Forum: Teachers Lab

Topic: How do students develop scientific misconceptions?

Topic Posted by: Linda W. Braun (lbraun@leonline.com )
Date Posted: Sat Jan 30 7:45:01 US/Eastern 1999
Topic Description: How do you think students develop scientific misconceptions? What are ways you know to help students overcome these?

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Posted by: Ruth Tekell (rtekell@scientist.com )
Date posted: Tue Aug 6 14:15:02 2002
Subject: How to foster a misconception, etc.
Message:
First check out this website:
http://www.learner.org/teacherslab/pup/question2.phtml?who=9 --the website for A Private Universe Project - "What are your ideas."

The survey asks you five questions and gives you the "correct" answers. One of the questions is "which of the following responses most closely explains why it is hotter in New York in June than it is in December?" Answer choices are:


A. The Sun gives off more heat energy in June.
B. Earth is closer to the Sun in June.
C. The Northern Hemisphere is closer to the Sun in June.
D. The Sun is higher in the sky and and provides more hours of daylight in June.

If you chose "C" you'd be right, at least according to my college astronomy book. But you'd be wrong according to "The Private Universe Project." The correct answer according to them is "D." The REASON that the sun is higher in the sky is that the Northern Hemisphere is closer to the Sun. So if you teach a child that D is the correct answer, and that C is incorrect, it seems to imply that THE SUN IS MOVING. If C is incorrect, how else could its location in the sky have moved? Also, when you offer such an answer as D, you have probably settled the issue for the child, at least for the time being. So he or she may not try to find out why the sun seems to move. How unfortunate.

In my opinion, the correct way to go about teaching the concept of seasons, is to start with the earth's orbit around the sun and it's tilt. Then ask, "how do these things affect the earth?" You start at the beginning, conceptually, not somewhere in the middle.

No one knows exactly how or certainly why the primordial soup eventually came together to form atoms, but we do know that it did and we know what happened next. Why not start with the first, most fundamental thing we know, rather than the last, most complex things we know?

I've noticed the same kind of mistake in approaching biology and chemistry. Students don't seem to have a grasp of the particulate nature of matter and yet they are introduced to plant biology and processes that involve starches, carbohydrates, CO2, O2, without even realizing that all mass is made up of things that are very small, that the fundamental building blocks of all of creation have mass and are too small to see.

Why do we teach biology, then chemistry, then physics? It happened in the reverse order; why not teach it in that order? Instead of bombarding our children with thousands of counter-intuitive facts and expecting them to piece it all together in a meaningful way, why not give them a half a dozen or so counter-intuitive facts that would explain all the rest of science and MAKE IT INTUITIVE?

Well, I believe I can tell you why. And the reason I can tell you is that I have taught physics labs for years at the college level and 95% of my students were future teachers. In general, these student were absolutely phobic about physics concepts. They had usually put off taking the class until their last semester because it was the most dreaded of all their classes. And it doesn't even require College Algebra.

We need to get past this somehow because we are producing generation after generation of adults who are not interested in and are incapable of critical thought, who cannot distinguish between a good argument--a logical one, and an illogical one, who are destined to be victims in a society that takes advantage of this weakness. We are scrambling the brains of all but the most gifted children by teaching them science in the worst possible way.

I'm 46, I've been an educator at the college level, a writer, and above all, a scientist. I'd like to be an educator at the k-12 level, but I won't do it until the education system supports a more logical approach to science education.

rtekell@scientist.com


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