Confronting misconceptions

In A Private Universe, students and faculty are asked to explain their reasoning for various scientific concepts. Heather is identified by her science teacher as being the student who she would expect to “give a better explanation than the other kids could.” Despite the assumption that Heather has all the correct answers, when prompted, Heather’s prior knowledge and exposure to the scientific concepts from external sources creates for her several misconceptions about the rotations of the Earth, the phases of the moon and the properties of light in space. With further provocation and physical tools, Heather is able to readjust her hidden misunderstandings to match the scientific concepts more accurately. Her confrontation of her misconceptions prompt her to find new, true meanings within the concepts.

Further on, however, Heather is still unable to let go of her private theories regarding light, despite a one-on-one lesson. Rosalind Driver (1985) address this refusal of change as part of the private theories being stable. While students may learn new concepts, they are not a blank slate. They may, therefore, ignore counter-evidence towards their perceived theory or alter their theory to fit the new information, rather than refute a construct they have built up in their minds previously (Driver, 1985).

This is something I have witnessed within the classroom as an educator. Students have been introduced to the word “hacking” and many of them have had different experiences related to this. While attempting to teach a lesson on coding, as a way of giving instructions to produce a result, a student raised his hand and asked if coding was like hacking? This drove us to have a meaningful conversation around internet safety, however, by the end of the lesson I could tell that there were still a few confused faces when being confronted with the word “hacking”.  It wasn’t until the students engaged in meaningful activities around coding that they were able to correct their misunderstandings about coding and hacking being similar (Shapiro, 1988). Through a study conducted on university students, active learning was found to be the most effective in solidifying conceptual understandings in STEM related fields, regardless of class size or the particular STEM discipline (Freeman et al., 2014). Therefore, meaningful engagement and active learning with the concepts being studied may be the best way to help students overcome misconceptions and challenge their private theories.

When it comes to technology, having students engage with the material themselves may create a more solid understanding than a PowerPoint or video. Students can be challenged to prove their private theories by creating tutorial videos or explanatory animations where they need to interact with both the concepts and the technology to make a concept “make-sense” for someone other than themselves. Not only will this aid in further instruction by knowing where they might be coming from with their prior knowledge, but it will also clarify for themselves areas that lack a complete understanding.


Driver, R. Guesne, E. & Tiberghien, A. (1985). Children’s ideas and the learning of science. Children’s ideas in science, 1-9.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(23), 8410-8415.

Shapiro, B. L. (1988). What children bring to light: Towards understanding what the primary school science learner is trying to do. Developments and dilemmas in science education, 96-120.

Schneps, Matthew. (1989). A Private Universe: Misconceptions That Block Learning. Retrieved from:


  1. As someone who has coded before in the past, I definitely agree with you that hands on experience is the way to go. A lot of the joy that comes from coding is the result of spending a lot of time working out bugs, fixing things, and having the final result be something that you have worked hard to create.

  2. Hi Jocelynn,

    I agree with you that having students be creators of content as opposed to just consumers can help to create meaningful learning. Constructivism creates such lasting learning that I wish I could take that approach for all lessons in my classes. From my experience, more time is required to have students go through the process of inquiry and in many cases, teaching students the rules is much easier (factoring polynomials for example). I also really liked you example of having students create their own tutorial videos – a real depth of knowledge is required if you are to effectively speak on a topic.


  3. Hi Jocelynn,

    Thank you for your post and your classroom example. I absolutely believe that having students actively construct their knowledge is powerful. I only have to look to how I (and many of my other colleagues) have to get “hands-on” when asked to delve into coding. We look for ways to tie new knowledge into previous knowledge. It is very important for teachers to have these experiences with the material so that we can relate to what many of our students are going through, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the concepts.

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