Imagine that you’re a science teacher and, of course, you teach about heat. There’s a whole section in your textbook titled, “Heat,” or perhaps “Kinetic Energy.” Heat is motion—does that concept excite your students? Knowing how we came to figure out the process might help.
Educators talk a lot about interdisciplinary education, but mostly it is just talk. As for heat, is there a story there? Yes, there almost always is an underlying story. And those stories not only help explain ideas, they also cement them into your head.
Stories are the classic way civilizations have passed on their ideas, values, and achievements. Traditionally, stories have been a tool that great teachers cherish.
But in the 20th century, we mostly gave up storytelling for an assortment of teaching “methodologies.” When one didn’t work, we tried another (often paying someone for these new methodologies). Test scores began a downward or stagnant trajectory. History and science—both rich with adventures, challenges, triumphs, and goofs—turned into fact-driven litanies. Science became a technical subject meant solely to produce scientists. Before long most Americans, including those who consider themselves “educated,” were scientific illiterates. Today, in this the greatest scientific era ever, the tales that tell the scientific story are little known. Something similar has happened to history and civics, which were reduced to merely lists of stuff to memorize.
Meanwhile reading instruction was and still is mostly fiction and poetry. Nonfiction is widely thought to be dull. But that isn’t necessarily true for young readers, who often are obsessed with the real world. When a vibrant 10-year-old visited me recently, we talked about school. “I hate creative writing,” she blurted out.
“I do, too,” I responded. “That’s why I write history. I don’t have to make things up, I just find true stories.”
How about encouraging our children to write and read real stories that cross disciplines? Doing that can energize subjects—including history, economics, and science—that are often labeled “boring.”
Check out most history and science textbooks. They rarely include page-turning narratives, which doesn’t make sense, especially when we are teaching young readers.
Now, back to heat. Do you know the story of the New England fellow who chose to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War and later managed to figure out that heat is not a substance as everyone believed? He’s not exactly an American hero. During the Revolutionary War, he went off to England, where King George III was awed by his mind and by his inventiveness. The colonists, in the process of becoming Americans, called him a traitor. George III sent him to Bavaria with a letter of introduction to royals there. He reorganized the city of Munich, rounding up the homeless and providing them with housing and jobs. In his spare time, he invented a stove; it was better than Ben Franklin’s stove and made him rich. And, doing some experimenting, he figured out that heat is not a thing but rather energy of motion. The British made him a lord. And he helped to found the Royal Institution in London.
He had left a wife and baby in the now new nation. No matter, he found another wife; her first husband, Anton Lavoisier (the father of chemistry) had lost his head during the French Revolution.
Who was this chap and how did he figure out that heat is motion? We don’t teach that in science classes because it is history. We don’t teach it in social studies classes because it is science. Educators talk a lot about interdisciplinary learning, but mostly it is just talk. Can you imagine a science teacher asking science students to research and write true stories? That’s too bad, because it is the reading and writing process that leads to what schools talk of as “higher order thinking.”
By the way, the New Englander who figured out the heat story was Benjamin Thompson, who went to Europe, became Count Rumford and founded Great Britain’s Royal Institution. To most Americans of the time, he remained a traitor.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Storytelling Can Energize Instruction