Saturday, June 11, 2011

Storytelling as Teaching by Drew Bell

One of the goals that Wilson had in mind with writing the Anthill Chronicles section was to introduce readers to the realm of ant biology without overwhelming them with scientific or technical writing. In a way, it is stealth teaching. How many of you learned things about ants that you never knew or that you found to be surprising? How many of you enjoyed learning these things by reading a story? Do these new pieces of knowledge stick with you better than if you had learned them in a more traditional fashion?

Do you think that the book would have been better or worse if this section had been left out and ant biology had been included in the book in the form of footnotes or an appendix?

Finally, since this is my final day as moderator, I wanted to be certain that I put forward the offer to answer any questions you may have about ants or ant biology.

I have enjoyed my time with you and look forward to reading your comments. Thanks for allowing me to share!


Drew said...

I didn't want to take up space on the main page, so I am adding some additional information in the form of a comment.

Anne Post brought up a very important point the other day about storytelling in science education, and I promised to address it.

We use storytelling for teaching purposes in many fields of knowledge. Literature is storytelling, we teach history through storytelling and we teach theology and morality through storytelling. Writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien considered storytelling to be so important that they even developed extensive theories of mythopoiesis. Tolkien went so far as to consider properly crafted storytelling to be a form of subcreation with theological implications.

Lately, I have been wondering how science education could make better use of storytelling. Traditionally, it seems that science has steered clear of storytelling because of our emphasis on objectivity and facts. But does that mean that storytelling has no place? In an era when disseminating scientific understanding to the public is so critical, can we afford to dismiss a teaching tool so lightly?

Part of the problem is that many scientists wouldn't know where to begin. For many of us, storytelling is a lost art. I think that E.O. Wilson has used storytelling as a science education tool quiet deftly in Anthill. Perhaps we can use this as a model to relearn a forgotten skill.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this.

Dave said...

Hello, Dr. Bell. You and Anne make a critical point: we humans relate to each other and to the world around us largely through stories. Since the beginning of language, stories have been a tool to help humans understand how we fit into the grand scheme of things. Looking across cultures over time, there are mythological themes that carry over: in fact, the late Joseph Campbell helped to bring this to light through his work in comparative mythology. It is captivating stuff.

You raise a very critical point: in a society that is increasingly becoming disconnected from nature, we must be able to convey the importance of natural resources and we must be able to advocate for their wise use.

Storytelling is a crucial vehicle for conveying these important messages. Telling our story effectively and in a way that resonates is key to building a long-term conservation movement, the land ethic described by Aldo Leopold and Dr. Curt Meine in the short essays which tie back to the early weeks of the wild read discussion.

What I admire most about Wilson's novel is that he had the courage as a scientist to try his hand at storytelling. In fact, you've hit upon the very reason I chose to jump in to this book to see what adventures it would hold: I was curious about such a renowned scientist stepping out into the world of storytelling. While I think for most of us, we need to be able to tell the story in far fewer words (which, often times is more challenging), I certainly agree with you that Dr. Wilson has set a course the rest of us in conservation will need to pursue if we aren't already. We must grow our capacity to tell the conservation story if conservation is to grow and thrive.

Sarah said...

Hi Dr. Bell - I was very excited to read your post above, leading up to the question of whether science education ought to make better use of storytelling. This is a great question, and an important one: I think it gets at the idea that scientists benefit from being good communicators. In fact, as mentioned above, if conservation is to become a mainstream part of the way we think and act as a society, we're going to have to become storytellers that can connect with people. In the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where I work, there has been a significant effort to connect people to nature through the science we do and the stories we tell.

For me, this gets at the core need for sound science programs to integrate other disciplines. Today's scientist must be able to communicate the value of the work they do, the threat to the resource they seek to protect, and the scientist must be able to frame how his or her work fits into the overall solution. Having some foundational knowledge in social marketing - how to tell stories in a way that can change human behavior - is an integral ingredient in our long-term success. In fact, I believe in this so strongly that my own career, while rooted in science, has led me to focus on communications.

I think we see great examples of this kind of storytelling all around us. The National Wildlife Federation seeks to educate people while engaging them in conservation activities (they're super at this social marketing thing). Groups like Rare train community-based conservationists how to set up campaigns that build pride in local resources and ultimately build a new generation of environmental stewards. All of us in the conservation field - whether we work for federal or state agencies, or large or small non-governmental organizations, must tackle this challenge of storytelling if we want to be able to influence human thought and behavior.

WILD READ Team said...

Dr. Bell,

Thank you for leading our wild read discussions this past week. You have shared your expert insights into the world of ants, and you've also raised some broader points such as the one above regarding the role of storytelling in scientific fields. We have greatly enjoyed having you with us this week.

For our readers - this is a reminder that you can continue to add your comments to threads such as this, even though new discussion posts have been added.

Jesse Furrow said...

Hi Dr. Bell,

You raise an important question, possibly the most important one to getting people connected to their natural surroundings. I think storytelling is critical to reaching the non-scientific community. I think its great that Wilson included the Anthill Chronicles in this book. I for one, connect better with literature and first-hand experience than with technical information. I would go so far as to suggest that the two most important ways to get someone to connect to nature is through positive first-hand experience and storytelling. For me, the scientific information is most helpful AFTER I've had personal experience and I think the best way to get someone like me to experience something first hand is to tell me a story about it and inspire me to go out and look around for myself. In fact, the other day while out on my walk I flipped a log over just to expose the tiny world beneath it - I didn't find any ants but I did find a Forest Scorpion! E.O. Wilson's Anthill Chronicles has helped me to better relate to ants (maybe a little anthropomorphizing is a good thing in that regard). I said in a previous post that, to me, The Anthill Chronicles could have been its own book. Since Wilson included it in his novel for a reason, my only critique (this is expressed humbly as I am not a professional writer) is that perhaps the Anthill Chronicles chapters could have started from the beginning and been alternated throughout the chapters of the other story. John Steinbeck used this technique when he wrote the Grapes of Wrath and Catherine Ryan Hyde used it in her novel, Funerals For Horses. All that said, no doubt storytelling is not easy but I would be willing to bet that Wilson had an easier time writing The Anthill Chronicles than the rest of the book because in a way it was a true story, right? Not to diminish the fact that it represents a lifetime worth of scientific study. So, for me, the Anthill Chronicles was very gratifying and I personally did not get as much out of the rest of the book as I did from just the Anthill Chronicles.

Well, Thank you.

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