“You Can’t Use Fiction and Say You’re Teaching Science.”

By |2018-07-24T11:20:32-07:00April 12th, 2016|

My school district is in the beginning stages of updating our K-8 science curriculum. Before beginning our work, we had the opportunity to view a presentation by Mr. David Bauman, science advisor for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. He gave us a basic overview of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). We also learned how the NGSS relate to all of the standards and anchor documents that Pennsylvania has released since 1998. All 27 of them. What a beneficial topic for us, as we began to look at realigning our science curriculum and finding materials to support it.

As we were discussing the primary science curriculum and topics, he sidestepped into a discourse on Eric Carle books. He said that many teachers without proper science education training read an Eric Carle book like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, to do an activity, and say they’ve taught a science lesson. Then he said, “You can’t use fiction and say you’re teaching science.”

He continued, talking about the big push for integrating literature into science. He shared that fiction doesn’t have a place in the science classroom, that nonfiction text is the only text that should be used for instruction, otherwise, students may build misconceptions. The science standards aren’t addressed through reading as a source for learning science, anyway.

Wow For This Science Curriculum.

I needed a minute to digest this viewpoint because it was so different from the constant push I’ve felt to bring literacy into everything. As a third grade teacher, my district assigned schedule even says “integrated science/language arts” for my science block. With a Masters in Science Education, I knew that was learning science through reading was not best practice in science education, but literacy was our emphasis.

I started reflecting on the literature I’ve used in my classroom. This fall when teaching about clouds as part of a water cycle unit, I used the beautiful book “Cloud Dance” by Thomas Locker. (http://www.amazon.com/Cloud-Dance-Thomas-Locker/dp/0152045961) As we read each page, we looked at the gorgeous, detailed paintings of clouds and examined the poetic way he wove words together to identify what type of cloud the page depicted and what stages of the water cycle we saw. It helped the students solidify the concepts we were learning. Granted, there were nonfiction pages in the back that give scientific information, but the majority of this book would have been categorized as fiction.

During another lesson, we used the book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. As we explored the poetry, it was evident from student discussion that they solidified concepts about the life cycle of a butterfly from the poem Chrysalis Diary in contrast to the life cycle of a mayfly in Mayflies. Of course, not only were we learning science but also inference skills and figurative language through the rhythmic quality of the wonderful poetry.

The more lessons I reflected on, the more I came to terms with what he must have meant. Or, what I hope he meant. No, fiction literature should not replace science instruction. Students should be exposed to hands-on, inquiry-based learning with accurate, complementing nonfiction text to accompany the lessons. I believe fiction does have a place in the science classroom, however. Once students have the scientific foundation of the concept they are learning, they can further solidify that concept while examining fiction literature.

Students can analyze the text and illustrations and compare it against what they know as scientific fact, leading to discussions on the accuracy of the book. Discussions such as these help students to work through their possible misconceptions of scientific facts as well as provide them with deeper understanding. It will also help them be a more critical reader since they are reading to analyze instead of reading to gain new information.

I appreciate Mr. Bauman’s expertise because it gave me the opportunity to examine my instructional planning in regards to purposefully selecting literature related to science. After much thought and reflection, I agree that fiction text should not BE a science lesson. I believe it does, however, have a place in the science classroom, enhancing students’ learning of scientific concepts. What are your thoughts about this science curriculum?


  1. Teresa Dayley Love April 12, 2016 at 7:18 pm - Reply

    Here’s the deal. The way we learn about things is different than the things we learn. I don’t like it when scientists and science educators get precious about fiction vs. science. As long as teachers and students are able to differentiate between the two in explicit ways then I say use whatever will help the students learn the science the best. For example, I’ve been able to clearly assess how much students understand about ocean life by (after using film and text, the closest thing we have to an ocean in a classroom) using the “fiction” of someone interviewing, say, a lobster. The interviewer asks questions which show what he/she understands, and the child playing the lobster does the same. NOBODY THINKS THAT LOBSTERS CAN REALLY TALK UNLESS…. YOU ARE TWO YEARS OLD! Yet through this conceit, this pedagogical tactic, students remember facts in a very dynamic way. We don’t apply the strict no fiction rule to math…we make up story problems all the time. We don’t do it with history. Ever heard of historical fiction? And teachers help students suss out through such things as primary documents what really happened and what is inferred or simply created. But if students sit down with a history fact sheet, as opposed to a story they recall much less and have a hard time relating those facts out of a context. The story creates for them ascaffold on which to hang the facts. Now if teachers really are using the Hungry Caterpillar as a complete science lesson, then they ARE silly. But if children embody the life cycle of a butterfly, (after having studied and observed the real thing) through dance music or drama, there is no reason for the scientists to get in a huff and say “That’s not how it happens!” Because the children know that! But they will remember what they learned better. For heaven’s sake, an accurate scientific drawing by an expert is not “the real thing” yet people don’t get all huffy about science illustrations.

    • Dyan Branstetter April 12, 2016 at 7:39 pm - Reply

      Teresa, I agree. I think he was referring to teachers replacing a science lesson with reading a story. I’m looking forward to another conversation with him so that I can confirm that. The statement definitely got my attention, though!

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