- Here I discussed why I often avoid talking about misconceptions
- Here I discussed how I think we often misconceive misconceptions
- Here I discussed a kind of classroom listening I call "misconceptions listening"
- It can draw attention to the relevance of prior knowledge for learning
- It can draw attention to the importance of conceptual knowledge in learning
- It can draw attention to the shortcoming of traditional instruction to promote conceptual understanding and take into account prior knowledge.
- It's promotes a deficit-view of learner, focused on what's wrong with students (e.g., students aren't just blank slates, they're worse than blank slates)
- It's anti-constructivist in its focus. It fails to drawing attention to the ideas that students do have that instructors should look for and try to build on.
- It often conflates student discourse, students' prior experiences, and students' conceptions. How we talk, think, and experience are connected, but they aren't the same.
Anyway, I thought I would spend another post rambling on about misconceptions:
First example: Misconceptions about the Seasons
A commonly described misconception is the one where students say that the earth is closer to the sun in the summer than it is in the winter. One way of explaining why students might say this is that people have an generalized notion of "closer means stronger", arsing from having had many experiences of being closer or farther from a variety of sources-- heat from a fire, sound from a speaker, smell from rotten food. We even get closer to people to feel their love.
If an instructor thinks that students have a "season's misconceptions", than the goal of instruction might be to rid the student of their misconception, or overcome it, or elicit it and confront it. However, if an instructor instead thinks the students' conception is the idea that "closer means stronger", than that instructor probably wouldn't think of trying to eradicate that idea. That idea seems like a good conceptual basis for understanding lots of ideas– the 1/r^2 fall off of fundamental forces, why radiation and sound intensity fall off, diffusion, etc.
Compared to what college students typically say to explain the seasons, I'd really rather have someone say, "The sun would be closer in the summer, because that would explain why it's warmer–you are closer to the hot sun!" At least that idea makes sense, and is an explanation. Lots of college students say it's "because of the tilt". But they say that simply because it's the answer they've been told.
I have found that I can get a lot of traction by asking students this question instead: "Why in Maine is the sun out for 16 hours in the summer, but only 8 hours in the winter?" Students will bring up lots of ideas. They will have lots of false starts, and attempts to explain. They will notice puzzles and inconsistencies in what they are saying. New questions will arise. But almost no one brings up a model in which the earth is closer in the summer, and if they do, they recognize that this doesn't explain the difference in day light hours.
It's interesting to think about this effect. When the thing to be explained is "why warmer", a common explanation from people is "it must be closer". But when that prompt is "explain why sun is out for more time", students bring up different ideas. To me, this is important, because science is the process by which we take into account more and more aspects of a phenomenon (or range of phenomena) and try to build a more globally coherent explanation. From this perspective, students have lots of 'localized' explanations.
For that reason, a focus on misconceptions misses the point. If my students are only trying to explain "why warmer", then "closer" is a pretty good explanation, even if wrong. Eventually, of course, students are going to get around to trying to explain "why warmer" and "why changing day light hours" and "why the hemisphere are in different seasons" and why "sun rises in different locations throughout year". Explaining all of that that sounds much more difficult, to me and to my students. I'm going to need to be patient for that happen.
As I see it, my job as a teacher isn't to correct misconceptions. Rather a big part of my job is to help students make contact with important aspects of the phenomena, and for me to press upon the coherence of their explanations with respect to the evidence, arguments, and tools that they currently have at their disposal.