No “I” in Science Literacy or Communication
The distanced and disinterested way of communicating science is not only a custom of academic journals, but it’s also the preferred
tone in educational texts. The invisibility of the author (by way of third person narration) gives the sense that neither bias nor culture nor personality will affect the content’s purity and objectivity. In hiding behind a removed intimacy with the subject and reader, however, it reinforces the misconception that science is devoid of any human ingenuity or influence.
Educational researchers Diana J. Arya and Andrew Maul from the University of Oslo in Norway published findings this month (December 2012) from a comparison study between two California middle schools that examined 7th and 8th grade student comprehension of scientific concepts. The concepts were embedded in both informal scientific discovery narratives (SDN) and in the traditional exposition found in text books.
The SDNs communicated the same concepts as traditional expository texts, but instead of being presented in a straightforward report, they were woven into the context of a story, a narration of discovery. What Arya and Maul tested was not only whether or not students were able to identify and retain important scientific concepts in the narration, but if the narration itself proved a useful heuristic for science educators.
Why would an unveiled first person perspective and narration hinder science’s objectivity?
The central criticism of SDN (and this form of science communication in general) has been that personal narration fails to communicate factual science because the informal rhetoric used in the accounts draws the reader’s focus to peripheral, irrelevant phenomena or events. Though Marrie Currie may relay scientific fact and methodology about discovering radium, the emphatic and emotive language of first person narratives distract the reader from “more important” scientific knowledge.
Despite this criticism, Arya and Maul believed that because research on SDNs influence on scientific literacy is scant, doubt is unwarranted. To understand whether this criticism was valid, Arya and Maul designed a study asking whether SDNs are able to convey core scientific concepts as effectively as traditional educational texts. The ultimate goal was to see if middle school students were able to recall the important information after a typical 24 hour “forget” period.
Out of the two schools, they chose nine classrooms and randomly assigned an SDN and traditional text to students (it should be noted that one school was a high poverty–at 95% free and reduced lunch–and the other a low-poverty at 36%). The texts were created specifically for this research in order to control for the literature’s content and focus. The two SDNs narrated the activities of the scientists–Marrie Currie’s discovery of radium (i.e. radioactivity) and Galileo’s discovery of the earth’s rotation around the sun–where the expository texts simply recount the information pulled from these discoveries in unadorned and direct language.
The results from their study demonstrated that SDNs had the most impact on 7th grade students from both schools, though the school with higher poverty and ethnic diversity (an urban school with a predominantly black and latino population) showed higher scores.
Even though Arya and Maul identify possible limiting factors and confounding variables (e.g. previous knowledge of concepts going into testing), they have still corroborated that SDN is–at the very least–not a limiting factor in students’ abilities to comprehend important scientific information. Rather, when personalized and given a human dimension (i.e. the personalization principle), students are able to identify with the material and engage it whith an authentic and unique way because it fits into the world of their own personal experiences.
They conclude by explaining that
We suggest that the SDN exposes the readers even more to the humanness of science, which encourages greater invested attention on the part of students, in that the readers have the opportunity to vicariously experience the scientific journey of discovery. This increased interest and attention can facilitate deeper understanding and recall of the pertinent information
Though more research is needed to account for limiting confounds, Arya and Maul have at least shown how, when science shows its warmer, personal side, it can still be taken serious and has just as much an affect on literacy and knowledge as it did when hidden behind the curtain of distanced and impersonal language.
Arya, D.J, & Maul, A. (2012) The Role of the Scientific Discovery Narrative in Middle School Science Education: An Experimental Study. Journal of Educational Psychology, (104)4, 1022–1032