Misconceptions welcomed

  • 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.
  • Alessio Bernardelli explores the opportunities provided by tackling misconceptions in all subjects.
  • This article was originally published in the September 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine.

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 a 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?

  1. a) Anthony Hopkins
  2. b) Brad Pitt
  3. c) Harrison Ford
  4. 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.

Derek Muller (@veritasium) is an Australian who did the coolest Ph.D. ever and it is all about this idea of exposing misconceptions before we can get any science in people’s perceptions of our world. Veritasium (bit.ly/uked14sep02) was the name of choice when Derek created his highly successful YouTube channel. In this video (bit.ly/uked14sep03) he poses some serious questions about the effectiveness of explanatory video tutorials that just do that, i.e. explain a concept eloquently. Derek’s findings seem to suggest that watching a well crafted video that explains a scientific concept reinforces pupils’ misconceptions rather than challenging them, but when the misconceptions are presented first, and Veritasium usually does that by interviewing members of the public, the audience is forced to concentrate more and challenge their own understanding of the concepts talked about by other people and eventually by the presenter showing the correct explanation. If you have never watched a video by Veritasium, you should certainly have a go with your students and perhaps even give them the task to make similar videos by asking their friends and family to explain the science they are learning at school on camera before the topic is started in class. (Article continues below…)

These types of videos and approaches, in general, are very effective in helping learners challenge their own misconceptions and in leading them to a better understanding of science, but I believe an even more radical step could be taken to develop communication and scientific skills in our learners. I would propose we welcome misconceptions in our classrooms to an even greater degree and that we mix them with real science. This would really make pupils think in order to make sense of what they are observing. So far, Veritasium videos, Stuart Naylor’s Concept Cartoons, etc, have worked on the formula “We give you some incorrect explanations and the correct explanation. You decide which is the best one by carefully listening/reading and observing.” But what if we had different people talking about a scientific phenomenon and each one of them said something right and something that is a misconception? Wouldn’t learners need to concentrate even more to sift the right science from the misconceptions? Wouldn’t they need to work even closer as a group to come up with a correct explanation? And most importantly, wouldn’t they need to carefully test every claim to decide what part of each person’s statements work and what does not?

I recommend you to try it with your students and observe the results. Using this method with a group of Year 5 learners, I got explanations that far exceeded in accuracy and relevant use of scientific terminology those of a group of high achieving Year 11 students on the same demonstration without using this technique.

So, misconceptions are part of the job for a science teachers, but use them to your advantage and not as something to keep at a distance.

Click Here to read this article in full free in the September 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine

Alessio Bernardelli is a multiple award winning teacher of Physics. He is the co-founder of collaborated.org.uk and also works as a consultant for the Institute of Physics in the roles of Network Coordinator, Teaching and Learning Coach, and Editor of Talkphysics.org. Alessio was Head of KS3 Science for over 5 years and he also worked with NGfL Cymru as a Field Development Officer and with TES as the Science Subject Lead. You can follow Alessio on Twitter as @asober or @Collaborat_ed.

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