An International Exploratory Workshop for investigating and defining a research agenda of a Center for Narrative in Science was held in Weissbad, Appenzell, from July 6 to July 9, 2015—bringing together international experts and local researchers and educators.

The interaction between science and cognitive science was studied in a multitude of diverse short presentations and long discussions centering on narrativity of science. Fundamentally, we have been interested in questions relating to the feedback exemplified by what the sciences of mind and studies in narratology tell us about science and what the sciences tell us about how the human mind functions in understanding the world. We believe that the interaction between narrative, narrative understanding, and understanding, learning, and doing science will prove important for further progress in education, cognitive science, and science proper.

In order to balance the preoccupation of the organizers with physical sciences and education, experts from all over the world from fields including biology, economics, medicine, philosophy, history of science, developmental psychology, emotion studies, cognitive science, and linguistics and journalism were invited from places as far apart as the University of California at Los Angeles and the American University of Beirut. Their contributions proved important for widening our perspective and for formulating a research agenda for a proposed Center for Narrative in Science.

Apart from the contributions, the research agenda is the most direct outcome of the International Exploratory Workshop (see below). Since the workshop was held, first elements of a Website for the center have been produced, a position paper on narrative structures in (physical) science has been published, and drafting of a project proposal for building the said center has begun. Furthermore, a collection of extended summaries of workshop contributions and results of discussions is in the making.



We all accept that stories engage us affectively. However, recent developments in the study of narrative in science and engineering education—and in science itself—suggest that its role in these fields goes much deeper than is commonly assumed. Modern cognitive science tells us that there is a strong relation between emotion and reason—affect prepares us for the messages of a story that may well contain formally cognitive aspects in addition to the affective ones. Moreover, since the use of models is a narrative act, storytelling is an element of scientific method. Finally, it turns out that the products of science themselves—concepts, models, and theories—have narrative form; they are the products of a narrative mind.

In order to define a research agenda for a Center for Narrative in Science where the points just raised will be researched in more depth, we invited international experts from fields as diverse as economics, biology, cognitive science, medicine, physics, education, and more. Their contributions and our joint discussions at the International Exploratory Workshop proved a landmark in modern research on narrative in science.



Here is a list and short description of the contributions made by the invitees. Details will be worked out in a summary paper that outlines state of the art and ideas for future research in the field of narrative in science.

Annamaria Contini (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia) argued that metaphors and stories can be viewed as tools for thinking. A narrative is a kind of “connective tissue”: the story organizes image schemas, metaphoric projections, conceptual and linguistic metaphors in terms of a network.

Hans U. Fuchs (Zurich University of Applied Science) sketched some ideas relating to oral mythic cultures and the role of myth as narrative, and demonstrated forms of reasoning found in myth which are present in today’s science.

Mary S. Morgan (London School of Economics) showed that narratives function in the sciences to create order, or organize, the diverse elements and materials that scientists work with.  Such orderings may serve to: connect events in time, reveal what does and does not relate together, show how things change from start to finish, or join things together that previous lacked causal connections.

M. Norton Wise (UCLA) argued that many simulations in the physical sciences aim to provide an explanation of a process as a development or “unfolding” in time, and this unfolding takes the form of a narrative

Daniel Perrin (Zurich University of Applied Science) showed that despite the mantra to “think story,” (i.e. to think of public discourse in terms of telling stories) most of the narrative accounts in science, media, and society-at-large are far away from sheer storytelling. His presentation scrutinized the storytelling approaches that are taught across curricula and disciplines – and offers fresh and more focused insights into narrative conceptualization and communication practices.

Tamer Amin and Jesper Haglund (American University in Beirut and Uppsala University) presented a contribution from the fields of science education, developmental psychology and cognitive science that are particularly relevant to characterizing how scientific concepts are understood and how this understanding develops. The authors are convinced of the claim made by cognitive linguists and other cognitive scientists that our understanding of abstract concepts is metaphorically grounded in sensorimotor experience. In their view, it is this phenomenon that explains why narrative often figures in abstract scientific thought.

Brian Hurwitz (King’s College, London) discussed the importance of narrative in medicine. Clinical case reports are one of the chief means by which the findings and experiences of health care practitioners are shared with others. In his contribution, Hurwitz detailed how narrative accounts of cases leads to discovery, knowledge, and understanding.

Michelle Brendel and Paul Dumont (University of Luxembourg). Brendel and Dumont elaborated on how a narrative approach to teaching and learning may show what a child knows (i.e., by letting a child tell stories). They discussed the potential of a narratively driven research approach, investigating children’s, teachers’ and researchers’ learning processes, to transform teacher directed Science Education towards inclusive co-construction of science in the classroom and beyond.

