Uncertain stories


The evidence that stories are effective and efficient teaching tools is generally based on test results — improved reading, writing, science and math scores. But in terms of teaching sustainability concepts, stories have an additional advantage. To the extent that they describe real-world (or seemingly real-world, or even imaginably real-world) characters and actions, each story situation is inherently trans-disciplinary. Problems of sustainability cut across academic disciplines. Actions to achieve or approach sustainability typically won’t be within the scope of any single discipline. Stories aren’t just a better way of teaching about sustainability, they’re almost the only way.

But “real stories” — the kind on which the existing research is based, stories with characters and challenges and motivations — typically involve certainty. The invader is at the door. The dragon exists and must be slain. The guy is in love with the girl (or vice versa, or the guy is in love with the guy, or whatever). The big game approacheth. When there’s uncertainty in a “real story”, then the whole theme of the story is the elimination of uncertainty. Miss Scarlet in the Library with the Rope.

But the set of issues that we characterize by the word “sustainability” all involve significant degrees of uncertainty. The climate is warming at an unknown rate, due to some mix of causes which very likely includes humanity’s release of greenhouse gases, largely (but by no means entirely) due to combustion of fossil fuels. The oceans are acidifying, and that’s probably not good. Arable land is decreasing in both quality and quantity, and we don’t know whether we’ll be able to feed humanity. Humanity, at the same time, is an ever-expanding mass, and who knows how that’s going to end? Meanwhile, each of us contains a seemingly increasing concentration of synthetic chemicals and that can’t be good, can it?

Trying to construct a “real story” around sustainability seems kind of like trying to tell a story about a guy who might sort of be in love with a girl … he thinks … unless it’s all just a phase he’s going through. Or something. Uncertainty is rarely compelling and, if Greenback students are any indication, “compelling” is critical to effective story-telling.

Constructive suggestions gratefully accepted.


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