A Private Universe

The video this week, “A Private Universe,” pointed out something I have seen a lot over the years as a teacher and an administrator: what we perceive as basic concepts as teachers are not necessarily basic. It is something that needs to be addressed through better teaching practice (clearly established and communicated goals of each lesson, diagnostic, and formative testing). For any student, assuming prior knowledge is dangerous but Heather’s case is somewhat different. Her theories are based on her own efforts to construct knowledge and the theories themselves show an active mind wanting to learn. Her theories were incorrect but this is due mainly to the fact that her teachers did not have an accurate picture of what she previously knew. This speaks to Catherine Fosnot’s understanding of constructivism (2013).

In his book, “the pupil as scientist” R. Driver (1983) accurately explains Piaget’s concept of dissonance and how it relates to learning. I would argue that Heather concept of the astronomy was never challenged and no dissonance occurred, making it impossible for assimilation to occur. He in class learning did not build on her knowledge but rather had little impact because it didn’t address the misconceived notions she had already constructed.

Heather’s struggle resonates with me because I have gone through many similar experiences as a student in school. When one lacks the basic understanding or has a misconception this leads to an inability to reinforce factual conceptions because they do not match (Chi, 2015). Other misconceptions can occur from a teacher’s own misunderstanding of the material that can confuse the student (Burgoon, Heddle, Duran, 2011). As we saw in the video very prevalent myths survive in the minds of students and it was truly fascinating seeing the well-accomplished science grads at the beginning of the video so consistently get “basic” information wrong. In this case, the explanation is so prevalent in society it shouldn’t surprise most to think that High School students would not know this but the video itself shows just how these gaps in knowledge can be sustained over time and theories much more advanced and complicated can be understood and explained. It speaks to the fact that teachers can have a lasting effect that is not always positive.

As an educator, an important motto I live by is that one must know where a student is to be able to help to get them to where they need to be. Certainly, we are doing a better job of this than in the past but a firm commitment must be made to be meet students where they are rather than where we assume they should be.

Burgoon, J.N., Heddle, M.L., Duran, E. (2011). Re-examining the similarities between teacher and student conceptions about physical science. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 22(2), 101-114.

Chi, M. T. (2005). Commonsense conceptions of emergent processes: Why some misconceptions are robust. The journal of the learning sciences, 14(2), 161-199.

Driver, D. (1983) The pupil as scientist? Milton Keynes: Open University Press

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


  1. Thanks for sharing the resonance with your own experience. I remember the readings pointing out that one response students lean towards in that situation (however unconscious) is to hold formal knowledge apart from intuitive understanding. That is, somehow because what is being presented does not fit with pre-existing beliefs, these two knowledge bases remain discrete. How can we help students understand that they are one and the same?


  2. Hey Ryan. Interesting perspective and personal anecdote. I agree that we need to spend more time finding out what the students know about a topic–their vocabulary, beliefs, and the context in which it lives. Really, there just needs to be more time to learn things in general. Somehow, I have found through the years that teachers feel a push to “get through the curriculum” that leaves little if any time for pre-exploration. The misdirection of early e-learning to “accelerate and make more efficient” our learning hasn’t helped that either. British Columbia is in the middle of a curriculum change that might address that by focusing on project based learning and reducing the number of required topics and replacing it with a series of “options”. What is it like in Thailand?

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