Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Search
MENU

Are you smarter than a Harvard graduate?

privateuniverseHarvardgrad

What causes seasons? Do you think you know? A common answer among school children and college graduates is that seasons are caused by how close the Earth is to the sun, but this answer is not correct. The tilt of the Earth’s axis causes the cycle of the seasons. See an explanation in Science in Focus: Shedding Light, workshop 7.

A Private Universe

More than 23 years ago, video producers asked new Harvard graduates and 9th grade students at a nearby high school some basic science questions, including “What causes seasons?”, and got surprising answers. That footage became A Private Universe, a documentary that looks at how students’ misconceptions block learning. The program looks at celestial movements, the seasons, and how these are taught in school.

In the program, a bright 9th grader named Heather is asked to describe the orbit of the Earth and explain what causes the phases of the moon. Her strange drawing of the orbit leaves her teacher perplexed. Also, Heather is only able to correctly explain the phases of the moon by picking up physical objects and using them to show her thinking. (You can see what became of Heather in the film A Private Universe, 20 Years Later.) Heather’s teacher learned two lessons by observing her explanations: 1. She can’t make assumptions about what students know already. 2. Using manipulatives (like balls to show orbiting planets) is important for understanding scientific concepts.

Where do students’ private theories come from?

Sometimes misconceptions are caused by misleading diagrams and drawings in textbooks that are interpreted or remembered incorrectly. Sometimes the concepts were taught incorrectly. Sometimes students hear words used in one context and apply their understanding to other contexts. Many times, children rely on their experiences, which can limit understanding. Even the brightest students can have trouble with basic concepts, because new ideas are competing with previous knowledge. In addition, teachers are required to cover a lot of material quickly and often don’t have time to tease out these misconceptions.

How can teachers help students?

First figure out what students know about a topic. Anticipate and address any misconceptions that might hinder learning new and related concepts. The three Essential Science for Teachers series include a section called “Children’s Ideas.” Using research on what children believe about basic science concepts, teachers are asked to consider what misconceptions children might have about these concepts and where these ideas might have come from. For example, Earth and Space Science, session 1, considers children’s ideas about soil.

Here is a list of resources from the Essential Science for Teachers series to help you examine children’s ideas in science:

Earth and Space Science

Life Science

Physical Science

Addressing misconceptions is important in all subject areas, not just science. While teaching Spanish at the high school level, I first took for granted that my students understood the parts of speech and learned that many did not. I often hear Africa referred to as a country and that Spanish is the official language of Brazil. Even as adults, we can hold misconceptions somehow learned along the way.

Before you start your next lesson or unit, try to anticipate and address any misconceptions and access prior knowledge. Then build from those ideas while giving students many hands-on opportunities (especially in science and math) to explain their ideas.

What surprising misconceptions have you witnessed in your classes?

 

Comments

  1. Karen says:

    How true! Today, as I was reviewing with my 5th graders the different structures that animals had, a student made a comment that cats “have 9 lives.” When I taught the class again later in the afternoon to a different group of 5th graders, once again, a student made the comment that cats have 9 lives!

Leave a Comment

All comments are moderated.

* Denotes required field.

*



*

 *