Apr 05

3 Misconceptions in Primary Science

3 Misconceptions in Primary Science

Taking time at the beginning of a science unit to allow students to share or document how they understand and relate to a topic is an opportunity for educators to see and hear how their students are making sense of the world. It brings to light the foundational thinking with which students will be building their scientific knowledge.

A child’s conception of phenomena demonstrates how they connect all the information they have encountered via various sources, such as sensory experience, expert testimony, etc. It also demonstrates how hard they are working to make sense of all this input. It’s by working with children’s conceptions – right or wrong – that a teacher can best support the continued evolution of their thinking.

A child’s initial understandings offer a starting point for the kind of extended knowledge building among peers that broadens and refines perspectives. As they encounter the ideas of other members of the learning community, children begin to see their own ideas from the outside – through the eyes of others – which can trigger assessment and rethinking of their original hypothesis or belief.

Some simple misconceptions can be addressed by facing students with explicit examples of counter-evidence. But many, if not most, ideas about the world can’t easily be verified or confirmed through ordinary sensory experience. If you think of science as the uncovering of hidden connections, which I think is a reasonable way to think about it, it makes sense that a lot of scientific knowledge is going to lie beyond what we can see.

For example, the spherical nature of the Earth is something that kids have to take on faith for a long time. They’ve been shown to develop hybrid theories to reconcile what they experience – that the earth is flat – with what they are told or shown in photos – that the Earth is round1. Many kids, when probed beyond their initial drawing of a round planet, turn out to believe that the earth is similar to a hollow sphere, like a pumpkin, and that we live inside that sphere on flat ground, which is also why we don’t fall off the edge.

Such ideas can take time and effort to expose, because when asked about the shape of the earth, children generally respond with the culturally acceptable knowledge that it is spherical. As these more complex models are uncovered, it becomes apparent that they are founded on more fundamental beliefs (e.g. that things are as they appear and that gravity operates in an up-and-down fashion). Educators must then seek out ways to help students understand different visual and tactile perspectives.

For example, students will need help coming to the realization that our size relative to the size of the Earth makes us experience the curvature as flat. Making sense of such extreme differences in scale is not a simple task. Children also need to understand gravity as a force that pulls objects toward each other, and the concepts of up and down as relative to where you stand. These are sophisticated concepts that require not only knowledge but also considerable spatial imagination and visual perspective-taking to grasp, so it is understandably going to take time for a child’s thinking to shift in a way that truly remains.

An educator will need to find a variety of approaches, such as analogical reasoning, to help the child build mental models that are closer to the established scientific view of how things work. It is important to be cautious when using analogies, though, because it can lead to new misconceptions, such as the belief that gravity is a kind of magnetism.

If the aim is to get the child to replace a misconception with a correct conception in a lesson or two, an educator is probably doomed to frustration, because kids are pretty good at parroting back what we tell them. They are also quick to revert to their original beliefs or fail to appropriately apply the “improved” concept in a new context.

The 3 misconceptions

1. Soil’s sole purpose is to hold plants in place

Grade 1 Teacher Raadiyah Nazeem shares how she and her students begin to understand the relationship between plants and soil.

2. Plants source energy solely from the sun

Grade 2 Teacher David Osorio shows how he challenges his students ideas about plant energy by growing wheatgrass inside a dark cupboard.

3. Plants don’t move

Grade 3 Teacher Mike Martins explains that children’s knowledge about animals can influence their ideas about the characteristics and behaviour of plants. 

An educator should first determine what it is that kids are really thinking (or help kids figure out what it is that they’re really thinking) and then try to understand where those ideas are coming from and what other beliefs they are connected to. Only then are they in a position to consider how to help a child confront the limitations of their own theory – a theory that has probably served them perfectly well in navigating everyday life as a physical being in a physical world.

Thank you to the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School and its teachers for welcoming us into classrooms to learn about exemplary practices for teaching math and science.

1 Vosniadou, S. & Brewer, W.F. (1992). Mental models of the earth: A study of conceptual change in childhood. Cognitive Psychology, 24, 535-585.

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