Children, Science, and Conceptual Challenges

In theory, the idea that we do not ‘assume’ until we have all required information appears a relatively straight-forward concept; however, as the video and articles this week have shown, in reality this concept is far from straight-forward.  What struck me most in this week’s materials was the point that if students do not share their misconceptions with us, we may never realize they have misconceptions, and as was clearly shown in “A Private Universe” (1987), students may go through their entire educational careers without realizing, understanding, or correcting the misconceptions they have held since childhood.  As Heather’s teacher, Marlene LaBossiere, points out, “You just assume that they know certain things…I just assumed that they had the basic ideas, and they don’t” (“A Private Universe”, 1987, time stamp: 8:55).  Driver, Guesne and Tiberghien (1985) draw attention to the fact that children approach science with ideas and interpretations despite not having received instruction.  Similarly, Henriques (2000) states that “…students enter the classroom with their own understandings of the world…often at odds with the scientifically accepted view of the world” (p. 1).  In addition to these points, once we receive instruction, we all assimilate information differently depending on our prior knowledge and experiences (Driver, Guesne, & Tiberghien, 1985).

Many difficulties related to misconceptions arise for educators, among them: how do we identify students’ misconceptions (especially when each child has their own “private” misconceptions) and where have students’ misconceptions originated from?  Misconceptions can originate from textbooks, classroom experiences, and personal experiences (A Private Universe, 1987), as well as physical activities, communications with others, and through media sources (Driver, Guesne, & Tiberghien, 1985, p. 2).  In addition to these, in her paper, “Children’s misconceptions about weather: A review of the literature” Laura Henriques (2000) discusses the fact that “students tend to develop their own models to explain phase changes” (p.4) which coincides with Heather’s explanation strategies in “A Private Universe” (1987) as she attempted to explain her thinking through drawings and manipulatives.

The misconception I examined more closed was related to phase changes of water and the variety of misconceptions students have around changes in state.  For example, rather than understanding how condensation is formed on a container, children may believe the water has “seeped through” or “sweated through” the container; that “coldness comes through the container and produces water”; or that “condensation is when air turns into a liquid” (Henriques, 2000, p.5).  Henriques suggests that these misconceptions may be based in the following: “language used is confusing – we talk about glasses “sweating” and humans sweat liquids from the inside.  It is difficult for students to think about invisible water in the air which condenses onto a surface” (p. 5-6).

Today, there are a variety of sources available to help educators dispel misconceptions about topics in science.  Digital technology allows for more interactive, engaging and motivating learning experiences in today’s classrooms.  Tools such as interactive websites or SMART technologies (i.e., SMARTboards, tablets, iPads, etc.) have the potential to add to interactive experiences for students, potentially helping to correct misconceptions through this interactive approach.  I remember being in a SET-BC sponsored workshop about eight years ago where we were shown a virtual lab on how to dissect a frog.  I found the virtual lab so interesting, and the experience made enough of an impact on me that I remember it above anything else we were shown that day.  I do not recall the exact site, but I did check online and found that McGraw Hill Higher Education does have a Virtual Lab site that has a “Virtual Frog Dissection” just to show an example (  In today’s classrooms, in addition to more traditional printed materials, we are privileged to have access to videos, interactive games, simulations and virtual labs which have the potential to increase student understanding on a more basic level, as well as foster a deeper understanding for students who are willing to accept the challenge.

*On a side note, I found Laura Henriques’s paper provided a number of interesting misconceptions students had regarding various aspects of science/earth science (if you are interested in viewing it, here is the link:

Driver, R., Guesne, E., & Tiberghien, A.  (1985).  Children’s ideas and the learning of science.  Children’s Ideas in Science (pp. 1-9).  Milton Keynes [Buckinghamshire]; Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Producer).  (1987).  A Private Universe [online video].  Retrieved 6 January, 2017, from:

Henriques, L.  (2000, April).  Children’s misconceptions about weather: A review of the literature.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching, New Orleans, LA.  Retrieved 7 January, 2017, from:


  1. Hi Mary,
    I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful post. It started me thinking about what a different world we live and teach in than twenty years ago. We all understand that technology has changed the lives of everyone, but even more so the children who have grown up in its midst. We understand that these children think and learn differently (even if our education system hasn’t caught on to this yet) but what really became apparent to me this week (as we discussed misconceptions) was how easily and believably today’s students could inherit these misconceptions. Children have grown up with tech and media at their finger tips, yet often without the filter to understand what is “real” and what has been “faked”. Imagine Heather from ” A Private Universe” (1987) and her misconceptions that she attributed to something she saw in a text book before or wasn’t sure where she learned it. Fast forward Heather to a young student in 2017 and she says “oh I learned it on this space site… see here it is”. On further investigation we see that the site Heather used as her learning tool was incorrect and possible incorrect on purpose ( a hoax). Will we have a harder time proving to Heather she has misconceptions if she can see a model of the earth rotating around the sun showing why we have seasons. Would she ever stop to investigate the axis of the earth option? On top of all the other things we can do with technology, I believe one of our first jobs is to help students understand that not everything they see in the digital world is real.

    1. Hi Catherine,

      Thank you for your response! Your point about what students learn today from the digital world is so incredibly important! I think about all of the information that can be found online and the fact that even a site that looks legitimate may not be, or a site may intend to present correct science facts, but the site producer may actually have their own misconceptions which could lead to incorrect information being shared. So many variables when we look at the seemingly unlimited world of digital technology! The greatest difficulty for many is likely in the fact that it is often difficult to determine which sites will provide accurate information. Certain sites, like NASA will provide correct information, but may not provide the specific information the student is looking for. Other sites may provide the information, but are at too high a reading or comprehension level, especially for students at an elementary school level. In addition to this, as you point out, it may become even harder for us to dispel misconceptions if it means that we must disprove information that students originally found on what they believed was a valid “science” or “space” site. Along with the amazing opportunities provided by virtual labs, interactive games/sites, videos, and so on that we can access to encourage enjoyment of and success in science, comes the persuasive misinformation students will be exposed to at one point or another throughout their lives (I would argue it is not an “if” but a “when”) due to digital technologies.

  2. This is a great article to select. The Henriques article focuses on a student (mis)/alternative conception. She is a colleague of mine who has written about children’s misconceptions on weather and its related processes. Your elaboration on the condensation example is a fascinating one. I have had my own students suggest that cans of pop are sweating when taken from the fridge and left on the counter and that there are cold and hot particles when explaining evaporation. Both are reasonable student explanations and as you underscore, the challenge for us in part, is to probe. This post was enriched with quotations and the student example was illustrative of what we might encounter in our classrooms. Thank you Mary, Samia

    1. Thank you for your response, Dr. Khan. I really appreciate your input as I was quite nervous to begin this course without a strong background in math or science. It has been great to read the articles and peers’ responses, and begin reflecting on my own misconceptions as well as how to better identify and approach the misconceptions of my students!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *