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Student Misconceptions: Where Do they Come from?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

We are all aware of the need to tap into students’ prior knowledge and understanding in order to be able to build on it during instruction. The trouble is that sometimes, that prior understanding can seriously impede learning. And when prior understanding of a particular concept is built around misconceptions, those misconceptions can prove incredibly stubborn.
Many of us are familiar with the interviews conducted with graduates of Harvard University some years ago; the result was that 21 out of 23 graduates revealed significant misconceptions when asked to explain the causes of either the seasons on earth or the phases of our moon.
This was true even of some students who had studied physics and planetary motion at undergraduate level. One student in particular who had studied physics, planetary motion, relativity and electromagnetism responded in this way: “OK. I think the seasons happen because as the Earth travels around the Sun, it gets nearer to the Sun, which produces warmer weather and gets farther away, which produces colder weather. And thus the seasons. (From the DVD “A Private Universe,” produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.)
So where do these misconceptions come from? And why are they so hard to get rid of? Recent research into conceptual change sheds some light on these questions. Stella Vosniadou and colleagues at the University of Athens have conducted extensive research in this area, and in a recent review of research they summarized the results of their own research and that of others.
What does this summary of research tell us about misconceptions?
Firstly, the research confirms what we probably all know intuitively, that initial misconceptions are based on observations of the world, which lead to incorrect beliefs. For example, young children observe that the ground appears to extend along the same plane in all directions. This leads them to believe that the earth is flat.
Despite the ubiquity of spherical representations of the earth around them, children rely on their observations of the way the world appears to them in constructing this belief. If that is the case, then it should be a simple matter to replace this incorrect belief with the correct one that the earth is actually a sphere then, right? Apparently not. The result of what happens to this particular misconception, when confronted by direct instruction with the fact that the earth is a sphere, is quite surprising.
Children’s conceptions of the earth do indeed change, but not always in the direction we might expect. The figure below shows some of the conceptions children form to deal with the new information. It seems that in this case, direct instruction that the earth is a sphere can actually lead to further misconceptions, rather than to a scientifically accurate model!
Vosniadou and her colleagues believe that this happens because the child’s initial view of the shape of the earth is not simply an isolated piece of knowledge. They believe it is embedded within a larger system of observations and beliefs, which connect to form the child’s naïve way of explaining the earth. They call this connected system a “framework,” though others might refer to it as a mental model. The connectedness of the knowledge within this mental model makes it difficult, if not impossible, to clarify the misconception by dealing with only one piece of the puzzle.
The following two lists show some of the connected beliefs that comprise children’s initial mental models of the earth (“Initial”), and subsequently their scientific equivalents (“Scientific”).
Initial vs. Scientific Frameworks of the Earth:
-Earth as a physical object
-Supported (by dirt and rocks)
-Up-down gravity
-Geocentric system
-Earth as an astronomical object (planet)
-Rotating around its axis; rotating around the Sun
-Gravity towards the center of the earth
-Heliocentric system
It seems that by dealing with only one of the beliefs that make up this connected system, we only manage to cause children to build the new information into their model in whatever way they can. Thus, for example, some children construct what Vosniadou has termed the “hollow sphere model.” This model takes account of the information that the earth is a sphere, but since the child still believes that gravity is up-down, rather than being towards the center of the earth, she or he hypothesizes an earth where we live on a flat surface in the center of the sphere. This allows us to continue standing upright.
Some children incorporate the information that the earth is a sphere into their existing framework in a different way. They believe that there is a flat earth, where we live, one they sometimes refer to with other terms such as “the ground,” and a separate earth somewhere out there in space which is a sphere (the “dual earth” model). A further possibility seems to be the “flattened sphere” model, which once again allows us to continue standing upright. These models are represented in the figure. Vosniadou calls models such as these, which are generated in response to instruction, “synthetic models.”
All of these synthetic models allow children to incorporate the new information about the spherical shape of the earth into their existing system of connected beliefs without having to change the related beliefs in the system.
So what do these results mean for our classrooms?
The shift from a naïve view of the earth as flat to the scientific model of the earth as a sphere appears to us, as adults, to be a simple correction of an incorrect piece of factual knowledge. We must remember, however, that the child’s conception has worked well for them. It has had great explanatory power in terms of their everyday experience and this has been possible because it has connected a set of beliefs based on the child’s everyday observations of how things appear to happen around them.
Simple ‘additive’ instruction is highly unlikely to shift such a stubborn misconception. We need to treat the child’s knowledge in a connected way, and the kind of instructional practices which will help us overcome this will include:
• Opportunities for students to make their systems of belief explicit, both to themselves and to us.
• Opportunities to be confronted with situations that their naïve mental model cannot explain, so that they must puzzle out (with our support) what needs to be changed in their model.
• Opportunities to construct, articulate and test new theories that account for more and more of the facts.
This, of course, is the core of quality inquiry-based instruction. It is also the foundation upon which our students will learn how to learn. If the results of the interview with students from Harvard quoted earlier are an indictment of some of the practices of schools and universities, then we need to examine which of our practices are not working.
Based on this research, it would seem that simple direct instruction, which relies on students ‘adding’ new information in a linear way, is not likely to be successful in situations involving deep and persistent misconceptions. This is not to say that direct instruction does not have its place, but it needs to be embedded in a larger framework of activities that allow students to participate in learning by:
• Becoming aware of their own understanding. And,
• Actively working through processes of inquiry, which allow them to construct deeper understanding.
If the goal of our instruction is deep understanding, this is often going to involve difficult conceptual change. This takes time, but the investment has a huge pay-off.
I will use an upcoming article to discuss particular strategies, which research has shown to be effective in helping students through this process of conceptual change. These include such strategies as the use of analogy, and the opportunity for students to engage in substantive conversation with peers and teachers.
The study
Vosniadou, S., Vamvakoussi, X., and Skopeliti, I. (2008). “The Framework Theory Approach to the Problem of Conceptual Change.” In Vosniadou, S. (Ed.) International Handbook of Research on Conceptual Change. New York: Routledge.

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