An Error of Excessive Abstraction: Teaching Science as Worldview

Triceratops hatchling

Paleontology and climatology are very good subjects for illustrating the importance of diversity among the sciences as a topic of primary importance to K-12 science teaching. Paleontology is a historical science that responds to how the present constrains the interpretation of the past. Climatology often seeks to model complex interactions in order to arrive at a probabilistic portrait of the future. They do work in tandem when modelers simulate past climate trends forward from ancient times. Both fields exemplify how the concerns of the earth sciences reside at the heart of scientific inquiry that matters to everyone.

The paleontology community has developed superb materials for science teachers across the K-12 spectrum with responsibility for teaching about the dynamic earth and the evolution of life. Two notable examples are the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI)/Museum of the Earth’s Teacher Friendly Guides (

page=teacherprofdev/Teach_Guides) and the University of California Museum of Paleontology’s (UCMP) on-line resources for K-12 educators (

The PRI guides feature applications of the earth sciences to geographic regions of the United States. Lessons incorporate soil, climate, and geoscience. The PRI guides feature the story of maiz as a portal into understanding evolution and genetics. The UCMP resources encompass evolution, the fossil record, the dynamic earth, and link to many others. Similar to the PRI, the UCMP has created materials to help teachers interpret the regional landscape (California) with their students.

Among the tangible, enticing, and well-focused resources found at the UCMP site, one stands apart. It is a recent addition intended to advance the reform and improvement of K-12 science teaching as promoted by the standards movement and research into the nature of science. The materials found under the heading “Understanding Science” provide telling insights—not necessarily about science, but about what the science education community believes students need to learn about science as a worldview. The ambitious aim of the site’s designers is to explain “how science really works. The arguments and exercises they present stand as an exemplar of what reformers would have all Americans understand about science—notably in the singular form.

How ironic that the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology, an institution ideally suited for demonstrating how to decipher the history of life, the vicissitudes of habitat change on geologic timescales, and a center for the curation of distinct objects of interest (fossils), has become a center for promulgating a very different message: “Understanding Science: How science works” in an abstract and general sense ( The creators of the site—or more properly, the standards-based reform literature in science education they draw upon— have committed an error of excessive abstraction. As a result, once a visitor has landed on the sample activity page, coherence is hard to find. Instead of a journey through the joys of paleontological research (and how this subject might bear on understanding the dynamic earth), there is a grab-bag of lessons from “Dogs and turnips” to “Amazon fly.” Heading the list is “Mystery tubes,” an activity that makes repeated appearances decade after decade (the same as the “footprints puzzle” activity that debuted in 1964) as the science teaching community continues its search for the features of scientific thinking independent of subject.

“Dogs and turnips” teaches that “ideas change as we gather more information” and “Amazon fly” explained the need in science “to come up with multiple hypotheses to explain a set of observations.” “Mystery tubes” focus attention on drawing inferences from evidence. It appears that it is not so much the science that is being taught than something about science in the abstract. The activities are well thought out, inviting, accessible, even fun. That said, they reflect a profoundly mistaken direction for improving science teaching canonized by the national standards: the quest for a universal scientific worldview, more nuanced than the steps of the scientific method taught to past generations, yet still committed to what all the sciences have in common. Progress in understanding how science works, or so it seems, now requires elaborate flowcharts, perhaps to capture its non-linearity. Excessive abstraction follows and results in disjoint sets of exercises. The UCMP site is a telling example.

In my view, science teaching needs to underscore how scientific inquiries respond to distinct challenges, 1) first as a way of demonstrating how science gets done, 2) secondly to set the stage for meaningful portrayal of how disciplines may collaborate, and 3) thirdly to place science for all in contexts of social value. Unfortunately, the dominant perspective of the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS), reinforced by aims to teach the Nature of Science (NOS), tend to distract attention away from the consideration of distinct challenges—a potential driver of interest—as a starting point for teaching science. At the same time they dilute disciplinary-grounded strategies for solving problems—the embodiment of expertise--by shoehorning them into a small number of generic categories. Although the standards clearly and repeatedly stress the value context of science, the overall value message is one that promotes the value of scientific enterprise to society. “Unity” among the sciences dominates this message.

