START WITH A STORY: The Teacher as Storyteller

Clyde Freeman Herreid

Teachers are inveterate storytellers. Today around the world in science classrooms, faculty are taking this skill to new heights; they are using case studies to present basic concepts. Imagine the possibilities: teaching astronomy, chemistry, physics, or geology using stories. That is what case studies are, "stories with an educational message."

Case study teaching has a long hoary history in law and business schools, having been started at Harvard in the early days of the 20th century. Of course, that makes sense. Law professors use previous criminal or civic cases as precedents for today's courtroom dramas. Business profs do the same, as they look at the 1930's depression to help evaluate today's fiscal crisis. In medicine, patient cases serve as exemplars for students as they struggle to earn their right to wear a stethoscope, and McMaster University in Canada uses case study teaching in their problem-based learning approach to instruct physician wannabes.

But can case study teaching be used to teach the basic sciences? Chemist James Conant of Harvard University thought so. He returned from his World War II stint as science advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt convinced that US citizens didn't understand how science was done. He believed that the only way to change this was by telling his Harvard students stories of how the great discoveries in science were pulled off. He created a novel approach developing the Case Histories in Experimental Science course. He regaled his students with the rivalry of Priestly and Lavoisier in their overthrow of the phlogiston theory, the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, and the motions of the planets—one engaging story after another. This innovative approach has not survived him; nonetheless it was surely a more dynamic way to get at basic science than most of our current lecture mavens have dared.

But it was still a lecture course. As current educational research has revealed, lectures are a poor substitute for active learning in the classroom. Recall the famous study by Richard Hake who followed 6000 students in physical science classrooms and found striking improvements in learning whenever active involvement of students occurred. Educational researchers, the Johnson brothers and engineer Karl Smith reinforce this conclusion with their publication of a meta-analysis of over a thousand studies indicating the superiority of small group work over lectures in learning virtually any subject.

Twenty years ago, I began exploring different ways of teaching, starting with the notion that people love to hear stories and might learn better when information is delivered that way rather than by the dreary recitation of facts that often represents a typical lecture. After all, native peoples the world over use oral traditions for instruction. Homer's stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey have been used for millennia to teach the foibles of the human condition. Jesus told parables to illustrate his message, as did Mr. Rogers on public television and Dr. Seuss in the pages of children's books. There is a prestigious pedigree for storytelling for educational purposes.

But there are many ways to tell a story and to teach with cases. The classical Harvard approach emulated by business and law schools is where the professor assigns her students long descriptions of situations, perhaps 15 pages in length. In the following class, the professor runs a discussion about the topic even in classes of 70 students. In contrast, the medical school approach uses problem-based-learning, where small groups of students work through short cases with a faculty facilitator. They receive the case in stages. As more and more information is revealed like a detective story, the students must decide what they know and what they need to find out in order to solve the mystery of an illness. The students do research to find the answers, return to their classmates and share the information. After three cycles of this, where more and more information is provided, they make their conclusion and receive another case. Imagine this: the entire medical school training is provided this way. No lectures.

The Harvard discussion method and the McMaster PBL approach are not the only ways to teach a case. Other approaches include debate, symposia, trials, public hearings with role-playing, and so forth (see the book Start with a Story published by the National Science Teachers Association, 2007).

Recently we have started using audience response systems ("clickers") to teach with cases in classrooms of several hundred students. Using remote radio frequency clickers, the students send in their answers to a classroom computer and the results are summarized on an overhead screen. The instructor uses PowerPoint slides to deliver a lecture with a case problem, and as the story unfolds, she asks the students pointed questions, perhaps asking them to predict what a graph might look like or render a judgment about an experiment. The students answer these questions and the teacher reveals what the true data look like. The story then continues with questions interspersed throughout. This work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, and we have shown that this method has proven to be particularly popular, improving attendance and learning; it is especially valued by women and non-science majors.

Some disciplines find case study teaching more attractive than others. Physiologists and ecologists have little trouble finding or writing cases. Physicists and chemists have more difficulty finding the story lines that might engage students. Yet even here the creative teacher will find opportunities in global warming, space travel, industrial discoveries, and the origin of life.

For the past decade, we at the University at Buffalo have developed an extensive website dedicated to publishing cases in all science and engineering fields. Supported by NSF, the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science now has over 350 cases and teaching notes at Teachers from across the world download these cases and customize them for their classrooms. We have an average of 4000 visitors per day; over a third are high school teachers. Clearly this sort of teaching is resonating with teachers who have stories to tell.

Clyde Freeman Herreid is at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.