Conceptual Challenges in Astronomy

As seen in this week’s video, “A Private Universe,” scientific concepts in astronomy can be difficult for students to grasp, as seen in the case of Heather, a very bright student in Boston.  Students have their own explanations for phenomena they have observed, and it is often the job of the science teacher to correct misconceptions.  To do this, teachers must first have a knowledge of a student’s current understanding.  This fits well with the idea of constructivism, as discussed by Catherine Fosnot.

Fosnot discusses two ‘giants’ in the field of constructivism.  There is Piaget with his concept of cognitive equilibration – the balancing of assimilation (the organization of experience with one’s own logical structures or understandings) and accommodation (comprised of reflective, integrative behavior that serves to change one’s own self and explicate the object in order for us to function with cognitive equilibrium in relation to it) (Fosnot, 1996. p. 13).  There is Vygotsky, who proposed a “Zone of Proximal Development.”  He argued that scientific concepts do not come to the learner in a ready-made form. They undergo substantial development, depending on the existing level of the child’s ability to comprehend the adult’s model (Fosnot, 1996. p. 18).  Fosnot describes constructivism as using misconceptions to create disequilibrium, which facilitates learning (Fosnot, 1996. P. 29).

The workings of our universe are a mystery for many learners, as shown again by Vosniadou and Brewer in 1992.  “[M]any children said that the earth is round but also stated that it has an end or edge from which people could fall. A great deal of this apparent inconsistency could be explained by assuming that the children used, in a consistent fashion, a mental model of the earth other than the spherical earth model” (Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992).

Heather’s struggle (and her teacher’s!) was familiar to me.  In Grade 4 Science, as part of the “Light and Shadow” unit, I try to show students every year how the position of the moon in relation to the sun and the earth gives us the phases of the moon.  I usually have students up holding the globe, a styrofoam ball and a big lamp.  I think I have been somewhat successful in getting this concept across, but there are often interesting misconceptions that come up during class discussion.

So… Can technology help?  In 2010, Sun, Lin and Wang made a VR model of the sun and moon for elementary children, and found that students with access to the 3-D model achieved significantly better grades that students receiving traditional instruction.  I would love to try this with my own students!



Fosnot, Catherine. Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice. Teachers College Press, 2013 Chapter 2: Constructivism: A Psychological theory of learning

Sun, KT., Lin, CL. & Wang, SM. Int J of Sci and Math Educ (2010) 8: 689. doi:10.1007/s10763-009-9181-z

VOD “A Private Universe”.

Vosniadou, S., & Brewer, W. F. (1992). Mental models of the earth: A study of conceptual change in childhood. Cognitive psychology, 24(4), 535-585.


  1. Hi Laurie,

    I loved that you brought in virtual reality to the discussion because this is something that I am so intrigued about. The only real experience I’ve had was trying out a Samsung VR headset in the Dubai airport. I sat in a 4D chair with the headset over my eyes. I had the option to choose from a variety of ‘experiences’. I chose a rollercoaster and later surfing. The VR headset was absolutely amazing and truly let me feel as though I was experiencing those events live. I felt all the emotions I would as if I was actually going slowly up the massive hill on a rollercoaster before it’s big decent. VR in the classroom, and even further AR (Augmented Reality) would certainly be an amazing tool to have in the classroom. I heard about the Microsoft Hololens a few semesters ago in another ETEC course. I’ve attached the link to a quick live demonstration on what it is capable and when you think of using it in the classroom, the possibilities are endless! Check it out!

    1. I would love to play with that! The problem tech in general is that there are some very neat and expensive toys out there. The possibilities are indeed endless!

  2. I remember being made aware of my own misconceptions regarding seasons during teacher education, and even when corrected my belief in distance having an impact was still strong enough for me to design activities around what impact distance does have on temperature variation.

    Upon reflection, I would certainly regret teaching students incorrectly due to my own misunderstandings, but I wonder how much of what I presently teach (that I believe I know) is correct or not? Fortunately I appreciate the self-corrective nature of Science, as well as the spiral curriculum through grade school, so learners continually experience new knowledge in context of existing understanding, to examine assumptions and critically learn collaboratively.


    1. I remember my first year teaching high school math. I had not enjoyed learning math myself, and only took it in university because I needed it for my science degree. When I actually had to teach it, I had more than a few “ah ha!” moments as I figured stuff out one step ahead of the students, and sometimes later than I should have… ! I remember one humbling experience in particular, where I adamantly explained something in trigonometry completely wrong, only to have a 15-year old very politely put up her hand to explain why I didn’t make any sense. Whoops!

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