But It’s Only a Theory! A Case for Great Science Teaching in Elementary School

Today’s blogger is Lauren Madden, an Associate Professor of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at The College of New Jersey, whose recently published article Teaching Science Is a Sacred Art” appears in the special issue of The Educational Forum on educator activism in politically polarized times. In that article, she argues for enhancing elementary science and offers tools to help teachers in this process.

So often, when the public or political sphere engages in debate about scientific ideas, “it’s only a theory!” becomes a popular refrain from those denying the existence of evolution, the pattern of climate change, or the efficacy of vaccines.

Once the term theory is mentioned, somehow an enormous body of visual, mathematical, and practical evidence gets equated to a guess as to which Kardashian sibling might be pregnant.

As a result, the public begins to question the expertise of actual scientific experts, and science becomes politicized.

Well, so what is a theory? In science, a theory “is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing” (Ghose, 2013). Some theories that are not [yet] controversial include cell theory, or the idea that all living things are made of cells, and the theory of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth revolves around the sun. These are not simply guesses—they are critical ideas that explain the way in which our world works. Knowing what theories are, along with other aspects of the nature of science, is essential for unpacking political debates about science and necessary for building a scientifically literate citizenry. And this process must start with the youngest students at the elementary years.

Then where do we start? In a recent essay in a special issue of The Education Forum dedicated to educational activism, I outlined a broader argument for enhancing elementary science teaching and offered tools to aid teachers in this process (Madden, 2018). One such tool is Lederman’s (2014) guest editorial in Science and Children, which provides straightforward suggestions for elementary teachers to help their students better understand what science is (and isn’t).

Teachers do not need to be experts on everything, but they do need to know what makes science science and how to help students learn to be good consumers of scientific information.

For teachers looking for tools specific to science topics that have become controversial, KDP offers some excellent ideas. For example, the UNESCO guidelines for teaching about climate change can be found at KDP’s climate education resource center.

Teachers are sometimes seen as change agents, but at a simpler level than that, teachers are knowledge agents. Elementary teachers hold the key to helping future generations understand the scientific process and navigate a highly politicized world. And perhaps in the future, we can look forward to eye rolls at the misuse of terms like “theory.”

What strategies do you use to help students unpack politicized nonscientific information?

Leave your ideas in the comments, and let’s work together to build a scientifically knowledgeable populace.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from the special issue of The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through September 30, 2018.



Ghouse, T. (2013). “Just a theory”: 7 misused science words. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/just-a-theory-7-misused-science-words

Lederman, N. (2014). Nature of science and its fundamental importance to the vision of the Next Generation Science Standards. Science and Children, 52(1), 8–10. doi:10.2505/4/sc14_052_01_8

Madden, L. (2018) Teaching science is a sacred act. The Educational Forum, 82(3), 303–308, doi:10.1080/00131725.2018.1458360

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