Addressing misconceptions

My upper elementary students have had very little formal science instruction. I’m finding that they have a lot of “knowledge” that consists of misconceptions, half-truths, and opinions. I’m looking for suggestions on how to deal with these misconceptions.  –P., Minnesota

Along with their notebooks and pencils, students often bring misconceptions to science class. It’s hard to tell how students get these muddled ideas: from their friends, parents, cultural superstitions, television, movies, or other sources. Perhaps they hear only part of an explanation and invent the rest.

If learning involves building on our current understanding, then finding out what students know, don’t know, or think they know is important at the start of a unit. A written pretest might help, but students may have memorized some facts or definitions without really understanding a concept.

I recommend Page Keeley’s series of books Uncovering Student Ideas in Science. The “probes” in these books are brief activities that help identify students’ preconceptions or misconceptions about a topic. For each probe there is a summary of the topic, a detailed description of what can be learned from the students’ responses, teaching suggestions, and a list of resources on the topic. These probes are in the form of questions or activities that could also serve as engaging activities (or “hooks”) at the beginning of a unit. There are several volumes in the series, each with 25+ probes covering a wide variety of topics. (If you would like to preview what these probes look like, NSTA’s Science & Children publishes one in each issue.)

Simply asking students to discuss or write about what they know can be eye-opening, too. I would ask my seventh graders to make a quick list of 10 animals. Without looking at their lists, I predicted that most, if not all, of the animals would be vertebrates, and most of those would be mammals. (My students assumed I had ESP!) When we debriefed on why so many mammals, their immediate response was the misconception that mammals were the most common kind of animal. When we looked up that fact, they were shocked to see there are hundreds of thousands of species of invertebrates. We then had a lively discussion of why we overlook invertebrates in our culture, as an introduction to the unit.

Simply telling students their ideas are wrong won’t help them learn the correct ones.

For example, even though students may recognize that the earth’s axis is tilted, they may not see the connection between this tilt, the seasons, and the length of daylight time we have. They may cling to the misconception that the Earth is closer to the sun in the summer.

From Misconceptions to Conceptual Change” in the April 2011 issue of The Science Teacher (TST)  provides insights into how students develop misconceptions and how teachers can help students change their thinking. The sentence that stood out for me was “…the brain files new data by making connections to existing information. If this new information does not fit the learner’s established pattern of thinking, it is refashioned to fit the existing pattern.” So misconceptions can actually become stronger and more resistant to change, if all we do is present the correct facts. Some common misconceptions include “the scientific method” (implying that all scientists use a single problem-solving strategy) and the idea that all hypotheses become theories and all theories eventually become laws. The authors include a list of other misconceptions and strategies for overcoming them.

So what can a teacher do to help students connect new information that corrects rather than reinforces misconceptions? “Active Learning Strategies: The Top 10” in the same issue of TST has some suggestions.  None of the strategies requires special materials or hours of professional development (e.g., using discrepant events to awaken curiosity, using concept maps, writing to learn). One that stood out for me was “demystify diagrams.” Some diagrams, while trying to explain or summarize information, actually contribute to misconceptions for students. Every year, I had to contend with the misconception that the blood in our veins is blue. Textbooks often show diagrams of the circulatory system with the veins colored blue. Another strategy is using vocabulary correctly (e.g., a hypothesis is not an educated guess).

It may take a while for students to have their ‘aha’ moments, but it is exciting to see the light bulbs go off in their heads!

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