Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teacher's Lab
A Private Universe ProjectWhat are Your Ideas?
IntroductionIn Class Activities
 

 
 

About the Section
Where did these questions come from?
Why should teachers answer the questions?
Why should students answer the questions?
Why are private theories so hard to change?
What can teachers do to overcome student misconceptions?

Where did these questions come from?

These questions were taken from a longer survey created by educational researchers working on Project STAR at Harvard University. The researchers interviewed hundreds of children and adults over years and discovered that, regardless of age or training in astronomy, people held misconceptions concerning fundamental astronomy concepts. These concepts included the cause of the moon phases and the distance between Earth and the Moon.

In the interviews, the researchers noticed that some "private theories" were particularly common. For example, a large number of people believed that it is hotter in the summer because Earth is closer to the Sun. For each question presented in this Lab, the possible answers listed are either the correct response or a popular misconception.

Why should teachers answer the questions?

As demonstrated in the Private Universe video series, none of us are immune to having misconceptions--not even graduates and faculty of an elite university. In fact, the researchers found that elementary, middle, and high school science teachers also held astronomy misconceptions no matter what their formal training in astronomy was or how many years of astronomy teaching they had experienced.

Many science teachers may be reluctant to answer the questions because they fear how others will judge them if their responses are incorrect. Other teachers may feel that they don't know enough astronomy to answer the questions correctly. Still others may believe that they know astronomy and don't hold any misconceptions. But only by answering the questions can teachers become aware of their private theories, put them into words, and then take the steps to correct them.

Why should students answer the questions?

For two important reasons. First, students need to be aware of their own private theories before they can adopt the scientific explanations. Second, teachers need to know exactly what ideas their students are holding before the science lesson begins. Once students' private theories are known, teachers can select in-class activities that are designed to confront and supplant these misconceptions. For these reasons, teachers might consider using the use the student survey with their students.

Why are private theories so hard to change?

As long as our private theories provide us with sufficient explanations for the things we observe, we hold on to them tenaciously. Only when we are convinced that our private theories are leading us to draw the wrong conclusions or to make inaccurate predictions do we consider abandoning them. This also explains why misconceptions are often so difficult to change by traditional (lecture-based) instruction. Simply telling a student the "right answer" isn't enough.

What can teachers do to overcome student misconceptions?

Once a teacher has identified the private theories of her students, she can more effectively select and use in-class activities, lessons, curriculum, assessment, and other tools that have been designed to disabuse students of misconceptions and to infuse their thinking with scientific understanding.

Find out ways to begin correcting student misconceptions in the In-Class Activities section.

 
 

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