Friday, November 19, 2021

Active uninterest and the power of storytelling

Photo by Sepp Rutz on Unsplash

One of the highlights of this week was listening to an excellent keynote speech by Jo Røislien, professor of medical statistics at the University of Stavanger, at a Norwegian conference on motivation for learning (FuNKon 21 – Motivasjon for læring). He introduced the concept of active uninterest to describe popular attitudes to his field (maths, statistics). Whenever these subjects are mentioned people seem to almost take pride in how little they know. It's similar for most technical subjects as well as economics. People almost boast about how boring they think these subjects are and how little they remember from school. This is curious considering that our entire society and understanding of the world around us depends on these sciences but whenever they are discussed most of us automatically switch off. I admit to falling into that trap when it comes to financial matters. It's a defense mechanism but has become a dangerous myth that prevents people from engaging in and understanding the world we live in. 

Røislien is certainly not the stereotype "stats nerd". He happens to be a major TV personality in Norway thanks to his successful popular science TV series on Norwegian TV, NRKKampen om livet. The programme deals with difficult subjects like medical science, statistical analysis and molecular biology, but has become so popular thanks to its use of story-telling and eye-catching experiments rather than going into scientific detail. It's a classic case of  getting people to see the subject in a new light, to awake interest by seeing connections with things we understand (or think we do). In advertising terms it's not about selling the sausages, it's about selling the sizzle. 

He talked about the need for teachers and scientists to find compelling storylines to raise public interest in their subjects illustrated by his struggle to sell his idea of a documentary series to the TV company. As educators, it's not enough to deliver the facts, we need to break down people's barriers to learning, to activate curiosity and bring those facts to life. A good story helps us to remember and motivates us to find out how the story ends. We need more compelling stories to promote education and inspire curiosity. 

At the same time, I can't help noticing that not all stories are positive and that one reason for the growth of populism and conspiracy theories lies in the power of the stories they concoct. Even if they are shown to be misleading, the stories are stronger than the facts. Many traditional political parties have failed to realise the power of story telling, for better or for worse. Of course, the myth that subjects like maths are boring is also a compelling story, leading me back to the start of this post. 

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