In our science classroom, we must understand where our students are in order to progress into where they can be. Students will come into each of our classes with a variety of prior knowledge from previous teachers of past experiences. This is the ideal situation. Yet, we all know that unfortunately, students are also greatly informed from another set of teachers. I’ll call them Ms. Conceptions, Miss Understandings, Ms. Beliefs, and Miss Takes.
So, how do we respond to misconceptions in the classroom in a way that encourages positive change and not a doubling-down of students in their erroneous beliefs. Furthermore, how do we teach our students how to address misconceptions in their own lives, far beyond the realm of our science course?
In this blog, I hope to provide a framework for dealing with this pesky topic, as well as specific examples from the biology classroom to illustrate my points.
Step 1: Identify the Source
Before even beginning to try to correct a misconception, it’s very important for the students to understand where the misconception stems from in the first place. Is it a result of an overly simplistic past explanation, or maybe it comes from the media or a student’s upbringing.
For example, there is a huge misconception that all cells look like the one portrayed in any science textbook: an ovular blob chock full of every type of organelle.
In the real world, however, cells do not look like this, but instead are specialized for different bodily functions. A muscle cell looks and acts completely different than a neuron, which is completely different than a skin cell.
Another popular misconception is that scientific theories are just guesses without a lot of evidence. This stems from the general societal use of the word “theory” to often mean a half-brained explanation with little evidence to substantiate it.
The video below explains how scientific theories are completely unlike that; instead, they are comprehensive explanations for scientific phenomena with huge bodies of evidence to support them.
In order to help students identify the source, ask them questions about where they heard these ideas or what influenced them to have these ideas. Remember that at this point, we should emphasize students’ thinking rather than the correct explanation.
It might also help in this stage for teachers to bring in some outside materials, like tabloids, social media posts, or commercials to show students how these misconceptions can often arise through these modes of communication.
Step 2: Provide Alternative Explanations
In this step, the teacher’s role is simply to provide students with other possibilities than the one that they currently maintain. This is not the place for students to be told that they are wrong, as the correct explanation might not have any credibility for them quite yet.
This can be a great place for a teacher to introduce a “controversial” science topic. These topics, like climate change or evolution, may not actually be contested by the grand majority of scientists, yet the public’s lack of knowledge can still lead to controversy.
For helpful tips and a framework for introducing controversial topics, check out this blog!
At this point, students have the information about the evidence-based, scientifically-supported explanation, but may not believe it for themselves. This also might be where students start to dig in their heels with regards to a misconception they might firmly believe.
That is why in the next step, the student takes on new agency to investigate whether there is support for the claims that you have made in this step.
Step 3: Allow for Student Discovery
If students have deeply entrenched misconceptions, no amount of lecturing or PowerPoint presentations will change their minds. The best shot we have as teachers it to give the students the tools to dispel their own alternate conceptions. And the best way to do that is through student-driven inquiry.
Inquiry allows for students to ask their own questions in response to a misconception and come to their own conclusions. If done right, inquiry changes the argument from the teacher’s words against their ideas, to their own data against their ideas. This is a much more compelling case.
To address the misconception that cells all look like the classic textbook picture, you could have each student go home and find something, whether that be a hair, a leaf, or a saliva sample, to analyze the next day in class. Then, students can look at the samples they brought in under a microscope to hopefully realize the diversity of cell types.
It might also be helpful to have your own slides prepared of cell types that students may not be able to collect themselves, like blood cells or muscle cells.
There are many commonly held misconceptions in the field of genetics. Some students believe that only one parent is responsible for each trait, instead of both parents providing information for each trait. Others believe that our traits are just a blending of our parents traits.
A way to encourage students to dispel these beliefs is to conduct their own analysis of their parents and siblings physical characteristics in order to see if any of their misconceptions hold true. For students that may not have one or both parents in the picture, this can also be done by looking up celebrities and their kids and performing the same analysis.
A third common misconception is that blood in your veins is blue while blood in the arteries is red. This can be addressed more simply, by just asking students to recall a time when they had to give blood, or showing a video like the one below (make sure to warn students that might get squeamish around blood).
This video directly displays that blood is red, even when taken out of a vein, and it can be a very helpful tool to address this misconception.
Step 4: Reflect on Changed Mindset
After any sort of scientific discovery or inquiry process, it’s important for the student (and teacher) to reflect on what exactly happened. Reflection gives the student time to create valuable connections between her current situation and others she has been in. It also (when metacognition is included) helps her to see how her own thinking has changed as a result of the process.
Check out this Edutopia blog that examines the importance of reflection and details how to implement it into the classroom.
When this reflection process is done well, it can help students find other areas where they might be believing something without evidence. When students understand this process, they can apply it tot other situations, with the end goal of creating a more scientifically literate generation.
That’s all for n0w!
Catch you later!