Making Sense of Misconceptions in the Science Classroom

Confronting Flaws in Knowledge

Think about the last time you thought something was true for a very long time and how it was to find out that the “fact” you thought was legitimate, just wasn’t. I imagine the feelings you had were mixed with shock, possibly denial, confusion, and eventually acceptance of the new correct way of thinking.

If you are teaching science, especially, you probably have had (or can expect to have) moments when your students are confronted by information that contradicts their current ways of thinking. Depending on how long they have held these prior conceptions, it could be really difficult for both the teacher and the student to reconcile with this incorrect way of thinking.

Transforming Misconceptions into Chances for Growth

However, teachers can actually transform the misconceptions held by your students into moments of growth. Teachers have the power to take gaps or even flaws in knowledge to probe students’ thinking and create chances to take your classroom to the margins–an area of unknown growth and exploration.

Rather than simply correcting your students’ wrong ideas ideas, strive to figure out more about what exactly your students think and why they may think that way. This action of initially trying to “dig deeper” may actually open up new doors and better enable you as a teacher to reconcile these conceptions with your students and grow together.

It is also important to remember that just because a student possesses a particular scientific misconception, it does not necessarily mean that they have had bad teachers before or been exposed to blatantly wrong science content. As science teachers, we need to support each other and recognize the differences in each of our students’ experiences.

Theory on Misconceptions

According to the principles of assimilation and accommodation, we know that people modify incoming information to better fit their current mental schema or have to change their mental schema all together. Misconceptions can occur, by this logic, when a student struggles to reconcile with new information and incorrectly assigns it to a mental category or adjusts the input all together.

Additionally per the theory of constructivism, people are influenced by their prior knowledge and past experiences so much that it impacts how knowledge is learned and interwoven into our minds. In other words, learning and acquired knowledge is largely a human experience that changes from person to person because no two people have all the same perspectives. When teachers recognize the unique differences that students have in their knowledge bases and strive to figure out what they think and why they think it, we may be able to better help them reconcile with these gaps in knowledge.

Some Ideas for Debunking Misconceptions in the Science Classroom

  1. Provide students with HANDS-ON opportunities to explore science in more real and tangible ways
  2. Encourage students that having misconceptions is a normal and important part of the learning experience.
  3. Be supportive to students who are struggling to change their ways of thinking when they learn something is not correct–especially if they have thought this way for a long time.

Ultimately, it is so critical for science teachers, particularly, to aim to help students breakdown misconceptions for the overarching goal of creating an increasingly scientifically literate and educated society.

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