To Teach Science, Tell Stories

We need to incorporate the human dimensions of individual struggle, creativity, and adventure into the way we teach science.

Charles Darwin turned 200 in 2009, and his myriad admirers marked the occasion at events throughout the Western world. Some of the speakers examined the man himself, whereas others focused on what has been learned since Darwin published his epochal On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Nearly all alluded, at least in passing, to a startling statistic: Fully half the people in some countries profess not to believe that we human beings have ourselves evolved. That list includes, of course, the United States, the ostensible world leader in science and medicine.

Darwin challenged the world to rethink the questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? And how do I fit into the scheme of things? Although he merely hinted at the possibility of human evolution, Darwin nonetheless tellingly remarked that “there is grandeur in this view of life.” In his own elegant, subtle way, Darwin was inviting us to compare his storyline with the much older one lying at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Resistance to evolution still often comes in the simplistic, stark terms of science versus religion: an either-or; take-it-or-leave it; I’m right, you’re wrong collision between two utterly incompatible world views. It is, I think, more productively seen as a preference for stories, and the Judeo-Christian account had a nearly 2,000-year head start in commanding our attention. I no longer think it is especially surprising that Darwin’s take on things still meets with resistance in some quarters.

Why does this matter? In the end, what any individual chooses to believe about the ultimate origins of human existence in itself does not change the nature of things. As the saying goes, “every creationist wants his flu shot”: a witty reference to the arms-race interaction between mutable viruses (and pathogens generally) and the ability of the medical profession to devise the correct vaccine for a particular year’s expected dominant flu strain (not to mention the unanticipated eruption of newly evolved, never-before-seen viruses such as the H1N1 flu of 2009). Although this interaction is the quintessence of evolution in action, patients can accept their inoculations without pondering the intricacies of evolving drug resistance, much as I can use my cell phone without stopping to think about the physics that underlies its operation. Yet understanding the dynamics of such evolving systems is essential to holding up the medical end of the battle.

But the importance of Darwin and the resistance his ideas still meet lie far deeper. I was a freshman in high school when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space in October 1957, an event that unleashed a debate about U.S. shortcomings in science education. Among these, of course, was the absence of evolution from the curricula of many school systems, the lasting hangover of the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee. Indeed, the lack of adequate, comprehensive, unfettered teaching of Darwin’s legacy has since become synonymous with the inadequacies of science teaching in the United States.

Why does this matter? Frankly, when we ask teachers to ignore evolution, or to explore its purported weaknesses as a scientific theory, or to give equal time to religiously imbued pseudoscience such as intelligent design, what we are actually doing is asking our teachers to lie to our kids. In a science curriculum, kids simply must be taught what scientists currently think about the universe, how it is constructed, how it came to be, and where we think it is going. If we do this for gravity but not for biological (including human) evolution, we water down and distort the heart of the scientific enterprise. That makes us liars, and keeps U.S. science teaching inherently weak.

Not that there has been no post-Sputnik movement to counter creationist initiatives against Darwin’s legacy in the classroom. The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a group founded in 1959, is still operating. Notably, so too is the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), with founding director Eugenie Scott still at the helm. Since 1983, NCSE has been a positive force for improving primarily the evolutionary side of science curricula, as well as a literal friend in need to school boards, teachers, parents, and students faced with an onslaught of creationism- and intelligent design–inspired attacks on evolution. And most recently, I have joined forces with my son Gregory, a special education science teacher, as co–editors-in-chief of the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach (EEO) (free online at Our aim is to strengthen the connections between the professional world of evolutionary science, broadly construed, and the K-16 classroom as we reach out to teachers, curriculum developers, and other educational professionals. Now in its second year, EEO has made rapid strides in attracting the attention of scientists and educators alike. Coupled with a growing number of educational materials available online, teachers are probably more equipped with useful classroom materials than ever before.

Yet something is still missing from the rich array of texts, lesson plans, and other presentations available in traditional print and new media formats. Many kids approach science warily. For every child who sees the beauty of a simple addition problem or chemical formula, or learns why birds sing songs in spring, there seem to be many more who find it hard—hard, I suspect, primarily because it strikes them as alien and seemingly irrelevant to their lives. This need for meaning, in the form of personal relevance, to help ensure actual learning has become a dominant theme in modern educational philosophy.

All of which makes me think back to stories and the fact that the Judeo-Christian storyline of creation has retained such a firm grip on our cultural psyches for so long. Scientists tend to react in horror to the suggestion that their results can be rendered as mere stories. But what’s wrong, as my late colleague Stephen Jay Gould used to tell me in graduate school, with good writing? Indeed, Steve used to say that there should be no discernible gap in style between hard-core technical and more popular writing—except that jargon is useful and inevitable in technical writing.

One way to inject a sense of story into the K-16 curriculum would be to fold the lives of scientists more directly and frequently into the narrative. As the curator of the wildly popular American Museum of Natural History exhibition “Darwin,” I was struck by the comments of friends and relatives who were not scientists—but rather teachers of English, writers of novels, or professional musicians—who kept telling me how human Darwin seemed, and how his creative work in evolutionary biology reminded them of their own working experiences in supposedly wholly disparate, even estranged fields in the humanities. The storyline in the exhibition was that Darwin was a human being, with his own circumstances of birth, upbringing, education, and experiences. Darwin came across as something of a workaholic, totally engrossed in the patterns of the natural world, as well as a devoted family man and father of 10 children. Above all, he came across as a man of passion who, being in the right places at the right times, managed to see farther than his predecessors and contemporaries had. Now that is a story! We managed to show many people that science is really not all that different a category of creative human endeavor than, say, writing a beautiful haiku.

