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Growing Stories around STEM in China

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Nov 21, 2019 11:38:58 AM

I have been in the world of education long enough to remember the surge of discussion around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in American high schools and universities. The topic had multiple roots in the idea of global competitiveness, and a big part of the anxiety lay in the rise of China as a technological and economic force ready to compete with the West.

Improving STEM competencies has brought many improvements to the ways that related academic disciplines are taught within secondary and higher education. Those advancements have often come at the expense of humanities and social sciences. Case in point: A study from Bloomberg Next found that 40% of corporations and almost 50% of academic institutions believe recent graduates lack skills such as emotional intelligence, complex reasoning and negotiation, and persuasion--the very skills needed in the workforce to be successful.

What that means is the pendulum needs to swing again. Both STEM and humanistic disciplines can coexist.

But how? We cannot move forward by going back to teaching literature, composition, civics, social studies, and the like in the same way that people learned them in the 1960s and 1970s. The greatest progress will be achieved at the intersections between disciplines, and particularly at the boundary between what used to be thought of as Arts and Sciences. Additionally, there are communication skills—speaking, writing, storytelling—which need to be taught in a fundamentally different way to foster this cross-boundary communication and collaboration which is essential to twenty-first-century learning, work, and community.

The ability to be reflective, playful, and authentic in real-time communications—the so-called soft skills—becomes more necessary by the nanosecond, to help us make cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural decisions about what to do (and not do) with the more and more powerful firehose of data that is currently weaponized against us by the companies and countries that own it. As Jack Ma has frequently said, “We need better humans to work with increasingly sophisticated computers.” 

Storytelling is central to how we learn, communicate, and connect with one another in the 21st century, how we will evolve new neural pathways to make better, more human decisions about what to do with all the data we’ve taught computers how best to process but not how best to use. As Yuval Noah Harari puts it, “storytelling is our specialty. It's the basis for everything we do as a species.” Cross-disciplinary, cross-border, cross-cultural storytelling enables us to take the energy we have focused on STEM, water it, and let new knowledge flower at the borders between the old disciplines and our new human needs.

There is strong evidence for the power of storytelling to improve students’ learning—both along traditional axes (grades, test scores) and the social-emotional learning that undergirds those other improvements.

Our work at Story2 bears out these findings. In our early offline work, students who learned to tell their own stories out loud persisted longer in future writing tasks. Learning storytelling-based writing skills consistently enabled the students with the least writing mastery to become stronger and more confident writers in other subjects. Today, using our online StoryBuilder platform, high school students who write future stories during the spring of junior year about themselves as college students are more likely to complete actual college applications in the fall of their senior year. And students who learn the interview skill of telling a 3-sentence story about their past that demonstrates their readiness for specific job requirements are more likely to move forward in their job search.

This brings me back to China, where Story2 has, for the past year, been developing a bilingual storytelling curriculum to help Chinese students improve their English speaking and writing skills. This past weekend, at the Shanghai Children’s Book Fair, I taught storytelling to 66 students who had shockingly good reading skills: they read out loud better than many native English speakers their same age. Though their technical English was astounding, when I asked them to speak about themselves, they visibly struggled: blushing, looking down, stone silence. This makes sense, as these students have learned English grammar and vocabulary as you would learn a science, systematically and step-by-step, but they have not been taught to connect it with the details of their everyday lives. American kids, in contrast, are more comfortable talking about themselves but have not taken the time to master the core skills of listening and reading. Over the past week, students, parents, and teachers have repeatedly asked me, “How can I learn to speak English more confidently?” Research shows that storytelling in the target language holds the key to accelerating speaking fluency because the use of stories is highly motivating; because they provide learners with comprehensible input; and because they promote social interactions.

Chinese students, teachers, and EdTech business leaders alike understand that spoken storytelling is the key to speaking better English and better speaking is the key to better writing. They have read the science of storytelling and taken it to heart. It is here in China that the flowers of science education are most likely to blossom and grow. I am again and again humbled by Chinese students’ willingness to learn and infinitely inspired by the stories they tell about their enduring human spirit.