Helping you explore how science works with post-16 students

Lesson C: Continental drift

Key facts

  • Relevance: AS/A sciences and geography
  • Time: 60 minutes

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The history behind the eventual acceptance of continental drift by the scientific community provides a vivid example of the way theories in science have developed.

The aim of this teaching task is to illustrate for students the complex relationship between evidence and ideas, and to counteract the common assumption that theories simply emerge from data.

In the case described here an idea that had been around for some years, without attracting strong support from scientists, was picked up again in the 1950s to explain newly emerging oceanographic data. 


The lesson aims to help students develop their understanding of the role of theoretical models in science. New evidence may be interpreted in the light of competing models, but one model can quickly dominate if the evidence becomes overwhelming.


This lesson consists of three activities.

Activity C1

The teacher presents, with the aid of notes and OHTs, the historical background of the continental drift debate.

Activity C2

Students take part in a ‘mini conference’ to discuss the evidence surrounding continental drift. This mirrors the very real debate that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Each small group has briefing notes and an OHT about one piece of evidence from which to prepare a short presentation. 

Activity C3

The class considers possible reasons for the length of time it took for continental drift theories to be universally accepted.