The Story of the Three Little Pigs & the Nature of Science (#1 of 2)

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Students will be able to describe and apply a mental model in order to correctly understand the nature of theories and supporting data, hypotheses, and laws.

Big Idea

Scientific theories are built from various supporting evidences and, like the Three Little Pigs' construction experience, some are like straw and stick, while the strongest are made of brick!

Learner Goals

Note: I recommend that you first check out this resource in order to get the most out of this lesson!

In high school I took several drafting classes and, for a while, I had hoped to become an architect. With respect to planning instruction and teaching, I feel that I can still live out the detailed approach to building something intricate and complex even though the product is a lesson rather than a certain "built environment".

The lesson-planning document that I uploaded to this section is a comprehensive overview of how I approach lesson planning. This template includes the "Big Three" aspects of the NGSS standards: Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, and Science Practices. Of course, there are many other worthy learning goals, skills, instructional strategies, and assessments that can be integrated into a class session. I don't feel compelled to check every box but, rather, use it as a guide to consider various options and tailor the lesson in light of these.

With regard to this particular lesson students will be able to:

  1. understand that scientific explanations (theories) must be logical, consistent, based on evidence, historical, and current scientific knowledge. (HS-LS-4-1)
  2. understand that scientific theories are open to investigation and, when new information requires, they can be modified.
  3. explain the relationship between data, hypotheses, theories, and laws.

I hope you get some value from my work!

Anticipatory Set ("Hook")

5 minutes

In broad terms, this lesson series is my attempt to dispel certain misconceptions that frequently swirl around the topic of evolution like smoke circulates the fire from which it emanates. In either case, the true nature of the main issue is likely to be obscured. It is no small or trivial matter therefore to address these challenges.  But if done thoughtfully and executed well a degree of clarity can be achieved before delving into the business of unpacking this topic more fully.

Teaching Challenge: How can I develop my students' ability to apply unifying ideas to make connections across science content?

Teaching Challenge: How do I support students to develop and use scientific models?

Teaching Challenge: How can I increase/improve my students' use of appropriate and precise science vocabulary?

1) Quick Write: “I can explain the relationship between data, hypotheses, theories, and laws.” Taking the next 5 minutes please use the index card provided in order to define or describe each underlined term and explain how they might be connected to each other.

2) Self-Assessment (Initial): Prompt students to evaluate how well they understand the Quick Write goal.

A: I am ABLE to do this        B: I am BEGINNING to get this        C: I still CAN’T do this

Instructional Input/Student Activities

45 minutes

According to the book Research-Based Strategies, author Ruby Payne, Ph.D. writes, "To translate the concrete to the abstract, the mind needs to hold the information in a mental model...that can be a two-dimensional visual representation, a story, a metaphor, or an analogy." (p. 57)

I posit that the reverse is also true; that the abstract can be illustrated in a concrete fashion. Dr. Payne further writes, "When mental models are directly taught, abstract information can be learned much more quickly and retained because the mind has a way to contain it or hold it." (ibid)

She then explains how (for example) a "blueprint is the translator between the (abstract) words used convey what the (concrete) finished house will be". So in light of these sage words, I plan to link the idea of house construction (concrete) to the formulation of scientific theories (abstract). The net effect of this is to give my students a tangible concept to evaluate the nature of theories and the relative strengths of past and present ones.

Teaching Challenge: How can I develop my students' ability to apply unifying ideas to make connections across science content? The unifying theme of theories spans across all disciplines. Moreover, the Theory of Natural Selection draws upon geology, biochemistry, paleontology, genetics, etc.

Teaching Challenge: How do I support students to develop and use scientific models? Likening an abstract concept (theory) to the concrete example of houses helps convey that houses, like theories, are built along a spectrum of structural integrity. 

Teaching Challenge: How can I increase/improve my students' use of appropriate and precise science vocabulary? Terms like hypothesis, data, theory, and law are too often misunderstood and misused in both casual and formal contexts. There are some science teachers who cannot properly distinguish among these so this is an opportune topic.

1) Story Time!

  • Solicit students to read the classic version of The Story of the Three Little Pigs to the class. Why this story in this instructional context? First, most students are familiar with this tale and it is quite the juxtaposition (the ideal non-sequitur) that it makes one pause and think "What is this guy thinking?" I make a big deal of this and require the storyteller to use different voices for the characters and be animated just as they would by reading to a younger audience! My student readers were on point! So enthusiastic and compelling. Whenever I can get out of the instructional spotlight I will do so; students will pay attention to their peers more fully than an "old" teacher; plus its fun to see variety. One student relayed to me that he regularly reads storybooks to his younger siblings and actually likes it.
  • With time and interest, you may choose to have the “revised” version told from the point-of-view of the Big Bad Wolf, titled The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieczka and Lane Smith. The idea of evidence and inference can be playfully explored in this alternate POV.

A pigs' paradise! No Big Bad Wolf and no construction work to do!

Photo credit:

2) Lecture and Discussion

  • Meaning of Story Metaphors: Discuss slide #8 of the Three Little Pigs Lecture and what students think the correlation might be between the TLP characters and science in general (and perhaps evolution in particular). Students posited that the three pigs were like a series of evolutionary advances from the least to most capable home building fraternal porker. Others likened the wolf to evidence and the pigs as different hypotheses or theories that were shown to be lacking in some fashion. My intended connection is that the houses represent theories of varying rigor and strength, the pigs are scientists of varying skill, and the wolf is reality or evidence. Over the long haul most "weaker" theories are exposed for their deficits and the strongest theories remain. Of course, just because a theory is "solid as brick" it doesn't mean that it is indestructible. Time will tell, Pig #3!
  • Complete (lecture) slides #11-19 with special emphasis on the four provided “brick” theories (what each explains, the background to its creation, strengths and weaknesses).

Closure: What did we learn? Where do we go from here?

5 minutes

Debrief: Provide these prompts to students and either randomly call on two or three or solicit student responses.

“Today I learned that __________.“

“One thing that surprised me was _________.”

“I still don’t understand _________.”


(Continue to Day #2...)