I learned something else from mounting that exhibit. As my colleague Ian Tattersall at the American Museum told me years ago, people come to museums to see stuff—real things. Part of our success in conveying the message that science is a creative human endeavor much like any other came from having 36 original pieces of writing from Darwin’s own hand in the exhibition. But of course we had a lot more: real specimens, some of which Darwin collected in South America as a young voyager, and others from our general collections. These were augmented by models, films, and simulations—a multimedia experience.

Strikingly, though, what seemed to work best were the bones of vertebrates. A display that compared the arms of whales, bats, and humans immediately made it clear to the least tutored eye the common theme underlying them all. One student, a professed evolutionary skeptic, said something to the effect of “say no more … I get it!” after seeing the skeleton of a baby chimp in the Darwin show. Stories lie in the eye and mind of the beholder, whether in three-dimensional “real” time, a teacher’s verbal account, or the lines on a printed page.

So stories—well-crafted stories—are an important way to bridge the gap between children and the content of science. Which suggests another look at the three questions that Darwin invited the world to reconsider, three questions that people are still having trouble grappling with: Who am I? Where did I come from? How do I fit in?

Kids usually think where they live, who their friends are, who their family is, are “nothing special.” All the really cool places and people are living someplace else. At least that is what I thought, even though I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, a totally “cool” place. What I think we need now is a curriculum that teaches kids about the world: an integrated history of the Earth and life incorporating plate tectonics and evolution, recounting the origins of the continents, oceans, and living things, and then moving the story forward to the present day. We need to simultaneously teach all of this from the ground up as well as the top down. As we tell kids the story of Earth and the life it supports, we need to tell them their story as well as giving them the big picture. Big pictures tend to be too abstract, too impersonal. They need to investigate their own stories to see how it all fits together.

Every place is unique and offers a piece of the puzzle. Some places are near dinosaur quarries; others are in deserts that tell the story of extreme environments. Cities are phenomena in themselves, a riot of human diversity. Every place is a part of the puzzle, and kids should learn how where they live fits into that puzzle. In learning the story of humans evolving on the planet, then moving around in a vast exodus, and eventually showing up where they find themselves living, they will be located as dramatis personae in the Big Story.

With modern publishing and online media techniques, workbooks specific to a locale can be easily devised that will dovetail with a grander text that will tell the story of life and much of the rest of the sciences. Such an approach could help to reverse the trend that has seen chasms steadily growing between academic fields. Too much specialization can be utterly detrimental to true intellectual growth and, even more so, to the teaching of children who wonder why any of this increasingly recondite stuff should matter to them in the first place.

So for evolution I want to see a vertical integration of genes with, say, dinosaurs. Or better yet, of genes with humans as we trace Darwin’s grandeur in the ineffable story of hominid evolution, initially on the plains of Africa, later throughout the world: a story that is about each and every one of us. I want to see a horizontal integration of fields: of geology and plate tectonics with paleontology, ecology, and evolutionary biology, and (why not?) with chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

Our narratives—our stories—should give kids a sense of the intellectual (and sometimes derring-do!) adventures of actually doing science. If we let storytelling like this into the science curriculum, we instantly humanize science, make it relevant to the random child, and automatically make it seem more inviting, less hard. We can do this without watering down scientific rigor, with its canons of evidence that are justly the hallmark of scientific research, innovation, and progress.

Two approaches to jump-starting an enhanced quality of science education are within our grasp, offering at least the potential for major improvements in the next five years.

First, the Obama administration has announced a strong, innovative science education initiative, embracing the STEM concept (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The aim is to graduate students from high school with strong backgrounds in science and, more generally, to “unleash the creativity and curiosity of (all) our students.” Specifically, the president proposes to attract more and better-qualified teachers to science through a scholarship program tied to service in communities of need; to create a matching Technology Investment Fund to integrate technology more fully into the classroom, teacher assessment practices, and science curricula; and to create a national committee to “develop coherence among federal STEM education efforts.” The hope is to stimulate a national dialogue on the importance of science education. These are realistic, immediate goals.

Second, from a grass-roots perspective, advances in electronic publishing have recently brought books and other materials geared to the needs of specific locales and interests closer to affordable reality. We can use this new technology to link student’s personal lives more closely to the bigger, more abstract generalities of science. We can deliver a coherent storyline representing our most up-to-date information, conclusions, and theories with the places and lives of our kids. All of us involved in science education can immediately begin to use these resources, devising better-integrated science curricula.

All of this will take lots of imagination as well as simple, clear, engaging writing. Who knows? If we tell the stories well enough, they might be good enough to become parts of the English and history curricula as well. That would be good education.

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Cite this Article

Eldredge, Niles. “To Teach Science, Tell Stories.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 4 (Summer 2009).

Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer 2009