Facts vs Fiction: What is Better for Learning?

While facts are informative, they are also boring and less likely to be remembered. Stories and fiction on the other hand are more memorable. But they leave a lot of place for interpretation  and the underlying message might not always be understood. Both, however, are important in the context of education. Let’s take the example of a classic Greek tragedy.

The full story
Intro to Fact vs Fiction

Just like titles in a bookshop are divided into fiction and non-fiction, we can communicate along a spectrum ranging from colorful storytelling to stating plain facts. When fiction and nonfiction speak to us, they serve opposing purposes. To understand this difference, let’s examine the definition, and then a famous example of a classic tragedy.

Tragedy definition

The Tragedy is a type of dramatic work in which the main character experiences a downfall due to circumstances that are beyond their control. Traditionally, the intention of tragedy is to invoke an accompanying catharsis – a “pain that awakens pleasure”. Now the fiction!

Oedipus story
Oedipus baby

Once upon a time a boy was born to the king and queen of Thebes. The boy’s name was Oedipus. Soon after his birth, a prophet warned the king that the boy would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid this catastrophe, the king ordered one of his servants to kill the baby. But the servant couldn’t do it and left the innocent child with a shepherd.

Oedipus prophecy

The shepherd brought the boy to the king of Corinth, who raised him as his own. When Oedipus grew to be a man, a prophet told him his destiny. Not knowing that he had been adopted, Oedipus left Corinth to run away from his misfortune. On his way to Thebes, he met an old man with his servants. 

Oedipus quest

The two got into a fight and Oedipus killed them all. When Oedipus arrived in Thebes, he encountered the evil Sphinx that menaced the city. After Oedipus solved the Sphinx’s riddle, it killed itself. To celebrate this victory, Oedipus was named the new king of Thebes, and given the current queen as his bride – for the former king had mysteriously been killed.

Oedipus plague

Years later, after they had four children, plagues began to destroy the city. Oedipus tried to find out the reason for this misfortune when he heard rumors that Thebes would be doomed until the day that the murderer of the former king was punished. Oedipus first tried to find the villain, and then began to understand what had actually happened. 

Oedipus ending

When he realized that he had killed his father and made love to his mother, he blinded himself, as he could not bear to see the children he had fathered. Now what do you think about the two examples? And how do the two help you understand a tragedy? 

Fact vs Fiction
Fact vs fiction

The story appears real and feels alive. You can experience it, sense it emotionally, see it with your imagination. And because this can be exciting, it is recorded in your brain, changes your mind, and will be remembered for a long time. But there is a downside.

Stories are so powerful, you may start to think they are more common than they are, and you become biased. This effect is also known as “the law of small numbers”. Which is why we also need facts.

Facts are abstract, and boring. Reading nonfiction is not exciting, and is hence not easily recorded in your memory. In fact, a mere month after reading an entire book, most of us remember not more than one single idea. And because facts are weak and they compete for attention with stories that are powerful, they hardly ever change your mind.


However, there is one thing they do well. Nonfiction provides our mind a theory, a heuristic, and a framework that allows us to make assumptions, and generalize. Put them on a spectrum and you’ll find: 

  • High retention vs low retention 
  • Easy reading vs hard studying 
  • And a subjective perspective vs objectivity. 

For their polarizing nature, smart educators often combine the two. Just as the quote goes: When one man dies, it’s a tragedy, and when a million die, it’s statistics. To better understand the true nature of war, we need to consider both. 

what do you think?
What do you think

What do you think? What will you learn from this video? Possibly a good mix of both worlds? Share your thoughts and your favorite way to grasp complex topics in the comments below!


Dig deeper!

Classroom activity

In the following activity, students will learn the power of facts and storytelling to convey an idea. 

  • Ask the class how they would try to convince someone else that smoking is bad for one’s health – tell them to give examples. 
  • After 10 min, ask the class if they were more convinced by people who tried to give cold facts, or those who told stories. 
  • Show the class Sprouts video on Facts vs Fiction. 
  • Ask the students if they would change the way they try to convince someone else that smoking is bad, and how they would couple facts and fiction to prove a point. 
  • Ask the class if they think that stories should be used more in education, and if so how they should be integrated into the classroom.


  • Script: Jonas Koblin 
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Production: Selina Bador
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda
  • Fact Checking: Ludovico Saint Amour di Chanaz

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.