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Storytelling and Science

By Titus Barik, Sumit Gulwani, Mario Juarez

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 10, Pages 27-30

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In the spirit of this Viewpoint, we begin with a story. One of the authors—Sumit Gulwani—struggled to teach his preschool-aged son—Sumay—a simple conceptual math theorem: Odd plus odd equals even. When diagrams and toys did not work, Sumit realized he had to meet Sumay where he was and not push to a level he was not ready for.a So, he told a story. An odd number, he began, is like a group of kids who are all paired up, except one. That person is "the lonely kid." And he is happy when they meet another odd number because he gets a friend: the other lonely kid. Now, there are no lonely kids, and that makes them an even number. The look on Sumay's face told Sumit that the concept had landed immediately. "What is odd plus even?" Sumit asked. In a sad voice, Sumay answered, "Odd, because there is no one to pair up with the lonely kid." "What is even plus even?" Sumay asked. "Even, because there is no lonely kid to begin with!" Sumit realized his son would best comprehend the abstract theorem when it was couched in a relatable narrative—in this case, one that resonated with a young child's preoccupation with socialization, friendship, and inclusion. As well, this experience happily turned out to be the seed for Sumay's love for mathematics and computing.

Sumit's experience with Sumay shows how even young children use stories to understand, interpret, and construct meaning about the world around them—and earlier evidence suggests stories are in fact fundamental to human cognitive processing.10 Sadly, as professionals we overwhelmingly dismiss the importance of storytelling in our day-to-day work, relegating our professional discomfort of "telling stories" to something that is only for children.


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