Tell Me a Story

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
Graham Greene

Story it’s an interesting word like so many words in English it has many meanings.  If you look in the Mariam Webster’s Dictionary, the word story has 18 definitions if you include the sub-definitions.  We use story a lot in the sciences.

How do I know when my research is ready for publication?  You’re ready for publication when you can tell a story.  How will I know when I’m prepared to write my dissertation?  You’re prepared to write your dissertation when you can write a complete story. The answer to many a question is when you can tell a story.

A lady telling a gripping story to young women and children. Mezzotint by V. Green, 1785, after J. Opie. Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY
A lady telling a gripping story to young women and children. Mezzotint by V. Green, 1785, after J. Opie. Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Why a story?  A story is a very efficient way to teach something.  A properly constructed story helps us understand what is going on by logically presenting information and highlighting the links and connections between separate facts and events.  There is even a word for this storification in the paper Storification in History education: A mobile game in and about medieval Amsterdam the authors talk about the advantages of storytelling in History,

“In History education, narrative can be argued to be very useful to overcome fragmentation of the knowledge of historical characters and events, by relating these with meaningful connections of temporality and sequence (storification).” (Computers & Educations Vol 52, Issue 2, February 2009, p449.)

Storification also makes sense in regards to working and short-term memory.  Working memory and short-term memory are transient; permanent information storage takes place in long-term memory.  However, they are both critical to the establishment of long-term memory.  Information enters the memory system through Short-term memory, and processing and connections happen in working memory.

Unlike long-term memory, both short-term and working memory have limits on their capacity.   Recent work suggests that the size of working memory is 3 – 5 items.  For example, I could reasonably be expected to memorize a list of letters; H, C, L, I, and Z. I know some of you were going to say seven items as in the magical number seven, I break down the changes in our understanding of working memory in another blog post, you can read about it here.

However, we can quickly see a problem with 3-5 items; I can also remember a sentence, “All the world’s a stage” this sentence has 18 characters 19 if I count the apostrophe. I can hold this sentence in short-term memory.  I can remember these 18 characters due to a process called chunking coined by George Miller in his paper The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.  Miller describes it as “By organizing the stimulus input simultaneously into several dimensions and successively into a sequence of chunks, we manage to break (or at least stretch) this informational bottleneck.” (Psychology Review Vol. 101, No. 2 p351)

In our example’s words are chunks; specifically, each word is a list of letters that have a specific meaning.  If I were to present that list of letters to you in a different way as zilch, it would be much easier to remember. Chunking is the same idea behind storification or storytelling; you are organizing the information into related chunks to make it easier for the mind to remember and digest.

With all the complicated information in a scientific paper, A story is a perfect format to present new scientific knowledge.  A scientific paper starts with an abstract which gives an overview. Then the paper has an introduction which places the new information in context with the old. Then we show the experiments (in the order that explains the information the best. not necessarily chronologically). Lastly, there is a summary that reiterates the new information in context with the old and what directions the research could go next.

A faculty advisor of mine once described writing a science paper as tell them what you are going to tell them, tell it to them, then tell them what you told them.  That might seem a bit excessive, in fact, I once had a non-science faculty member after hearing this triple approach to paper writing say, “what are scientists stupid?”  I think it’s a smart strategy, after all, have you ever had a teacher tell you how many times you need to hear something to commit it to memory? (I always heard it was three)

There is one thing I find quite strange about storytelling in science education.  It seems to me that helping students make connections and tie information together is the most important in the earliest stages of education — for instance, the steps of education that use textbooks.  However, the writing of most current science textbooks presents information as separate chunks.

Like I have said in previous blog posts the reason for writing the modern textbook as independent chunks are so we can use the textbook in any class and any order. However, if we want textbooks to be as useful as possible shouldn’t they be written as a story?  We should write the textbook so that we group information into meaningful chunks, we should write the textbook so that we present information in ways that reinforce the relationships and dependencies between new information and preexisting knowledge.

What do you think is the lack of storytelling harming modern textbooks?  Has our desire to produce textbooks (commercial and open source) that can be used in as many different classes as possible hurting the usability of the modern textbook?  Can we create textbooks that are storified or would they be unusable in current courses?  However, if a storified textbook helps the students learn and if we can’t use them in current courses is the problem with the textbook or the course?

Thanks for Listing to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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