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.

 

References

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

A teacher, a Falcon, and a Kadelpian for life.

A few weeks ago, the Dean of the College of Education and Human Development, Dr. Dawn Shinew, contacted me and asked if Kappa Delta Pi members would be interested in meeting Muriel Hutchinson Strebe and honoring her at a Classroom Dedication ceremony.

After some inquiring, I learned that Mrs. Strebe was a successful elementary school teacher and had made Bowling Green State University the beneficiary in her estate plan as well as established the Muriel Hutchinson Strebe Scholarship for students entering the College of Education. So, naturally, I agreed, looking for any opportunity to demonstrate Kappa Delta Pi’s support of fellow educators.

After rallying the KDP members that were available during the day on a Friday, we made our way to a personal meet and greet with Mrs. Strebe, taking our seats at a round conference table on the fourth floor of the Education Building, waiting for this generous woman who was being honored throughout the College of Education.

Then she walks in.

Muriel Strebe.

Dressed in orange with a large golden medal hanging around her neck.

Helping her in is Dean Shinew, along with the college assistants who have been with her the whole day. She smiles at us and laughs, explaining that golden medal meant that she was a “Golden Falcon,” an award she won for being an involved alumnus.

She is remarkable, so excited to talk to fellow education students—students to whom she has given so much.

14457321_1659164627728061_5365316323270890690_nAfter she sits down, I introduce myself and tell her that I am President of our campus chapter of Kappa Delta Pi.

She said, “Yes, I was a part of this chapter when I went to school here.” I look at her, astonished, and then I look at the dean. I couldn’t believe it. This incredibly gracious woman was a part of OUR chapter. The Delta Phi Chapter! I was so excited. No one in this room knew that she was a member of Kappa Delta Pi before that moment.

I motioned for the next KDP members to introduce themselves, while I scanned my mind for ways to recognize this woman as a KDP member.

“The Binder!” I thought.

The Chapter binder that every KDP initiate has signed for decades. Her name was probably in it! What better way to welcome her home than by showing her the binder she signed more than 65 years ago.

I excused myself from the conference room and ran across campus to get it. It was in our KDP office, only 5 minutes away.

I unlocked the cabinet and went to the very back of the binder. Loose-leaf papers were ripped and aged, with some barely hanging on in the binder. I saw that the pages went back only to 1958, and so the years 1958 down to 1947 were either never documented or were missing. I knew our chapter was more than 75 years old, so Muriel Hutchinson Strebe would more than likely have been initiated her freshman year.

It saddened me that I couldn’t present to her the initiation page she signed so long ago. It was time to be creative and find a way to honor this remarkable woman through Kappa Delta Pi.

Then I see them, the blank certificates in the cabinet. Maybe I could re-initiate Mrs. Strebe and honor her a second time. I knew she was worthy of it, for who better exemplified the words of the Kappa Delta Pi creed?

Mrs. Strebe has lived the ideals of Fidelity to Humanity, Science, Service, and Toil. She has inspired and strengthened others and is the essence of Knowledge, Duty, and Power.

I grabbed the binder, a blank certificate, and a creed. I quickly walked back to the conference room, knowing exactly what I was going to do.

I entered the room while the members were wrapping up their introductions. I looked at Mrs. Strebe and told her that our records had been misplaced, and I couldn’t find her signature—but, if she would be okay with it, I would like to re-initiate her so she can be added to our binder.

She laughed and said that she would be honored!

I placed the binder on the table and read a small portion of our ceremony ritual.

14441184_1659164567728067_1479710292263504065_nI then handed her a pen, and she signed our Society Charter for a second time.

We all clapped after she signed, and I held her hand, thanking her for agreeing to sign our book and be a part of the Kappa Delta Pi Class of 2016.

While she was in another meeting, I went to our Technology Resource Center and printed a fresh Kappa Delta Pi certificate with her name and the date on it. When I saw her after the classroom dedication, I gave her the folder with the certificate and the creed.

I thanked her for everything she has done for education students and asked if we could take a picture with her.

This picture includes Kappa Delta Pi members old and new, as well as Freddie and Frieda Falcon, with Muriel Hutchinson Strebe in the center.

This picture includes Kappa Delta Pi members old and new, as well as Freddie and Frieda Falcon, with Muriel Hutchinson Strebe in the center.

A teacher, a Falcon, and a Kadelpian for life.

Kristen Tabesh is a 4th year student at Bowling Green State University and the President of the Delta Phi Chapter of KDP. She is a Middle Childhood Education major with concentrations in Language Arts/Reading and Social Studies. Kristen has wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember, and she absolutely cannot wait to have a classroom of her own.

Read more of this story on the Bowling Green State University page.