Studying Hard at Hogwarts: The Effectiveness of using Harry Potter to Educate about Science

Introduction

Since its inception in the late 1980’s, the field of science communication has focused  on understanding the complex relationship between the public and scientific researchers, and developing methods of communicating scientific concepts to the wider public with the goal of encouraging open and informed public discussions about science and its role in society (Bauer, Allum & Miller 2007). Science communication can be defined as “the processes by which the culture and knowledge of science are absorbed into the culture of the wider community” (Bryant in Burns, O’Connor & Stocklmayer 2003, p. 191). The main issue with encouraging public understanding and interest in science is the difficulty (that every science communicator faces) in explaining complicated and jargon-filled concepts to a public that has little or no scientific experience and understanding. The goal of science communicators is therefore to promote the “understanding of scientific matters by non-experts [including an] understanding of the nature of scientific methods . . . [and an] awareness of current scientific advances and their implications” (Burns, O’Connor & Stocklmayer 2003, p. 181; Bauer, Allum & Miller 2007).

A significant component of science communication research has looked at the role popular fiction texts can have in educating the public about a wide range of scientific principles, as well as cultivating an interest in science and scientific careers (Barnett et. al 2006; Barriga, Shapiro & Fernandez 2010; Beaton 2006). Fiction texts do not require background knowledge to be understood and enjoyed, they humanise science and scientific enquiry, and often create an emotional response in the viewer. This is useful in portraying the importance and relevance of science in a variety of different scenarios. The effectiveness of using this method to explain science is often debated, but there is empirical evidence that fiction texts can affect real-world beliefs and knowledge and, even in some cases, have more influence on our perceptions and knowledge than educational or informative texts (Barriga, Shapiro & Fernandez 2010). Many fiction texts contain bits of scientific information, with varying degrees of accuracy, in order to make them realistic and believable to the viewer (Barriga, Shapiro & Fernandez 2010). This scientific information is absorbed by the viewer at varying levels depending on the type of fiction text, the interest of the viewer, the feeling of transportation into the story (Barriga, Shapiro & Fernandez 2010), the complexity of the science in the text and the relevance of the scientific information to the viewer’s everyday life. Because the science in popular fiction texts is absorbed more easily, they are an effective teaching tool for a wide range of scientific concepts and disciplines (Beaton 2006).

Many studies have suggested the Harry Potter franchise is a useful popular fiction text to encourage scientific learning and understanding. A literature search has identified a number of articles that use the Harry Potter franchise (which includes a series of 7 books, 8 movies and a plethora of fan-made websites, events and fan-fiction) to teach topics such as Astronomy, Maths, Biology, DNA Fingerprinting & Forensics, and Content Analysis. This paper reviews the potential effectiveness of Harry Potter, as a fiction text, in teaching specific scientific concepts, as well as encouraging a wider interest in the sciences and scientific enquiry.

The Harry Potter Franchise

Harry Potter started as a series of children’s fantasy books by J.K. Rowling, that focus on the adventures of a young English wizard called Harry Potter as he discovers the hidden world of magic during his years at Hogwarts (a school for young witches and wizards set in the Scottish countryside). Over the 7 novels in the series, he undertakes a number of adventures with his two best friends Ron and Hermione, overcoming every obstacle that stands in their way. The series is a literary and cultural phenomenon (Broussard 2013), the 7 books have sold over 400 million copies and the 8 movies based on them are ranked as the highest grossing film series ever (Granger 2011; Broussard 2013; Messinger 2012).

The series itself has redefined the fantasy genre. Many articles suggest that it “can be credited for forging many new readers” (Kidd 2007, p. 85; Broussard 2013), as well as increasing the popularity of this genre. Granger (2011, p. 52) suggests that “it is the shared text of our time” and entertains children and adults alike. Wallace & Pugh (2007, p. 97) suggest “as myriad Potter Web sites and fan fiction sites illustrate, readers of these books expend considerable energy debating plots … and revising the stories by writing their own versions.” The series has reinvigorated the fantasy genre, which has exploded with new series such as Twilight (by Stephenie Meyer) and the Hunger Games Trilogy (by Suzanne Collins), who owe their success to the shift in focus Harry Potter elicited in the publishing industry and the wider community (Grossman 2011).

