Theory In The Science Classroom

This is an unpublished piece that I wrote a few months ago. I would appreciate knowing what you think about it.

Should theory be taught in the science classroom? The answer, I feel would have to be an unequivocal yes but with a certain degree of understanding of the setting and the situation. If the ultimate goal of learning in the science classroom is an understanding of the scientific process (and this does not mean that a particular student will become a scientist but rather a more informed citizen), then theory needs to be taught in the classroom.

But this is with the understanding that theory should never be taught as a stand-alone topic but as the result of experimentation and development. This is extremely important when teaching in the early and mid-level grades (K – 8), simply because students at those levels may not yet be able to understand the abstractness that goes with a theory.
That’s not to say that students in upper grades (9 – 12 and college) are automatically able to understand the abstractness of theory and theory construction simply because, if nothing has been done at the earlier levels to foster the development of general abstract thinking, then these upper level students will not have developed the skills necessary for the tasks at hand. (And I am willing to bet that the experimental data would bear me out on this).

Let’s add a warning here. Much of what has to be done to achieve the idea of theory building has to be active learning. Active learning builds neural pathways in the young child, on which all future thinking is processed.

The scientific thinking that is required for theory development arises from the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, as noted on the following diagram:


In other words, students must be doing things rather than simply reading about them or doing worksheets. This would be contrary to, unfortunately, current practices in many classrooms. It would also require that many teachers reinforce their background in the sciences. And what is done in the upper grades is not always appropriate for the lower grades.

All scientific theory is based first on observation of natural phenomena. Young children naturally work to make sense of their world. Scientific process and development of theoretical concepts can be encouraged with support of an open-minded teacher, who is curious about what children are thinking, rather than trying to fill them up with correct answers.
The minds of elementary, middle and high school students are often closed by teachers unwilling to venture off the charted curriculum, and into areas of thinking that are not merely memorized lists of facts, but require analysis, reflection, and creativity to produce new theoretical ideas.

Still, the outcome of such activities will improve the learning process and allow for more developed thinking skills in the long run.

So, how do we develop the ability to understand what a theory is and what one can do with a theory? We do it in the same way that theories are developed outside the classroom, through experimentation. And we have to understand that what the experiments are doing is providing the basis for theory development, not necessarily creating a theory.

In the upper grades, we can do some very basic and fundamental work. What would happen if we took a map of the globe, cut out all the continents, and treated it like a jig saw puzzle. Would the pieces fit together in some sort of pattern?

If I am not mistaken, it was this sort of puzzle that allowed Alfred Wegener to develop his ideas about plate tectonics and continental drift. The fitting of the South American and African continents together, along with similar fossil records allowed for the development of this idea.

Similarly, if a second map of the globe is marked with the presence of volcanoes and earthquake zones (the “ring of fire” around the Pacific), one creates a map showing the markings of the various tectonic plates.

Children as young as 3 and 4 construct knowledge through the development of a hypothesis, making a prediction, testing and experimentation and reflection on their results. Active learning is essential for the development of this thinking skill. Children in an early childhood classroom might chart the weather as well as how it affects the garden in their playground. They might wonder where the water goes after it puddles from a rain, or they might wonder what an earthworm eats when they find one as they dig to plant some seeds.

A wise teacher capitalizes on the teaching moment children’s questions imply, and will furnish the environment with books, worms, water, magnifying glasses and trips outside to make observations.

A similar exercise that can begin in the lower grades would be to make a daily record of the weather – hourly temperatures, weather conditions, and so forth. As the data is collected, the students can begin to see patterns and perhaps even begin making predictions as to what the weather might like in the coming days. In doing so, students should begin to see some of the requirements for creating a theory (observations, seeing the development of patterns, creating hypotheses – though not necessarily calling them that – and testing ideas/predictions).

The child becomes a more active learner when theory building is incorporated into the science education processes of today’s classroom.  

My thanks to Lauriston Avery for her thoughts and comments in the preparation of this manuscript.

2 thoughts on “Theory In The Science Classroom

  1. “if nothing has been done at the earlier levels to foster the development of general abstract thinking, then these upper level students will not have developed the skills necessary for the tasks at hand.” In my career I’ve often wished that math teachers did a better job deriving formulas in their courses because it involves skills that could be transferred to courses chemistry and physics. In K-8 education some hocus-pocus pedagogical philosophy has created the illusion that students now enter the upper grades with a stronger science background. But they don’t; they would almost be better off having spent more time on developing better numeracy and literacy skills.

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