Teachers across the nation are being taught to teach the Nature of Science, Scientific Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts along with Disciplinary Core Ideas. Permeating this classroom agenda is a philosophical commitment to the idea of fundamental unity among the sciences and the corollary that grasping this unity—a worldview—is the primary purpose of K-12 science education. The Understanding Science/How science really works website, developed by the University of California Museum of Paleontology with support from the National Science Foundation, admirably rejects the oversimplified, historically popularized depiction of “the” scientific method and its disarmingly ordered progression through a small number of steps. In portraying “how science works” the site begins with explicit rejection of how so many textbooks across decades have introduced the myth of the scientific method to generation after generation of students.

Unfortunately, the site portrays essentially the same idea in very elaborate fashion, ultimately linking each lesson at every grade level for the next generation of students to a flowcharted conception of how science works. The American Institute of Biological Sciences, the California Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers, The Encyclopedia of Life, and the Deep Earth Academy all endorse the site. Presumably, the National Research Council, author of the NGSS, does also.

The understanding “how science really works” website explains the distinction between producing and justifying new scientific claims. The site validly criticizes how textbooks gloss over the actual, messy production of new knowledge in order to share the tidy justification of new claims. Warranting, of course, requires the presentation of an argument in logically convincing form: as a progression of inferences anchored in observations made by putting hypotheses to empirical tests. The cumulative effect of this oversimplification is to stereotype science by omitting too much of how science really works.

Asking, "What science ought students to learn and what science should educators teach?" does follow as a corollary to, "How does science really work?" The existence of the perfectly good adjective, “scientific,” does reinforce commitment to a belief in unity at some level of description of scientific practices. Nevertheless, I am struck by the dramatic diversity among the sciences from a) the range of phenomena they address (twinning crystals, mating rituals, non-locality, pulsars, liver tumors, extinction), through b) the strategies invented to examine these phenomena, to c) their varying criteria of explanatory ideals. This diversity ought to hold substantial implication for instruction.

I would argue that educators need to begin answering the "ought" and "should" questions not with "the habits of mind common to all the sciences" or "the processes/practices of science" or "the nature of science." Instead, try "What are the distinct challenges investigators must confront in diverse contexts? How do the phenomena of interest differ? How are methods of inquiry adapted to the challenges?" These questions lead to diverse answers to “How does science really work? first by rephrasing the question in the plural, “How do the sciences really work?” From this line of thinking conceptual understanding and investigative techniques become synergistically intertwined. How we make knowledge and what we claim to know interact and mold each other in distinct ways in particular contexts. The “how” and the “what” advance each other. Challenges vary; thus must responses vary, too.

This perspective elevates the importance of imagery, rhetoric, and metaphor to guiding, if not governing, thinking in particular contexts. It acknowledges the importance of aesthetic appeal both in the phenomenon of interest (vortexes in global circulation patterns) and their representations (elegant computational models). It acknowledges that explanations often come packaged in story form, with the parts gaining meaning by virtue of context and the context being determined by the nature of the parts (e.g., “the dynamics of a plate margin" becoming the story to tell that emerges from the interpretation of folds, faults, and rock composition).

This perspective illuminates pathways for promoting interest and developing expertise that the quest to unify the sciences obscures. It replaces promulgating a scientific worldview with attention to the values served by different sciences. It avoids the risk of stereotyping science in the public mind—and the hazards of applying criteria appropriate for evaluating data in one context to an altogether different one. In many respects, for example, facile notions of "the" scientific method have hindered public understanding (and hence acceptance) of climate science. Science teaching ought to emphasize how the sciences in particular contexts actually work and why their work might be of value and interest in the personal, social, and professional lives of students.