Constructivism in Science Communication

A number of different theories of understanding have been used over the lifetime of science communication to explain how scientific information is understood by the public. Science communicators believe the most useful theory of learning at the moment is the theory of constructivism, which suggests that people create their own understanding of a scientific fact by basing it on their already held perceptions and beliefs (Porcaro 2011). Under constructivism, an individual’s comprehension of reality is based on their individual experiences, beliefs and already understood knowledge, whether or not this knowledge is correct (Porcaro 2011). In terms of science communication, constructivism is important as it tells communicators they cannot educate about science unless they can build on the individual’s observed or understood scientific knowledge. For example, constructivism suggests it is very difficult to understand a complicated physics formula without prior understanding of basic physics principles such as mass, energy and motion. However a communicator can use everyday observations (such as when you drop a ball it will fall to the ground) to develop an understanding of basic physics principles (such as gravity). This then allows them to explain more difficult physics problems to their audience. By relating scientific concepts to observations or situations a person has experienced (or in the case of popular fiction, has read or watched), communicators can build up their knowledge to explain more complicated scientific principles.

The Potential of Harry Potter

Harry Potter (as a popular fiction text) has a significant amount of potential to communicate science to the wider public. Some people argue that Harry Potter (and other fantasy stories like it) is ill-suited for teaching about science because it is not based in the ‘real world’. However Tolkien (a very popular and illustrious fiction writer, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy) counteracts this argument by suggesting:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. (Tolkien On Fairy Stories, p. 18)

Although Harry Potter is set in fantasy, the moral issues and obstacles the characters face reflect the issues people encounter in everyday life. In this way, Harry Potter’s world mirrors our own, and therefore the moral values and issues portrayed in the literature are relevant to daily life (Beaton 2006). This is one explanation for its immense popularity.

The most significant aspect of the Harry Potter franchise (that is beneficial to communicating science) is its fame, broad scope and wide fan base (Kidd 2007). Because of its popularity throughout the world, an incredibly large number of people have read the stories and are familiar with the storylines and plot scenarios. This makes the Harry Potter series an ideal candidate to relate scientific concepts to, because it allows science communicators to reach a wide audience effectively and allows them to transcend cultural, language and social barriers.

Other benefits of the Harry Potter franchise are: the strong emotional responses it elicits in its viewers; the emotional investment of its fans; the desire to relate to the text in ways other than reading the books and watching the movies; and the desire to discuss and debate the text with other fans (Kidd 2007; Darnell 2007). Kidd (2007) argues that the ‘hysteria’ over the novels produces emotional energy that unites Harry Potter fans into a group, where they are able to bond together in relationships of shared trust and purpose. Their private reading of Harry Potter becomes a social experience as it becomes an important feature of conversations, where fans work together to develop their own meaning and significance out of the novels.

Another benefit of the Harry Potter series is that a significant component of the target audience that science communicators focus on has grown up reading and watching Harry Potter. Broussard (2013, p. 815) argues:

They identified with Harry, Ron and Hermione as they went through their fantastical adventures as well as those tribulations all teenagers must go through. Hermione made smart girls cool, while Ron eased even the hardest situation with humour.

These children and young adults identify with the characters from the series, see them as role models and heroes and relate their real life experiences to those in the text. These stories are familiar to them, and have been internalised as a significant part of their childhood experience and development into adulthood.

Teaching Science using Harry Potter

The literature review in this paper has suggested there are two ways Harry Potter is used to educate about science. The first method takes a topic or theme found in the text and relates it to real world scientific phenomena or theories. Some examples include Larsen & Bednarski’s (2008) analysis of Astronomy concepts, Lerner’s (2005) analysis of real life cloaking technologies, and Beaton’s (2006) maths activity for 6th Graders. The second method involves developing a scenario that uses characters, events or settings from the series to provide a case study which utilises the scientific concept that is being explained. Some examples include Palmer’s (2010) lesson plan on DNA fingerprinting, Nichol, Watson, & Waites (2003) study on using a Harry Potter themed murder-mystery to develop ICT skills and Messinger’s (2012) lesson on teaching content analysis to college students.

Both of these methods allow educators to make and strengthen connections between ideas and develop students’ thinking and understanding of a topic (Beaton 2006; Larsen & Bednarski 2008). It also allows students to incorporate ideas from the magical world of Harry Potter into a setting based on explanatory reasoning in the real world (Khemlani, Sussman & Oppenheimer 2011).

Science Topics in Harry Potter

A literature review of available papers suggests the Harry Potter franchise has been used to successfully teach a number of different scientific theories and concepts.

Astronomy

Papers showing a link between Harry Potter and education about Astronomy were the most common. The Astronomy Blog suggests that “there is a surprising amount of astronomy tucked away in [Harry Potter]. Although some of it isn’t totally correct, it is a great starting point.” (Astronomy Blog 2007). Examples of discussions about Astronomy identified in the literature include: the naming of star constellations; the naming and movement of the moons of Jupiter; the curriculum of astronomy classes at Hogwarts; and the lack of scientific basis in astrology and divination (Astronomy Blog 2007; Larsen & Bednarski 2008; Larsen 2009). Harry Potter can also be used as a ‘hook’ for astronomy themed events. The Jodrell Bank Observatory Visitor Center in Manchester held a book launch party when the 7th Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) came out in 2007 (Astronomy Blog 2007). They held activities based on astronomy that related to themes and concepts in the Harry Potter universe. They had astronomy classes, a planetarium show, telescope viewing, a 3D journey to Mars, staff wore Harry Potter style robes and guests were able to buy a copy of the new Harry Potter book. Although the article was written before the event actually took place, it was obviously successful as they had sold almost all the tickets available for the event. This example shows that Harry Potter is a very useful resource in educating about astronomy, and it should be utilised and “exploited as often and as shamelessly in order to interest the general public (and college students) in astronomy” (Larsen 2009, p. 307; Larsen & Bednarski 2008).

