Friday, January 13, 2017

Science as a Story: Promoting Cognitive Dissonance

I have to confess, I really like messing with my students. I mean, I really enjoy getting them to think about things in a new way, to reframe their previous thinking, to not just think-outside-the-box but knock-it-to-pieces-and-build-a-new-box.

I had one of those moments in my science methods class today, which was a joy this early in the semester. We are right at the beginning; today was our second class meeting. Science methods is a course for future teachers where they learn about how to teach science in the elementary or middle school classrooms they are preparing to enter in the near future. We are at the part of the course where we are thinking about foundational questions, such as, "What is science?" and "Who is a scientist?" and "Why do so many elementary teachers fear (or at least dislike) teaching science?" and "Why does Professor Mulder ask us to do so many weird things in this class?" (Okay, maybe not that last least, not yet. They will be asking that in a couple weeks...)

As part of today's lesson, I asked them to start thinking about the story of science.

Here was part of my presentation, the part where I challenged them to remember what "science class" was like, and gave them a different way of thinking about what "science" could be.

Science Stories? - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

At the point in the presentation where I asked them to think about science as a story (the third slide here,) I had them turn to a partner and take a minute to discuss how "science as a story" fit with their experience with science in school.

It was interesting to see them turn to their partners and sort of shrug as if to say, " as a story..." I wandered around the room to eavesdrop a bit, and one pair caught my attention when they said something like, "You got us, Mulder. There's no "story" in science."

And that was the moment when I knew I had them. They were trying to find the connection, trying and failing. But I could tell from their expressions and body english that they wanted to believe it was true, even if just because I was bringing this idea up.

After their minute to discuss was up, I called the class back together, and we talked about how the idea of science as a story would change the experience of science class. What would the students' role become? How would the teacher's role shift? Would the content be experienced in the same way? What would be the same? What would look different?

From there, we turned the corner to their first major assignment for the course: writing a science autobiography--telling their own science story, or perhaps finding themselves in the story for the first time.


It was a great class meeting, from my perspective at least. I was able to promote some cognitive dissonance for my students. Cognitive dissonance is just what it sounds like: a "clash" between two ideas in need of resolution, because they can't be held simultaneously. Sort of like playing a white key and a the adjacent black key on a keyboard simultaneously: the sound is dissonant, not harmonious, and is in need of resolution. In my students' case, some of them have negative views of science as a subject--for a variety of reasons--but after our first two class meetings, they are already starting to see that science can be playful, and intriguing, and engaging, and--dare I say it--even fun. This is a conflicting pair of ideas for them. And the idea that "science" can be explored as a story...well, let's just say that I think we are going have to keep working on resolving these ideas, because they are still clashing a bit for some students.

I'm hopeful though, seeing how my students were learning into the playful, hands-on investigations in class, and their level of discussion, and their willingness to explore new ideas--even ones that conflict with their previous experiences--gives me a lot of hope that this is going to be a semester full of learning for us all.


  1. Great story, and it makes perfect sense to connect story and science. "We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think."

    1. That's one of the things we talk about! I share with them a few insights from Kieran Egan's lovely little book _Teaching as Storytelling_ in this course, and we rethink some of what we thought we knew about "science" as a subject. It's a fun journey! :-)