My Mum & Misconceptions

My mum is an exceptional woman. An occupational therapist for most of her career, she was inspired by some voluntary bereavement counselling she did for a few years and then retrained as a psychotherapist in her 50s, completed a degree, and then a Masters, and worked very successfully with all sorts of people struggling with an extraordinary range of life disasters. Not bumping into a client arriving or leaving our house, or going to the loo, was a family stipulation.

Synchronicity is the idea that events, which are not causally connected but occur close together in time, might be something more than a random coincidence. Humans are pre-programmed to look for patterns, even where there are none – better to think there’s a tiger in the grass when there isn’t, than to think it’s just random flickering and get your head bitten off. This explains why someone as intelligent as Jung, and many, many others since, even those as exceptional as my mum, have been sucked in to thinking synchronicity might be a thing.

This last Friday, misconceptions cropped up three times. It was part of the training I ran on assessment in science; it was a suggested focus for the next local Heads of Science meeting; and there was this tweet from @TeamScienceEdu .


Synchronicity, or a random coincidence? According to Shtulman and Valcarcel (2012), my naïve pattern spotting is probably going to tell me it’s not a coincidence, no matter how hard I work on over-writing that tendency. This seems to be the first thing to bear in mind about misconceptions. We don’t replace them with correct science theory, we just suppress them. They still get in the way, but we can see past them. Any science teacher who has, for the 100th time, sighed as they correct an erroneous reference to weight, will not be surprised.

Secondly, how important is knowledge of children’s misconceptions to science teachers? Sadler and Sonnert (2016) present evidence that it’s very important; children taught by science teachers with better knowledge about misconceptions were more likely to answer questions correctly where those misconceptions might have led them astray.

How should we teach areas of science prone to misconceptions? One option is to just teach the correct science slowly and carefully, perhaps checking for, and correcting, misconceptions as they arise. However, there is certainly some evidence in favour of explicitly drawing attention to misconceptions as part of the teaching process.

The Concept Cartoons developed by Naylor and Keogh (1996) and the CASE project developed by Shayer, Adey and Yates (Adey 1999) have a very constructivist flavour and are based on the Piagetian theory that, when presented with evidence in conflict with existing schema, children will experience disequilibrium and modify their schema to accommodate the new evidence. If Shtulman and colleagues are correct then this isn’t exactly what happens but, although the earlier claims for CASE do not appear to be replicable, plenty of teachers have found the Concept Cartoons and ideas from CASE to be productive in addressing misconceptions.

concept cartoon

A more direct approach to misconceptions is also an option. A review of research on refutation text by Guzzetti (2000), suggests that reading material that raises misconceptions directly before offering the correct science, is more effective than the correct science on its own. In his excellent book on teaching physics, @BenRogersEdu has taken this a step further with children writing refutation texts from a sentence starter:

Many people believe that when you touch a metal doorknob, coldness moves from the metal into your hand. However, cold does not move. Scientists would say…

Derek Mueller – producer of the Veritasium videos – completed a PhD comparing the effectiveness of videos that only presented the correct science compared to videos that presented the common misconception first and then corrected it. To save reading the whole PhD he has made a video summary, but the outcome was that the videos with the misconceptions were more effective.

So, I don’t know whether we have a definitive answer, but it seems likely to me that knowing about, and then directly tackling misconceptions, but expecting them to re-assert themselves for a long time, is what science teachers should be thinking about. Whether you prefer a more constructivist discussion activity (perhaps initiated by a Concept Cartoon, quick practical, or other resource) or more direct instruction is, I think, probably a professional choice, but it seems unlikely some kind of whole-class interactive teaching won’t lie at the centre of whatever you do. How, though, do you know what misconceptions children will hold? Well, 15 years of weary experience is one option. However, if you want to circumvent some of that, then a lot has been written about misconceptions in science since the seminal work by Rosalind Driver and colleagues helped to establish the ways in which children’s views of the world differ from those of science.

The American Association for the advancement of Science have a curated list of misconceptions by topic, all linked to the relevant research. I think the diagnostic questions they present are poor but the list is great.

The Best Evidence in Science Teaching project at the University of York is starting to have a good set of resources. This time the question quality is excellent.

IoPSpark has a hefty list of misconceptions in physics pulled together as part of the PIPER project. There is also some good commentary on what you might do with this list.

The RSC have a set of quizzes for chemistry and the work by Kind (2004), also held on the RSC website, is useful.

Ben Rogers has recommended the questions from the MOSART project at Harvard College.

Finally, I’d recommend a blog from Nick Rose (co-author with David Didau of What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology), which was my starting point for reading more about this issue – you’ll see some of the links were originally his – and Jasper Green’s @sci_challenge blog is another source of inspiration.

Best wishes

4 thoughts on “My Mum & Misconceptions

  1. Hi thanks for this, it’s great! I was wondering if the same research principle – namely that you should teach the misconceptions in the first place – is transferable cross-subject, e.g. for my subject, English?

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