Maths

Beaton (2006) uses Harry Potter to teach mathematical concepts as part of an integrated module taught to a 6th Grade class in Nova Scotia, Canada. The program uses a single text (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to teach a variety of topics including Maths, Science, English and Creative Writing. As part of the curriculum Beaton ran a mathematical budgeting activity that enabled the students to imagine themselves as classmates of Harry Potter, purchasing school supplies for Hogwarts. Each student was assigned a character from the novel and given a different budget and a list of mandatory and optional school items. The students then had to balance their budget with the items they would require for school. Beaton believed the activity “gave [the students] an authentic budgeting experience. They understood the reasons for budgeting and the process involved and could apply this knowledge in new contexts” (Beaton 2006, p. 100).

Biology and Fungi

As part of the same integrated module, Beaton’s class also studied 4 science subjects related to the curriculum at Hogwarts. They looked at: Mushroom and Fungi; the three states of matter (which the author related to Potions class); the dissection of Owl pellets; and a study on science and technology in the modern world that would assist wizards in understanding how Muggles (non-magical people) function without magic (Beaton 2006). By working on these science projects students learnt new skills through hands-on activities and were able to “share their ideas, consider alternative viewpoints, and build on the ideas of others” (Beaton 2006, p. 101).

Content analysis

Messinger (2012) undertook a study in a college social science course to evaluate the usefulness of a section of a Harry Potter movie soundtrack in teaching content analysis. Content analysis is one of the more challenging social science research methods to teach, because although it is conceptually straightforward it can be difficult for students to comprehend the mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis required (Messinger 2012). Messinger used the four minute long opening scene from the first Harry Potter movie (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to undertake a content analysis for musical patterns. Film music from Harry Potter is an excellent data source for 3 reasons: it is appealing and therefore memorable for students; it relies on a set of specific musical rules, which lend themselves to easy coding; and it can illustrate research goals simply. Messinger’s research suggests the exercise can improve student’s understanding of content analysis, and furthermore, students generally found the exercise highly helpful and enjoyable and would recommend its implementation in other courses.

DNA Fingerprinting and Forensic Science

Palmer (2010) suggested a lesson plan which used characters from the Harry Potter series of novels as a ‘hook’ to stimulate students’ interest in introductory forensic science. She suggested a series of activities to explain the structure of DNA, and the method used to create individual DNA fingerprints from a DNA sample. Students were then presented with a fictional scenario, ‘Harry Potter & the Case of the Half-Eaten Liquorice Wand’, where someone on the Hogwarts Express had opened Harry’s bag of sweets and taken a bite out of his liquorice wand. After class discussion and analysis, Fred Weasley was shown to be the perpetrator. Using characters from Harry Potter was considered important as it helped to encourage interest and participation in the lesson plan. There was also an opportunity to discuss the reliability and limitations of DNA fingerprinting, as in the books Fred has an identical twin. Classes were able to discuss the errors involved in DNA fingerprinting and the importance of using multiple types of evidence in proving Fred guilty (Palmer 2010).

Literacy, Comprehension and English

A number of papers in the literature review discussed using Harry Potter to teach topics, such as: English (Beaton 2006); Literacy (Arter 2009); Latin (Nilsen & Nilsen 2006); promoting the skills and resources available at a college library (Broussard 2013); and critical analysis of texts (Wallace & Pugh 2007). These are not discussed further in this paper as they are not technically ‘science’ topics.

Conclusion

In conclusion this review has shown that Harry Potter has the potential to be a useful fiction text in educating about a wide range of scientific concepts. The benefit of the franchise is its popularity and wide dissemination, the emotional involvement and investment of its fans, and the presence of a number of different scientific concepts and theories, which help to encourage interest in scientific learning and understanding.

However this study does have some limitations. There is a lack of material and case studies in the scientific literature discussing methods of teaching science using Harry Potter. Many of the papers found in this literature review discuss using Harry Potter to teach literacy, English, cultural studies and critical thinking. Harry Potter has excellent potential in educating about a wide range of scientific topics, but further research must be undertaken to develop new teaching programs and evaluating current methods utilising the Harry Potter franchise.

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