Imagery, value, and story form—building blocks of interest and expertise—count heavily in my vision of how to answer "what to teach." Starting with concern for "challenges" characteristic of diverse inquiries sets a very different agenda than seeking the unifying features of science for all to grasp. Even if they fill complex flow charts and earn high validity scores from many fields, the generic representations miss the pedagogical mark at best and at worst reinforce a limiting if not false conception of the sciences.

The leadership in science education should look again at the proposition that every science lesson must have a 3-Dimensional structure (“3-D Learning”) consisting of a scientific practice (there are 8 to choose from), a disciplinary core idea (there are 13 in 4 fields to choose from), and a crosscutting concept (there are 7 to choose from, plus 2 pertaining to “influence” and “interdependence” of science, engineering, and technology). Two of the dimensions are from generic lists evocative of processes, inquiry skills, and themes advocated by the standards movement in previous decades of reform; the middle dimension reflects a rather narrow conception of content domains. There is, of course, a hidden fourth dimension to the standards: the Nature of Science (8 understanding to choose from).

Imagine abandoning the quest for unity. What high level aims might guide teaching and learning in particular contexts? In order to being answering, consider the geosciences and return to the three questions posed earlier:

  • What are the distinct challenges investigators must confront in diverse contexts?

  • How do the phenomena of interest differ?

  • How are methods of inquiry adapted to the challenges?

Clearly, value contexts abound calling for an understanding of how the geosciences really work; for example: promoting preparedness and resiliency among a citizenry living on an active plate boundary, as in the Pacific Northwest, where they must confront the risks of a great subduction zone earthquake and tsunami. Think about the thinking needed to understand the science that bears upon this context in contrast to linking study of plate margin tectonics to science in the abstract. The need to interpret the local landscape is sufficient justification for teaching the subject.

Students should learn to think distinctly geological thoughts focused on geologic phenomena and to try to understand how a geoscientist responds to the problem-solving demands characteristic of this particular challenge (plate boundary tectonics). At the same time, because it is an embodiment of styles and strategies matched to the demands faced in numerous, similar contexts, this particular topic cannot escape having some universal aspects. Understanding how this science really works calls forth the aim of learning several principles of geological reasoning (from several sources, not cited here for simplicity), among them:

  • Historical ("singular") objects form through time, such as plate boundaries, to become phenomena of interest.

  • Place substitutes for time as in Darwin’s explanation of the origin of Pacific atolls.

  • Problems are solved across scales from microscopic to global as in the timing and location of the end of Cretaceous extraterrestrial impact.

  • Making inference (and drawing hypotheses) by analogy dominates; for example, between current shallow slab subduction zone associated with the Sierras Pampeanas shallow angle subduction beneath the Colorado Plateau millions of years ago.

  • The Earth is a text to interpret ("part/whole" cycle); facts assemble into an explanation in plate theory; plate theory assigns meaning to the facts.

  • Puzzling associations may have a common cause leading to compelling inferences about the past; the coincidence of Cretaceous extinction and bolide impact, for example.

  • Temporal relationships referee among competing arguments—order in time, synchrony.

  • Visual representations capture temporal relationships as in correlational charts and geologic maps.

This essay is part editorial, part philosophy of science, and part sketch of a departure from educational orthodoxy. It is, however, just the tip of an iceberg. I have ended with an example of geologic reasoning and its potential value to citizens living on an active plate margin. If this call to start with distinct challenges in diverse contexts, leading to careful responses matched to the demands of solving particular problems, is heeded as a basis for deciding what to teach as K-12 science in place of 3-D alignment, then substantial work needs to be done discipline by discipline, context by context, grade level by grade level, place by place. Of course, many resources, courses of study, and classroom support structures have long done so. Good teaching engages students in interaction with the phenomena of interest, each other, the teacher, and bodies of knowledge. Good understanding of the sciences stems from appreciation of their diverse responses to distinctive challenges, not simply from adoption of a worldview stemming from an error of excessive abstraction.