Think about the last time someone changed your mind about something. It could be anything: where to go to eat, what movie to watch, your opinion of another person, or how you eat a threeway (don’t twirl your fork). Was it easy? Did you hear the alternative and immediately switch how you thought about something? Probably not. Why is that? Well, according to cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, humans are conditioned to believe that a few basic things:
- I know more than the guy next to me
- I want the guy next to me to like me
These two foundations of social order helped us survive and thrive… as hunter-gathers. Today, they pose a great threat to logical reasoning, and this no more evident than in addressing misconceptions inside of the science classroom.
Students come to our classrooms with a wealth of knowledge. However, some of this is wrought with misconceptions-but don’t fear- we can use these to our advantage.
1. You don’t know what you don’t know
Start off with a pretest! It’s impossible to address misconceptions without knowing what they are first. Probing for student understanding before introducing a topic gives you time to prepare lessons that effectively correct these alternative conceptions.
When it comes time to introduce the new content, get PHIG(y) with it!
- Plausible: the new content should be consistent with other knowledge and available evidence. Present the material in a way that can be reasonably accepted, even if not fully retained at first glance.
- High Quality: while scientific theories are of the highest quality in terms of the interpretation of the data, that doesn’t mean that it is the same for our students. The data should also be of the highest quality from a student perspective, its got to matter to them!
- Intelligible: the introduction of a topic needs to be within reach of our students’ abilities. This can be difficult to do, especially for the abstract, try using analogies, models, or direct exposures to introduce new content
- Generative: don’t pigeon hole the content. Science is an interconnected discipline, we should always contextualize the new content and show how it can apply in new and familiar situations.
3. This ain’t a one-man show
It takes multiple exposures for students to fully grasp a concept. The same is true for changing misconceptions. We need to present students with multiple examples of anomalous data, using the 5E learning cycle is the perfect way to present multiple exposures that give students the opportunity to assimilate new knowledge.
4. Practice makes perfect
Once students have begun to incorporate their new knowledge they need ample opportunity to use and apply it. Have students engage in argumentation, defending what they have learned against what they used to know helps cement the content and place it in direct opposition to their prior misconceptions.
5. Respect student culture
Some topics in science can stand at odds with religious and cultural beliefs, and in these cases, students may be unwilling to waiver in these beliefs. I think as a teacher there are a few steps to take:
- Acknowledge the student’s beliefs and validate their feelings.
- Recognize that there are other ways that people explain the world and their place in it.
- Clarify that in the science classroom, we base our understanding of the natural world on collected evidence using the scientific method.
- Ask that students respect what we discuss in class as a community of scientists, the same way that you have shown respect towards their cultural beliefs.