Unlearning Preconceived Ideas: Addressing Alternate Conceptions in the Biology Classroom

I’m sure we are all familiar with the ideas that human blood is blue in the veins, or humans evolved from apes. These are known scientific facts, right? Actually, I, and my fellow aspiring science teachers, are here to tell you that those two widely accepted scientific ideas are WRONG! It is one of the most important jobs of a science teacher to address alternate conceptions of ideas that are thought to be scientific fact. In this blog post, I am going to outline three different ways that we can do this in our science classrooms!

from google: https://evolution.berkeley.edu/misconceps/IIBcrisis.shtml

Before debunking scientific myths, which the part that we are all waiting for, I am first going to explain a littler bit more about misconceptions and how we can respectfully “debunk” them in our classroom in an informed way. Students may acquire different misconceptions about scientific facts due to lack of exposure to the content, upbringing, or influence from peers. Regardless of how students might have learned false information, it is our job as a science teacher to help them ‘unlearn’ it in an informed manner, while still respecting their original acquisition of information.

Biology Debunking: 3 different classroom approaches

Approach 1: Human Evolution

Some of the more common misconceptions that students have have to do with the evolution unit. We can start this unit by first addressing common misconceptions by asking students what they know about evolution before even learning the unit. Depending on their upbringing and different influences, students may have differing opinions on evolution; this is important to keep in mind while bringing up this topic and debunking misconceptions on this topic. Ensure that you are being respectful when correcting the original thoughts of studnets.

  • Misconception Addressed: Humans have evolved from apes
  • Misconception ‘Debunked’: Humans have common ancestors with Apes that have evolved over time into the separate species of apes and humans

A great way to debunk this misconception early is to show students this youtube video before getting into notes on the unit:

Approach 2: Natural Selection

  • Misconception: Natural Selection involves organisms trying to adapt
  • Misconception ‘Debunked’: Natural selection leads to animals adapting to their environment due to mutations and inheritance, not the animals trying to change their features.

This myth can be debunked by introducing the topic of Natural Selection and asking the students to form groups to describe the process of natural selection. Chances are, before learning about what exactly it is, they will have an answer that suggests that organisms can change within their life time. Have all your students share their answers and debate about which is the correct process. Finally, after they have debated, reveal the TRUE process of natural selection and how it works. Most of the time, the answer will surprise the students!

Approach 3: Cell Structure

  • Misconception: The structure of our cells in the body is depicted by the animal cell diagram from textbooks.
  • Misconception ‘Debunked’: All cells in the human body are specialized to perform a certain task. Not all cells will have all the same organelles and structures that the general “animal cell” diagram will in the textbook.

We can debunk this myth after introducing students to the cell structure lesson. You can ask them to draw a picture of a cell that we could find in the human brain. Chances are that most students will draw a picture of the animal cell diagram that they learned in the introduction to the unit. After they share their drawings, you should pull up a picture of a neuron cell from the brain and the students should be surprised by the look of it. This can lead to the lesson about cell differentiation and specialization. This graphic would be helpful when debunking this particular alternate conception of cell structure:

I hope that these “debunking” approaches will be helpful in the high school Biology classroom! It is an important job of the science teacher to help students to unlearn some of their preconceived notions that are actually FALSE in the world of science!


  1. Hey Lauren! This was a really good post! I especially liked how you picked out three biology misconceptions and described exactly how to help students get over those misconceptions. However, do you have a plan for when a student(s) has a deeply held misconception that maybe you weren’t prepared for like you are with these three?

    • Hey Tommy! Thanks so much for replying to my post! I think I would definitely try to approach a misconception that I am unfamiliar with with an open mind. I would tell my student that we are going to get to the bottom of this misconception together, and ensure that I do it in a respectful way!

  2. Lauren,
    I loved your blog post and I loved reading about your misconceptions and the “debunking myths.” I think this goes to show how important language is and the way we phrase various phenomenon. I also liked your idea of incorporating that video at the beginning of the unit…I think that an MTV strategy would pair well with that to really cue you in on student thinking. Do you think a specific MTV strategy would work best?

    • Hi Riley! Thank you so much for replying to my post! I think that the MTV strategy “I used to think, now I think” is a powerful activity to do in the classroom when addressing misconceptions!

  3. Lauren, Awesome blog post! 🙂 I really liked how you begin your approach on addressing misconceptions before they are even stated. Your example with the unit on Human Evolution is great where you ask what students’ current knowledge is on the topic prior to teaching it. This clears the path to a great lesson. How would you address this specific lesson (Human Evolution) in regards to respecting a student’s religion? (ex. Christian belief of Adam and Eve)

  4. Lauren, oh my goodness what a great post! I love how you discussed debunking science misconceptions in your future classroom with three different real-world examples. I love that you included multiple different approaches to addressing the misconceptions. Each way provides students a means to engage with their learning and opportunities to create new ideas about these topics. My only question would be, how would you introduce to the students the ideas that they may possibly have some misconceptions about the topic? Overall, amazing post!

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