Success in Failure: How Stories of Struggle Can Transform Science Education

Stories are an integral part of human development. They’ve been shared in cultures past and present as a means of entertainment, cultural preservation, and education. Although stories are largely used in academic subjects such as language and the arts, a new study suggests that stories are underutilized in science education.

A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology explores the connection between humanizing eminent scientists and student academic performance in science. The study assesses the role of “struggle stories”—narratives that depict how scientists endure through failures and struggles—in academic success of ninth and tenth grade students. The 402 students involved in the study read one of three narratives that either detailed a scientist’s (1) intellectual struggles (such as overcoming multiple mistakes during scientific investigation), (2) personal struggles (such as overcoming poverty and a lack of support), or (3) scientific accomplishments (not unlike their usual depiction in instructional textbooks).

After six weeks, researchers found that providing well-rounded portraits of prominent scientists improved academic motivation and performance. Students who read about the intellectual or personal struggles of scientists achieved higher grades than did students who were only exposed to great scientific achievements. Researchers concluded that student motivation is impacted by curriculum that only highlights a scientist’s scientific accomplishments. In the absence of additional information, students believed that, to excel at science, one must have an innate understanding of science, not realizing that scientific knowledge and ability is a result of resilience in the face of failure.

Lead researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler provided recommendations for the future of science curriculum. She stresses that textbooks need to do more than explain complicated theories and equations; in order to fully engage students, educational materials must provide an informative and vivid narrative by not only highlighting the results of science, but the process as well. Lin-Siegler told Science Daily: “When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up. Many students don’t realize that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way.” Not only do students need to know the science, they need to understand how to overcome challenges in the field.

Though we’re often hesitant to discuss or confront failures, the scientific method integrates failure as part of the process—sometimes even leading to new and unexpected insights. A few years ago, the Origins Project at Arizona State University brought together a number of distinguished scientists and science journalists to share their stories in “The Great Debate: The Storytelling of Science.” At the panel, Bill Nye (American Humanist Association’s 2010 Humanist of the Year) recalled a childhood moment of scientific inquiry. After having difficulty understanding aerodynamic theory and how bees fly, he realized that “the bees are fine; the problem is with the theory.” Science is a process, and failure is a large part of that. As we contemplate ways to make STEM careers more appealing, perhaps we need to first consider how these disciplines are being presented to young students.