Science isn’t “settled:” Disrupting canonical science to engage more students

By Bronwyn Bevan & Kerri Wingert - November 2014


Bang, M., Warren, B., Rosebery, A. S., & Medin, D. (2013). Desettling expectations in science education. Human Development, 55(5¬–6), 302–318.

To broaden participation in science, Bang, Warren, Rosebery, and Medin argue, teaching strategies should create opportunities for students to deeply engage with and even challenge canonical representations of science. Science itself, they argue, has historically progressed through questioning. However, in classrooms, students’ deep questions, unless they align with standardized curriculum, are frequently not taken up.

As an example, the authors cite questions that relate to the canonical Western idea of classifying objects in nature as either living or not living. Allowing students to question and probe this dichotomy can support opportunities for deep intellectual engagement. For example, significant learning could result from discussing a question about whether water is a living thing.

The authors are arguing not for cultural relativism, but for a pedagogy based on the fact that science itself is developing new models for understanding how nature and culture are mutually co-creating. When students ask questions about culturally conditioned assumptions, there is a powerful opportunity for deep learning and engagement. The authors call this approach “desettling science" — that is, challenging settled or established ideas about science.

The authors argue that, when educators shut down such questions, and impose canonical scientific assertions, they may alienate and disengage students. Because canonical science is the product of Western white power structures, using it to shut down intellectual inquiry may be felt as cultural microaggression, particularly by students from communities historically underrepresented in science.

The authors provide two examples of pedagogical approaches that explored the relationship between nature and culture to deepen understanding.

In the first example, students who were largely from the Haitian immigrant community were studying the water cycle. The key message of their standardized curriculum was that water is continually being recycled in the earth system. At the same time, they were studying materials from a water conservation organization that argued against wasting water. Students raised the logical question: How can water be wasted if the water cycle system is closed?

Rather than shutting down this inquiry, the teacher allowed students to explore their ideas. In the discussion, students drew on their own experience in the city in the Eastern U.S. where they lived, where water was readily available, and in Haiti, where water was in short supply. They engaged with issues about poverty, power structures, and the relationship between natural resources and human actions, both large and small. Students thus became more invested in understanding the science of water.

In the second example, students in a Midwestern city studied water by conducting field work at a local wetlands site. Rather than stopping after engaging in the common practice of collecting samples of water and biotic life, the teachers wanted students to develop a deeper feel for the river. They had students don hip-high water waders to walk out into the river. The students literally and intellectually immersed themselves in the water system. This experience, write Bangs and colleagues, opened students to care more deeply about the wetlands system they were studying and to consider its dynamics, including its history of being a river in an earlier age.

Theoretical Basis 

The authors’ work is informed by critical theory, an approach that includes queer theory, critical race theory, feminist theory, and others. In this paper, Bang and colleagues cite decolonizing perspectives (Aikenhead, 2009) and critical race theory notions of “settled” assumptions (Harris, 1995).

Critical theory challenges the ways in which “received wisdom” or canonical knowledge hides how power structures influence the ways we understand the world. A classic example is Donna Haraway’s (1984) analysis of early dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History. The dioramas were constructed to represent animal social groups as being male-dominated, even when, as in the case of elephant groups, this was not true. The science depicted in these dioramas was skewed by the assumptions and representations made by a male-privileged Western culture.

Critical theory unpacks such assumptions in order to gain new insights into the way the world works.

Implications for Practice 

The authors argue that to expand intellectual engagement and broaden participation in science, educators must first of all reject deficit-driven assumptions about students and communities. Such assumptions can easily lead to dismissing alternative ideas and shutting down intellectual inquiry. Second, Bang and colleagues argue that educators need to deeply respect students’ abilities to make sense of the world. Third, they argue for a need to construct science learning experiences that expand students’ opportunities to “desettle” key scientific issues and engage their own understanding.


Aikenhead, G. (1996). Science education: Border crossing into the subculture of science. Studies in Science Education, 27, 1–52.

Haraway, D. (1984) Teddy bear patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908–1936. Social Text, 11, 20–64. Retrieved from

Harris, C.I. (1995). Whiteness as property. In K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, and K. Thomas (Eds.), Critical Race Theory(pp.276-291). New York: New Press.