Confronting Myths & Misconceptions

by Joanna Fineran

It is very apparent that students hold on to myths and misconceptions in many different areas of academic study, but it is probably most prevalent in the study of science. The study of science is complex; at times, fluid and active, the instruction of science changes and evolves. This may be the cause for many of my own scientific misconceptions. In the majority of my academic career, the method of instruction for science was to teach the facts out of a textbook. There was one correct way to view a concept or to solve something. According to Diana Rice in her article, “Elementary classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse; strategies for teaching science to engage more of our students are essential” (Rice p. 22). In my own science education experience, there was no gathering of students’ prior knowledge or the evaluation of previous misconceptions. We were left on our own to bounce what we were learning off of our own thoughts and ideas. Bruce Watson and Richard Kopnicek in their article, address that this is still a common practice in many classrooms across the states, observing “science is skill taught as a cohesive set of facts to be absorbed” (Watson p. 682).

The realization of my own misconception came to light when we discussed the causes of the phases of the moon in class. During this lesson, I confidentially shared my belief that phases of the moon were caused by the Earth’s shadow being cast on the moon by the sun. Even after completing a very thought-provoking activity consisting of a flashlight, a Styrofoam ball representing the moon, and myself representing the earth, I still struggled with understanding that the Earth does not cast shadows on the moon (even though I could visually see that it did not). The evidence was right in front of me, yet the concept remained convoluted and unattainable. Today, I can tell you that the phases of the moon are not caused by the Earth’s shadow, however, I cannot confidently tell you why there are different phases of the moon. As an educator, I would hate to leave a child at this precipice.

As a pre-service teacher, I have learned that there are steps that we as educators can take to help students confront their misconceptions. I use the term “help” because we are not able to change a child’s misconception for them. The best thing we can do is to provide meaningful interactions with a specific concept, in order to allow them the chance to struggle and be challenged with what they believe to be the truth. According to Watson and Kopnicek, “If each child is given a chance to test his or her own model of the universe and find its limits, then a deeper under-standing, without the naïve conceptions, can result” (Watson p. 681). According to Patrick Brown and Sandra Abell, in their article, an individual must have three to four meaningful experiences with a new concept before committing it to long-term memory (Brown p. 58). The danger of moving on too fast is that we move on before the concept is concrete in the child’s mind. The child will not have a firm understanding, and the concept will remain questionable. This goes back to my own misconception regarding the moon. Would I have a better understanding of the causes of the phases of the moon if I had more meaningful experiences with the concept?
Before we can even begin to address these misconceptions, we first have to know what they are. Upon beginning a lesson, we must first gather students’ prior knowledge and misconceptions. According to Wynne Harlan in her textbook, the starting point of advanced learning has to be a student’s own idea, not the scientific one (Harlen p. 57). Several methods of collecting a student’s background knowledge include: concept maps, open-ended questioning, interviews, and pictures. Harlen goes on to warn of the danger of not confronting a child’s misconception, stating that “even though (their) own idea satisfies them at the present time, they will not be adequate for supporting understanding as their experience of the world expands” (Harlen p. 60).

Teachers are faced with several challenges in allowing inquiry-based investigation into a student’s misconception. They must use their professional judgment regarding when to share information and when to let children figure things out for themselves. Concerned with addressing students’ misconceptions teachers must be willing to commit instruction time toward allowing students to be challenged with concepts. Educators also must be willing to accept the realization that they will not be able to address or overturn every student’s misconception.
As found in other subjects, knowledge is retained with meaningful learning, teaching for understanding, concrete experiences, establishing connections, and periodically reviewing key ideas. As educators, we must be willing to make a commitment to provide opportunities that set up our students for success, not just while they are in our classroom, but throughout their lives. In reflecting back over my own misconception regarding the moon, and as a pre-service teacher, I worry over the truth to a statement made by Rice, “Many assume that misconceptions such as these are easily corrected as children mature, have more life experiences, and take science courses in middle and high school. Research suggests that this is not always the case. We often retain our misconceptions even in the face of evidence to the contrary” (Rice, p. 21). As teachers, we cannot base our teaching goals on the possible future education that our students may receive. We have the responsibility to begin to build the foundation for their education by teaching them the skills that will serve them best in their academic career and in their lives after school.


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