Manuela Cervi (Education Director at Scuola Carovana, Modena) is an expert on the development and meaning of emotional life in early childhood. We were particularly lucky to have her introduce us to elements of human development and cognition that are often not regarded or downplayed in cognitive science. We are convinced that a deep reason for what we call narrative structures and narrative understanding in science is grounded in emotional life. She showed that knowledge processes always have two different interacting dynamics: an emotive one and a cognitive one. Knowledge processes favor the use of storytelling which can summarize all emotional forms.

Jörg Zabel and Tiziana Altiero (University of Leipzig and University of Modena and Reggio Emilia). Zabel’s and Altiero’s presentation explored some of these particular characteristics of biological science, and then went beyond science history to look at what narrative can do for understanding biology in the classroom, particularly the topic of selection theory. They presented examples of the use of narrative about science as well as narrative for science and illustrated narrative meaning making processes in the classroom.

Elisabeth Dumont (Zurich University of Applied Sciences at Winterthur) showed how we apply a narrative approach to physical and chemical systems science for engineering students. She demonstrated how the concept of forces of nature is transformed into an integrated science course on dynamical systems theory in physics, chemistry, biology, and technology.

Federico Corni and Alessandra Landini (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia) discussed a narrative approach to science for teacher education that considers narrative to be intrinsic rather than external to science. It makes use of figures of mind that are found in both everyday and scientific conceptualizations of natural processes. A particular product of such an activity was presented and discussed—it showed how fourth grade students learn about electricity by first learning to describe the phenomenon of anger in a narrative way that is inspired by research in cognitive linguistics.

Results and Outlook

In this section we briefly list the most important results that have come from the discussions held in Weissbad—a research agenda and the beginnings of a website for the Center of Narrative in Science.

Formulation of a research agenda…

Toward the end of the workshop, participants worked on formulating a possible research agenda for a Center for Narrative in Science. Here we mention just a few points that seem to be most relevant and go beyond the traditional concerns in this field—or beyond what the organizers had envisioned already.

Narrative Ordering (narrative as a tool for scientists). Learn how scientist already use narrative in their work and/or develop practical avenues for teaching scientists to use narrative methods in their work. (Morgan: narrative is a way of making sense of things for scientists: narrative functions as a mode of understanding or explanation.)

Folk science and formal science. Learn about the relation between everyday forms of thought and understanding and formal science: how far does it go and what does narrative have to do with it?

Narrative in biology—the science of complexity. How do physicists take over the language of biology? (Complexity, adaptive…) How do their metaphors and narratives change? Most generally: Can complexity science and the theory of evolution be narrativized?

The relation between narrative and cognitive science as applied to science learning. Different processes for change have been explored in cognitive research. How does narrative relate to this? In particular: Narrative as cases, cases as narratives: their role in concept learning.

Narrative assessment. Show the power of narrative approaches: investigate them using classical measures but also narrative assessment(!). Produce new assessment materials and procedures. Assess the stories of forces of nature produced by R. Fuchs and H. Fuchs (2010-2015).

Characterize narrative reasoning ! Above all, and as a unifying theme for the Center, we propose to do research on the cognitive science of narrative. A model of figurative structures at different scales (metaphors, metaphoric networks, narratives, anthologies) needs to be worked out: Interrelation between metaphors (and networks) and narrative, and research needs to be done on the question of narrative reasoning and emotion. Centrally, we need to know how narrative evolves from a sense of agency in our experience of nature.

Publications (parallel to and inspired by the Workshop)

Fuchs H. U. (2015): From Stories to Scientific Models and Back: Narrative framing in modern macroscopic physics. International Journal of Science Education, 37

Fuchs H. U. (2015): Typology of Uses of Narrative in Science—From Positioning Science in Culture through Creating Affect to Providing Explanations and Suggesting Concepts. In preparation.

Fuchs, Dumont, Corni, Morgan, Wise, Amin, et el. (2016): Narrative in Science—a Research Agenda. Planned.

Website for the Center of Narrative in Science

The Workshop inspired the creation of a website for the planned Center for Narrative in Science (http://narrativescience.org/index.html). The website will serve as the nexus for communication between researchers and will be used to disseminate research results.

Proposal for the creation of a Center of Narrative in Science in Winterthur

Elisabeth Dumont and Hans Fuchs are currently working on a proposal to get funding from private foundations for establishing the Center for Narrative in Science. We have the support of our university for hosting the center, and we already have interested parties both abroad and in Switzerland for collaboration as soon as the center is established. At our school, the center will work as a joint effort by the Institute of Applied Media Linguistics and the Institute of Applied Mathematics and Physics where both mathematicians and physicists will be involved.