Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I said I didn't want to talk about misconceptions

I have written a few posts now on the subject of misconceptions:
  • 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"
Let me start this post by saying, I see that there are some potentially good things that come about by focusing on misconceptions:
  1. It can draw attention to the relevance of prior knowledge for learning
  2. It can draw attention to the importance of conceptual knowledge in learning
  3. It can draw attention to the shortcoming of traditional instruction to promote conceptual understanding and take into account prior knowledge.
But I also think there is a lot of bad baggage that comes along with that focus:
  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
These lists aren't exhaustive. I think there are more goods things, but also a lot more bad things.

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", arising 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.


  1. (sorry if this is a repost, it didn't look like it went through)

    I like the last paragraph a lot. I was in DC with a bunch of physics folks recently and it was the first time I heard people get riled up about misconceptions. They said a few things about the deficit-view but this post has really driven it home for me, thanks! -Andy

  2. Brian,
    I really like the question about explaining the different day lengths, and like Andy, I love the last paragraph and changing the focus from exposing/correcting student misconceptions to instead helping them to build coherent explanations, and this is something I'm really going to make a focus of my teaching going forward. But I'm also wondering what you think of assessment questions that ask students to correct/explain common misconceptions, similar to what we discussed on Mark's blog.

    Do you think the problem with misconceptions is mainly focusing too much on exposing each student's misconceptions, which can lead to discouragement and despair?

  3. A colleague on the Modeling listserve wrote:

    "Elicit-confront-resolve is an example of a cognitive conflict approach to teaching, and is a particular feature of University of Washington PEG materials (e.g., Tutorials in Introductory Physics, Physics By Inquiry). In this approach, the teacher "sets up" the students to elicit a wrong prediction, then confronts them with a situation where there is clearly a disagreement between what they think and what actually happened. Then the student is led through a series of questions to resolve the conflict between the two. This generally happens to introduce a new concept.

    To some extent, some of this happens in Modeling when students present their whiteboards. We elicit some of their wrong applications of concepts, but at the same time, we are eliciting a LOT of right thinking. We NEVER do this to introduce a new topic. Instead, we put the students in a situation where the lab is going to give them good clean data, and they are going to be right. That's the difference: in Modeling, we SET THEM UP TO BE RIGHT. We show them that they can do science.

    Would your students rather be set up to be wrong or to be right? To me, that's a no-brainer. However, conceptual change theory has been around longer than whatever we want to call "setting them up to be right."

    The modeling approach is consistent with productive practices in the epistemological research of Redish, Hammer and Elby, to name a few. It also is consistent with the findings of Van Heuvelen and Etkina and their ISLE approach at Rutgers."

  4. @Quantumprogress. I think it's always a good thing for students to evaluate and critique a wide range of explanations and arguments, be them misconceptions or otherwise.

    I think my main concern with misconceptions that it draws our attention toward many of the wrong things.

  5. @Frank I am likely being overly idealistic (*sigh* academics), but I think part of my concern has nothing to do with right and wrong. Part of me sees the language of "setting them up to be right", as still being largely framed by an obsession with correctness. Being right counts for very little, except for in school.

    I think part of this is wrapped up in why I'd rather have students say a wrong but sensible thing, than students take on correct ideas that are meaningless to them.

  6. I guess that leaves us with the question of how do we work within the existing system to reward students for making coherent explanations or saying sensible things without judging correctness? And what are the long-term issues with lack of correctness as these students progress through programs? In thinking about new ways to approach the classroom, I always have to remind myself that I am likely only a blip in a student's education so it is important to think of how the interactions between my student, me and my classes will impact them in the future.

  7. First off, I think your questions are really important. Bear with me as I think this through.

    I think it makes more sense if we frame it this way: We do have a responsibility to help students make contact with the tools, concepts, and knowledge of our disciplines. It would be irresponsible for us to not do so. I don't, however think most of those tools and concepts can rightly be framed in terms of "correctness".

    Here are just two examples:

    It is not "correct" that f = u N for friction–it is a model that reflects empirical observations, and helps us to account for and explain new ones.

    The "correct" idea that light reflects off surfaces at equal angles has not led us to "correctly" explain the phenomena of lake reflections I've been posting about, but it is one piece of the puzzle.

    We could come up with lots more. My point is that correctness, not matter how we slice it, is a bad framework for talking about education and learning.

    At the end of the day, I sincerely hope that teaching in ways that respect students' own ways of knowing and nudges them along disciplinary understanding doesn't imply "a lack of correctness". But the problem is I don't even know what that means.

    If the way I am imagining teaching suffers from a "lack of correctness", it's only because the current systems wants students to "lack incorrectness". In other words, the current systems confuses "the absence of incorrectness" with learning and meaningful ways of knowing.