sesame Street, an internationally renowned children’s educational television show, 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 often 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, young children do learn from the fictional media that they engage with, and this education may be related to success in future scientific education.

            As children grow older, their ability to judge distinguish between fact and fiction also improves (Mares & Sivakumar, 2014). However, even 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, Bruce, Schmuckler, Moshier, and Boss (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 towards science and also improved their scientific knowledge (Dubeck et al., 1990).

It’s possible that visual quality of fictional movies and television shows may help students think about and understand the material they are learning by making it easier to process. It may be that it is possible to learn from fictional media, and the learning process may be more engaging and enjoyable than more traditional methods, such as taking lecture notes and reading textbooks. 

Before rushing to the store to buy all the sci-fi films we can find, we need to consider some of the drawbacks

Fictional media is certainly engaging, but the reason that we address it as fictional media is because it is, by definition unreal, or inaccurate. For example, a pressing issue is the distortion of true scientific information that these films present for the sake of entertainment. One example of this is the case of the Magic School bus: a five year old, who has not been in a science class yet, does not necessarily know that their future science teacher will not put them in a school bus that can change sizes, sneak into someone’s body, so that the class learn about human anatomy.

Of course, as soon as this child enters a science classroom they will learn quickly that this is not how scientific education works. A more serious example is the 2009 film 2012, which, despite including many fictional elements (e.g., the name of the U.S. president in the film was Thomas Wilson), 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 megatsunamis causing cities to collapse, and entire continents to sink below sea level all in the span of a few days.

When I was sixth grade, despite having two parents who are scientists and who assured me that 2012 was not going to be the end of the world, I was still scared by all the panic that this movie created. My parents reassured me that in fact, after December 31st 2011, I would still wake up and be alive in 2012. And I’m sure that this is also true for other children who were also scared by this movie.

Looking back on this event about 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? Parents may have reassured their kids that “nothing bad would happen” and that climate change and natural disasters would not end the world.  While it may be true that the world will not suddenly end because of natural disasters, climate change and natural disasters are both serious issues that everyone should be aware of and no one should take lightly.

Due to the issue of distortion of information, among other possible problems I have not considered here, it is questionable fictional media serves as an educational media for every person that engages with it. For example, it is possible that a younger student, who may not be as familiar with physics concepts as a high school student, may not be able to use this movie as an educational resource: for her, watching Interstellar may only be a form of entertainment.  Further, the evidence gathered by Dubeck et al. (1990) do not tell us about how students who gathered scientific information from sources like Interstellar would perform on tests of knowledge compared to students who may have studied these same concepts in textbooks or through some other form of educational media.

To become experts on various scientific topics, instructors are expected to learn by studying from textbooks and articles written by experts in their fields, not from videos, movies and storybooks. So, why should we not expect students, future experts in various scientific fields and the instructors of future students, to learn the same way their instructors did? This change in learning methods may in part be due to the continued evolution of technology; it is possible that students today have more access to educational fictional media than their instructors did as students.

Thus, current-day students utilize fictional media as a resource more than their instructors ever did. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that fictional media and scientific media are written and formatted differently, and they contain different amounts of science information, because they are meant to be used differently and by different audiences: the first might be better-suited for enjoyment by the lay person, with some learning components, while the second is designed purely to educate.

Combining Forces: using a narrative approach to teaching science

While it is certainly important to provide students, our future scientists, with high quality scientific education, it is also important to educate strategically by employing methods to encourage students to engage with science. Because fictional media often employs a narrative structure to guide its audience through the story, employing a narrative structure to  teach scientific information may be strategy for science and fiction to combine forces.

Why would using a narrative structure make scientific info easier to process?

One reason why the narrative structure of fiction makes information easier to process may be that narratives encourage relational processing (i.e., connecting pieces of information to construct a framework of understanding about a specific topic) (Fazio et al., 2015). In Fazio, Dolan and Marsh’s (2015) study on misinformation, in which college students read either lists or stories containing false information, students were more likely to learn false information from lists rather than stories.

One interpretation of this result is that narrative structure employed by stories may make information easier to process: as students observe narratives unfold, they see how one event in the story influences the proceeding one. Thus, readers may find it easier to learn information from stories because preceding give context as to why future events occur. Further, , the authors found that differences between the fictional “world” result in participants feeling “transported”, or unable to access real information (Fazio et al., 2015). This indicates that participants were still able to distinguish between true and false information in the story. This may be because many stories that individuals are commonly exposed to contain some information that is not true of the real world. Thus, false information presented in stories may be seen as true only in the context of the story, but not in real life.

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 would be 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. I still use this technique today, in our graduate biopsychology class, and it continues to help me understand how various biological processes are related to one another and why they occur.

Concluding thoughts

Through my experiences in learning science, I’ve learned that one of the easiest methods to truly learn a scientific concept is to create a story around it. Narrative structures encourage readers and listeners to think about how different aspects of a single concept are related. This is what makes some of our favorite stories, like Harry Potter, so memorable, and I believe that narrative structures may increase students’ abilities to learn science as well.

 Young children are encouraged to start learn information through narratives starting from when they are first exposed to educational media,  which is often includes fictional worlds with talking animals and characters with powers; things no child would see on an “regular Tuesday” (Goldstein & Alperson, 2019, p.4). If our youngest learners engage with media that often uses narrative structures, than continuing to use narrative structures in media for older children and even adults may not only make the media more engaging, but also make it a better teacher of science.  

In summary, fictional media may not be a hinderance to spreading scientific knowledge, but in fact a highly effective model for how information can be presented in an engaging way: in other words, making science more enjoyable and easier to understand, for children and adult populations alike, could be as simple as giving a narrative from the science itself.

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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