Conceptualizing Misconceptions

Although my posting this week has been delayed slightly beyond the target date, I have spent some time thinking on Heather and the responses of the randomly selected students and faculty at Harvard. Although some of Heather’s explanations seems quite “out there” i.e. orbit of the Earth and definition of indirect rays from the sun, I realized that no long ago I would have fit in with the twenty-three incorrect Harvard respondents quite comfortably. I can attest that the only reason I have an understanding of the reason for seasons, moon phases and sun ray activity is because I have homeschooled my own children through the elementary school grades. When teaching them about the seasons and moon phases, an orange with a skewer stuck through it, a ping pong ball and a lamp were brought out to physically model how the sun’s light strikes the earth during its yearly orbit, and the moon during its monthly phases. In Heather’s experience, it would seem that no such modelling experience had been a part of her learning. Surprisingly, even when the science teacher presented learning with a model, the sun didn’t seem to contain a light source, so students didn’t get to physically see the light shining on various sections of the earth and moon spheres. The other day I asked my grade eight daughter, whom I am presently homeschooling, to explain the seasons, the moon phases and the difference between indirect and direct light. She confidently did so, accurately without any prompting. All of these concepts were explored during her mid-elementary home learning years, so I find it intriguing that they have stayed with her – we must have done something right!

The article that I chose to explore this past week is entitled “Children’s Ideas About Weather: A Review of the Literature” (Henriques, 2002) from Social Science and Mathematics. This article reviews literature and studies connected to student misconceptions on topics of weather mainly on the water cycle, properties of water, movement of air, climates versus weather and the greenhouse effect. The Appendices include charts with topics related to weather and scientist perspectives aside student perspectives and potentials reasons for student misconceptions. One of the key purposes of the review is to provide teachers with a comprehensive list of common misconceptions in order to help them plan effectively in how to present their instruction. As well, individualized assessment of student understanding, or lack of understanding, is critical as supported by Driver, Guesne and Tiberghien (1985) – a call for teachers to take into consideration the prior knowledge of students when planning concepts, experience and presentations to include within their lessons. Relating back to Heather, one of her large misconceptions was her figure eight version of the earth’s orbit around the sun. When probed, she said that she must have confused a diagram from another textbook with the diagram of the earth’s orbit. Similarly, in Henriques review, diagrams of the water cycle showing the ocean as the sole source from where water evaporates seemingly led students to believe that water only evaporates from oceans and not from any other water bodies or sources of water i.e. plants on earth. These examples related to misconceptions emphasize the importance of accuracy in visual representations for young students. This is an area in which digital technology can help students visually see or design representations of science concepts through videos and interactive websites.

To close, a comment worth considering that Henriques offers is that often what is considered a “misconception” can actually be an incomplete or limited conception, or simply unknown information (2002). Again, individual assessment and further probing is necessary in order to define what is known and what is unknown, and to help guide future learning. This, I believe, is a key aspect in effective education in all areas, yet is often neglected due to time demands and assumptions. As educators, there is room for improvement.

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: http://learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=9

Henriques, L.  (2002, May). Children’s misconceptions about weather: A review of the literature. Social Science and Mathematics, 102 (5), 202-214.

2 comments

  1. Hi Jessica,

    Your home school example was a good one for us to see (and the follow-up questions) posed to your pupil, who is now in grade 8. Your careful comparison of the role of visual representations in fostering partial or incorrect conceptions leads one to wonder in what ways can children’s drawings contribute to understanding in math and science and our assessment of what they know? Thank you, Samia

    “Relating back to Heather, one of her large misconceptions was her figure eight version of the earth’s orbit around the sun. When probed, she said that she must have confused a diagram from another textbook with the diagram of the earth’s orbits. Similarly, in Henriques review, diagrams of the water cycle showing the ocean as the sole source from where water evaporates seemingly led students to believe that water only evaporates from oceans and not from any other water bodies or sources of water i.e. plants on earth. These examples related to misconceptions emphasize the importance of accuracy in visual representations for young students. This is an area in which digital technology can help students visually see or design representations of science concepts through videos and interactive websites.”

  2. HI Jessica and Samia,
    The idea of diagrams and representations demonstrating understanding or misconceptions. I found it interesting in the video case of Strawberry Hill School, that the one set of girls doing the sound scape of the category five hurricane really had no understanding of their misconceptions that they had drawn a funnel tornado rather than a hurricane. While they spoke about the classifying of a hurricane into categories and they understood the eye being calm, the diagram itself was an inaccurate representation. I wonder if I had not watched the video with Heather and the Harvard Grads if I would have picked up on the incongruity.
    Catherine

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