We have a new short story published! Can Marie’s knowledge of geology solve a mystery and get her big brother out of trouble? Check it out at Fiction for the Classroom.
To accompany the story, we offer some suggested activities and labs for teachers of middle and high school.
We also have a new Topic for Debate essay. Read about Comic Book Science and its impact of science literacy! at Topics for Debate
The topic for our next issue is ‘Theory in the Science Classroom’. You are invited to respond to the seed-essay below. Please feel free to submit your essay for consideration for publication in our next issue. We pay! Submission guidelines.
Seed Thesis for ‘Theory in the Science Classroom’, by Russ Colson
Most of us are aware that the word ‘theory’ is used differently in common conversation than it is in science. For example, as we approach the highly-anticipated release of Star Wars VII, one might say “My theory is that Yoda will come back from the dead and save the day!” On the other hand, in science, the word ‘theory’ refers to a conceptual synthesis of observational data that has been extensively tested in the lab and field. It is not someone’s idle speculation subject to casual challenge with limited data.
The misunderstanding of the meaning of scientific theory has led some people to think that alternative ‘theories’ should be presented in the science classroom, such as ideas arising from religious beliefs. Although religious ideas are an essential part of the human experience and should be included in a well-rounded education (in the view of this writer!), most scientists and science teachers don’t believe those ideas belong in the science classroom because they do not arise from the methods and practices of science, nor do they meet the scientific criteria to be considered a theory.
However, do we teachers, in our eagerness to emphasize the well-tested nature of scientific theories, present theories as the goal of learning? Instead of teaching the processes of questioning, testing, and reasoning that provide the foundation for theories—what the Next Generation Science Standards (2013) call the ‘Practices of Science and Engineering’—do we jump to the theories themselves as the end product of education? Do we sometimes even treat the theories as ‘facts’ to be memorized instead of a synthesis of observations derived through the practices of science?
It seems to me that even the Next Generation Science Standards–despite their goal of encouraging more practice of science in the classroom–emphasize theories a bit much, especially theories that are politically controversial. Consider for example the importance placed on teaching the theory of evolution in the life sciences or the importance placed on telling students that climate change is real in the earth sciences.
In placing so much emphasis on the theories that have been derived by the practices of science, we short-shrift the practices of science. Students then arrive in my college classroom without the ability to distinguish between theory and the evidence for it. In fact, sometimes students even get confused on which is more foundational, the theory or the observation that supports it. One student wrote “Some people don’t understand that (an observation) can’t be true if it goes against scientific theory.”
So what are your thoughts? What is the best balance in the classroom for teaching theories versus teaching the methodologies by which we have figured out and tested those theories?