Misconceptions are an integral element of learning, with many myths and fabrications evident in society today! Challenging misconceptions at all levels of education is critical, as Alessio Bernardelli explore in this article, which was published in the September 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine.
Science is undoubtedly a subject where misconceptions are a common feature that crawls into every classroom. The misuse of scientific language in our everyday life certainly helps them to put even deeper roots into learners’ minds. A common example is the use we all make of kilograms to refer to weight in our everyday life. I have to admit that, even though I am a Physicist, I would somewhat feel awkward to tell my doctor “My mass is 80 kg”, so I sadly compromise too and often say “I weigh 80 kg” (in my dreams by the way, but I am not going to reveal my real mass to the readers).
So the majority of our pupils arrive into our science lessons loaded with misconceptions about science and their parents are often just as bad, if not worse. A friend of mine, who will remain nameless, once told me that she thought shooting stars were actual stars falling across the sky. I couldn’t resist and told her that this only happens in Toyland. But is it so bad to have misconceptions? Is it so bad to let learners talk about science in their own words and through their own misconceptions?
I would argue that without misconceptions there would be no learning. This is to say that if a science teacher is not aware of what misconceptions their learners have they are similar to a blind man trying to cross the road. This is one of the reasons why many science teachers who mark exam papers find the process so valuable, as they get to see what misconceptions a very large number of children have.
But knowing what misconceptions pupils may have in general is different from knowing what misconceptions the learners in our classes have. It is very important to probe the grounds and find as much detail as possible about the misconceptions in our children. So, even simple questions like, “Explain how the bulb lights up when the switch is closed,” provide a wealth of information about how much learners really know and understand about scientific processes.
The above question is an example of what is often referred to as a diagnostic question and going through the learners’ responses would give real insight into their understanding. But, apart from taking considerable time to go through a load of open ended responses, there is also the risk that some learners might not want to write too much and they end up leaving some details that could be important because they want to finish the task earlier, or they might miss some points because they simply don’t know how to express the concept in writing. Another type of diagnostic questioning can come in the form of multiple choice questions and it could save you a lot of time, because you can map the learners’ responses very quickly, especially if you use tools like socrative.com
It is vital, however, that the choices come from real misconceptions and that the correct answer is not too obvious, like the typical multiple choice questions TV channels ask when they promise the chance to win a massive prize if you answer the following:
What actor plays Indiana Jones?
- a) Anthony Hopkins
- b) Brad Pitt
- c) Harrison Ford
- d) Sean Connery
Unless real misconceptions feature in our multiple choices, these types of questions are useless. The example of the tennis ball hits a number of possible misconceptions about a ball moving over the net (right), one of them being that children often think you need a force in the direction of movement for an object to keep moving in that direction. After all, this is quite reasonable to assume, as in our world things eventually stop when a force is no longer exerted due to frictional forces.
Taking time to establish the baseline from where our learners start can pay great dividends in the long term and exposing misconceptions can be an effective way to achieve that. Have you worked out which image best describes the forces on the ball yet? If in doubt ask a Physicist!
It is all very good finding out about the misconceptions our learners have, but the real challenge is how to demolish those misconceptions and help students generate better models and explanations in their pool of skills and understanding.
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