We care about stories, not facts

A post at Book View Cafe, by Sherwood Smith: 1776: The World Turned Upside Down

Being a new teacher, I did my best with what I was given, but the children were getting C’s and D’s on my tests.

Then came a day when a child asked a question and I got sidetracked into talking about what life was actually like for kids in those early colony towns along the North American coastline.

I gabbled until the bell rang, and I was furious with myself because I hadn’t finished covering the mass of statistical detail assigned for the day, which meant I’d have to double the load the next day. I did my duty, finished the chapter a week or two later, and gave the test.

What I got back for the essay questions, instead of the usual blanks or guesses, were somewhat incoherent but remarkably detailed descriptions of what life was like for kids in the early colonies. Those students remembered the descriptions I tossed off two weeks before and never referred to again, but as usual, half of the dates and economic details, laws and names of important men I’d gone over and over were wrong, or forgotten altogether.

Of course. Right?

I never really remembered when the Civil War was, until I read Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series and looked it up to see if Ben would have still been alive at that point. (Yes, probably, though he lives a dangerous life.) It was the story that made me care about the date.

You know how kids today are going to remember roughly when the American Revolution happened? Not because some teacher told them. They will remember because of this:

We negotiate the terms of surrender
I see George Washington smile
We escort their men out of Yorktown
They stagger home single file
Tens of thousands of people flood the streets
There are screams and church bells ringing
And as our fallen foes retreat
I hear the drinking song they’re singing…

The world turned upside down…

Because the lyrics are sprinkled with dates, it’s easy to remember that this moment came in 1776. Or if you forget, you know it was a toward the end of the 1700s, which is generally good enough.

Sherwood Smith says:

I completely revamped my history course, basically putting the “story” back in history. And those test scores took a sharp upward turn. That remained my template for future teaching, whether it was fifth grade American History or AP history classes in high school….

Of course grades went up. I wish every teacher would put the story back into history. How it is possible to take a subject with that much heroism, glory, death, and general drama and make it dead boring, I have never understood. But that certainly seems to be the aim in too many history classes. Sherwood then goes on to describe this miniseries:

In collaboration with The Associated Press, Serial Box presents our first nonfiction series, 1776: The World Turned Upside Down, a 12-part month-by-month immersive account of ordinary colonists during America’s first year.

Sounds far, far more enthralling than the presentation I dimly recall from school, that’s for sure.

I would like to see the stories put back into science education too.

Today we present introductory science as though it were Revealed Truth, which is really a terrible idea. “Here is This Fact and That Fact and now you are educated!”

The reason someone can say, “I don’t know, maybe the Earth is flat,” is because they were told it was round without being told the story of Eratosthenes of Cyrene and how he calculated the circumference of the Earth.

We say “Plants get their energy via photosynthesis” and go straight into biochemistry, without telling the story of Jan van Helmont, who grew a willow tree in a weighed amount of soil and thus discovered that trees grow without taking their mass from the soil.

We teach science, or we pretend to teach science, without telling the stories of scientists or scientific discoveries. Then we are disturbed to find out that people take astrology seriously. Well, why not? If a bunch of random factoids are supposed to be true, without the context of how ideas were developed, then you might as well choose to believe other factoids instead.

Nearly all subjects would benefit from a huge infusion of story. If I were teaching biology now … and had a free hand to develop curricula … I would absolutely throw out the standard topics and do my best to teach science as a process and a mode of thought, and biology as a subject filled with excitement and drama.

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