Narrative Accounts of Research for Teaching the Processes of Science

Article excerpt


To enhance learning about the processes of scientific thinking, this paper suggests that students read and write summaries of narrative accounts of research. Background is provided on the nature of narrative, learning from narrative versus expository texts, surface and deep approaches to studying, and the advantages of writing over testing for assessment. A list of narrative sources is provided.

Key Words: Narrative; scientific thinking; writing; testing; constructivism; objectivism.


"Stories bind. They are connective tissues. They are basic to who we are."

Terry Tempest Williams

Our minds seek order. Through a chaos of input we incessantly sort, grasping for important details and discarding the irrelevant. Always in search of connections that give meaning, we structure the pieces into plausible scenarios, store our understanding in memory, and then move on.

Often, the accounts we distill from our experiences are stories. Commonly concerning interactions with other people, these show cause-and-effect relations and provide explanations. But stories--narratives--are not the only way we organize and communicate. In science, information is structured not around human protagonists but rather within frameworks inherent to the phenomena themselves, Indeed, textbooks, by necessity, are written largely in an expository style, using narrative only sparingly. The term expository refers to a style that describes and/or explains; the goal is to present factual information about structure, function, or events.

In my introductory biology course, I require students to read several narrative accounts of research and write a summary of each. My goal has been to enhance learning about the processes of scientific thinking and investigation. Here, toward a further understanding of this approach, I examine the use of narrative in the teaching of science and discuss writing as a method of assessment. For both narrative and writing I will consider both the probable advantages and also the uncertainties.

* The Nature of Narrative

Stories, seemingly, are everywhere. We construct them to explain daily events, pass them about in conversation, tell them to our children, and enjoy them in books and films. Even our sense of self, that internal monologue that pervades our consciousness, is a story--one we constantly update. Thinking in terms of stories is deeply ingrained, perhaps innately in the circuitry of the brain (Young & Saver, 2001; Wilson, 2005).

Although no single definition is fully adequate, a story (or an account written in a narrative style) clearly has a higher level of organization than, say, a paragraph that merely describes an object. Minimally, there is a sequence of actions or events that unfold through time and are causally related. Definitions commonly include a human protagonist in some predicament, efforts to resolve it, and the outcome (Robinson & Hawpe, 1986). Here, the word story will refer only to nonfiction.

When creating a story we strive to condense, shape, and convert an experience into a form that shows how and why things happened (Robinson & Hawpe, 1986; Wilson, 2001). Because needed information is often missing, especially about the thoughts of others, we make inferences to fill in gaps. In the best cases a story is true to reality; representation is faithful, causal relations are plausible, and any conjecture remains reasonable.

Although narrative, like science, seeks cause-and-effect relations that explain phenomena, the methods and standards are very different. Stories are tested by scrutiny; the key to acceptance is plausibility. Despite efforts to be true to reality, there is an interpretation unique to the teller. So there may be more than one persuasive account, and acceptance may then be based on the personal needs of listeners. By contrast, in science conclusions must be supported by evidence and are subject to verification by others; judgment is withheld until data are available to support conclusions. …