On being correct, correct-ish, or not even close

In the movie, “A Private Universe”, Heather, a highly competent student as described by her teacher, begins her interview with confidence, but very soon, that confidence begins to waver and the misconceptions start to reveal themselves.  One key issue with Heather’s understanding, dealt with the orbital pathway of the Earth as it rounds the Sun. What was remarkable to me was how she began to question her initial concept, once asked where her incorrect ideation stemmed from. Heather’s realization that she had seen a similar shape in a very different context and had erroneously applied it to the Earth’s pathway, clearly helped her process the correct information.  From an information processing perspective, learners need to relate new information to previously learned information, via elaboration.  The elaborative process also generates more pathways towards information that is held in our Long-Term Memory (Orey, 2001). As Heather’s misconception exemplifies, however, sometimes our memory retrieval process leads us down some hazy pathways that result in misconceptions being “hard wired” into our brains.

Vosniadou & Brewer (1992)

Although in Heather’s situation, her conceptual challenge originated from a misinterpreting a textbook’s image, the Piagetian view that we all form our knowledge from life experiences is widely accepted as truth. Vosniadou and Brewer (1992) undertook the challenge of examining children’s mental models of the Earth. They concluded that children’s scientific views are consistent, although often, incorrect.  82% of the sixty children created models of the Earth that fell into one of only five common alternative models (see image); 38% used three dimensional, spherical-style models; and although the oldest children had the most correct models, they also had the most variation in models. The authors concluded that in order for children to circumnavigate their presuppositions, an alternative explanatory framework must exist that allows them to challenge their existing knowledge.

Math learning is ideally a combination of individuals coordinating and constructing their own knowledge and having their learning be situated within a sociocultural context (Cobb, 1994). One way to foster these Vygotskian learning conditions is the implementation of self-generated analogies.  These are analogies, which aim to ground the student’s learning within their pre-existing, core intuition.  In their study, Haglurd and Jeppsson worked with preservice physics teachers, hoping to learn if self-generated analogies would improve their understanding of entropy. They concluded that generating multiple analogies as a group helped with their understanding but that the students failed to analyze the concept macroscopically, hence missing key concepts. When scaffolded guidance was provided, however, their idiosyncratic ideas were prevented from escalating into full-blown misconceptions.

Without question, these readings have emphasized the importance providing multiple and varied opportunities for misconceptions to rise to the surface. For students like myself, who were hesitant to ask for clarification during or after class, unchallenged misconceptions can easily be entrenched. Watching Heather be challenged, validates a couple of approaches that I do when I tutor students. I like to ask students to show me their notes, before I go into an explanation and if they say something that is incorrect, I always try and think why they have retrieved erroneous information.  Students will mix concepts together, so I like to show them where they got their misconception from, in the hopes to have them create a better pathway to that information in the future.  I also like to show them that they are not completely wrong— they have learned something, even if they link the concepts together incorrectly!

Going forward, I am very keen to create a physics-based, self-generated analogy assignment.  Utilizing Google Classroom as a conduit, students could create a digital version of their analogy (stop motion or real time video, Powtoon, animation…).  Leading up to the final product, however, it would be imperative to discuss and weed out any pre-existing misconceptions: bring on the guided scaffolding!

Cobb, P. (1994). Where is the mind? Constructivist and sociocultural perspectives on mathematical development. Educational Researcher, 23(7), 13-20. doi:10.3102/0013189X023007013

Haglund, J., & Jeppsson, F.(2014). Confronting conceptual challenges in thermodynamics by use of self-generated analogies. Science & Education, 23(7), 1505-1529. doi:10.1007/s11191-013-9630-5

Orey, M. (2001). Information Processing. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/

Vosniadou, S., & Brewer, W. F. (1992). Mental models of the earth: A study of conceptual change in childhood. Cognitive Psychology, 24(4), 535-585. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(92)90018-W


  1. Hi Dana,

    I liked how you shared your insight on tutoring students as you’re right on about the multiple opportunities for misconceptions to become apparent! Perhaps it’s just a different way a question is phrased. Or if students are told to explain it in their own words. To me, it speaks to the way knowledge is acquired by students. For instance, a lecture or textbook based type of lesson may have different results than a inquiry or problem-based learning method. These are all areas worth exploring!

    1. Hi Gloria, Thanks for your reply! I think you have brought up a really great point: opportunities that allow students to explain in their own words is key. Getting students to actually speak, however, is sometimes a challenge! One thing that I have regretted not repeating, has spending more time on “ice breakers” in my class. I know that when I feel more comfortable within a group, I am noticeably more vocal, at least! ~Dana

  2. Thank you Dana for reviewing the Vosniadou paper and your richly referenced and supported post. Her work represents research on children and is a seminal paper. I’m glad it has been taken up for this discussion and the illustration of the various models of 82% of the children shared from the paper. The aquarium model of the earth is particularly interesting and represents a hybrid: round earth with a flat earth. I recently taught a kindergarten/grade one class astronomy and used Stella Vosniadou’s work as the basis for my lessons and probes on student conceptions. Her questions in the research are particular interesting ways to probe children’s understanding in a classroom alongside the drawing and playdough models activities she used in her study. I shall attach several of the childrens’ alternative conceptions of the earth by way of drawings from my lesson with 5-6 year olds in my next post. Samia

    1. Hi Samia,
      I look forward to seeing those images! I very much enjoyed the Vosniadou read and it made me really think about what is actually going on in my physics students’ brains. In high school physics, much of it is very “plug and chug”– plug your variables into an equation, chug out the answer. It is very possible to have no clue about the principles of physics in a purely plug and chug format. I think this is where Eric Mazur of Peer Instruction fame, has much to share with misconceptions. I am confident that a Peer Instruction approach could be adopted at any level. Here is an introduction to the Peer Instruction process, should anyone be interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Xp65EpJMm8 The very first step that I put into this Powtoon could easily be skipped, just to see what kids were thinking, without having had any instruction. In the meantime, my intent is to ask my own kids similar questions that Vosniadou and Brewer did— I have talked about gravity here and there, but not to any significant extent. I am quite eager to see which model they have assimilated into their young minds! ~Dana

Leave a Reply

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