Children’s Fiction

By Debra Viadero — January 01, 2000 9 min read
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget observed that children traveling in a car believe the moon is following them.

‘Teachers hold the same misconceptions as their kids,’ says Harvard researcher Tina Grotzer.

In a 1989 documentary, filmmakers ask newly minted Harvard University graduates a simple question: Why is it hotter in the summer and colder in the winter? The students, still wearing their caps and gowns, confidently oblige the interviewers. It’s warm-er in summer, many of them explain, because the earth is closer to the sun at that time of year.

That, of course, is the wrong answer. The correct explanation has to do with the angle of the sun’s rays as they slice through the earth’s atmosphere. Like most American students, these Harvard grads certainly learned about the movements of the earth and sun in grade school. Yet, when put on the spot, they swept all those lessons aside in favor of a misconception lingering from their preschool days.

The point of the segment, of course, is not to make fun of Harvard graduates. Indeed, most of us cling to mistaken ideas acquired in our earliest years. The problem is that these naïve, remarkably resilient views get in the way of true understanding.

Over the past 30 years, researchers have put considerable effort into exploring this roadblock to learning. And they’ve recently come to the conclusion that educators must address the misinformation that’s taken root in students’ minds-but not through traditional instruction. Instead, researchers say, teachers must help students see the right answers for themselves. Only then will the myths from the past be erased. Educators who fail to pay attention to what’s already in their students’ heads, says Jose Mestre, a physics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Am herst, “are really teaching at their own peril because students may not be understanding.”

Scholars have long known that children form creative but mistaken ideas to help them make sense of the unfamiliar. In the first half of the century, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget observed that children traveling in a car believe that the moon is following them. But intensive study into misconceptions did not begin until the 1970s, primarily in this country and in Britain. Most of this early research did little more than catalogue common misunderstandings. Exploration of the possible sources of those ideas and what to do about them has been more recent.

Along the way, many researchers rejected the term “misconception,” fearing that it implied that students were at fault for their erroneous notions. They now use terms such as “alternative theo-ries,” “primitive conceptions,’' or “facets of understanding.”

“‘Misconceptions’ has a negative connotation,” says Peter Hewson, a professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Yet kids can’t help but arrive at flawed conclusions when they observe the world around them. Hewson cites a popular example:Children see for themselves that an apple falls from a tree branch to the ground faster than a fluttering leaf, gravitational theory notwithstanding.

Leona Schauble, a UW-Madison educational psychologist, concurs. “Many ideas in physics and biology are counterintuitive to what we learned from the world,” she says.

For that reason, most of the research has focused on misconceptions in the sciences-biology, chemistry, physics, and the like. Experts stress, though, that people hold mistaken views about other subjects, as well. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, whose 1991 book The Unschooled Mind discussed children’s misunderstandings, offers stereotypes as an example. “In history and literature, we don’t have theories that are wrong,” he says. “We have shortcuts that assume that when something happens to you once, it will happen to you again.”

During the Persian Gulf war, Gardner points out, many Americans saw the conflict solely in terms of good guys vs. bad guys, demonstrating the same level of sophistication as a child watching a cartoon. In reality, he explains, the complex history, culture, and economics of the Middle East make such analyses inadequate.

Kurt VanLehn of the University of Pittsburgh has illuminated some basic misunderstandings that persistently dog children’s efforts in mathematics. In one study, kids had problems understanding the concept of “borrowing” numbers when subtracting one three-digit number from another. Faced with a column of digits, they automatically subtracted the smaller digit from the bigger digit, regardless of which was on top.

As the Harvard documentary shows, people of all ages and educational levels cling to basic misconceptions. Oddly enough, these faulty notions even coexist in the mind with information that is directly contradictory. Harvard researcher David Perkins notes in his book Smart Schools that the graduates shown in the film certainly knew that summer in the Northern hemisphere is winter in the Southern. But that couldn’t be the case if the earth’s proximity to the sun caused seasonal changes.

So how can teachers address the problem? For starters, researchers say, educators should try to make kids feel comfortable talking about their ideas in the classroom. And when misunderstandings arise, teachers should aim to help students reconstruct their thinking.

“What teachers need to do,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Hewson, “is get students in discussions so that they may understand the reason [for their views], understand that there might be alternatives to their thinking, and see that some ideas might be more powerful than the ones they currently have.”

Unfortunately, most teachers are so intent on covering the required material that they rarely take the time to find out what students are thinking. “Typically, [teachers] are in a hurry to get to the right answer, and they tend not to pay attention to the variety of answers that children pose,” explains the University of Wisconsin’s Schauble.

Researchers emphasize that teachers don’t have to become cognitive scientists to find out what their students are thinking; all it takes is a few simple techniques. Schauble suggests that teachers encourage kids to make predictions about scientific phenomena and other matters. Teachers can then post the predictions on a bulletin board and ask students to put their names under the one that makes most sense to them. If classroom activities and discussions change their minds, students can switch their names and endorse a new prediction.

James Minstrell, a research scientist for Talaria Inc., a Seattle-based consulting firm, created software 10 years ago that diagnoses students’ preconceptions in physics and then prescribes classroom activities to dislodge long-held ideas. The program grew out of Minstrell’s experiences teaching the subject in the 1980s. He would routinely present his students with physics problems at the start of a unit and then elicit predictions. Their misconceptions, he came to see, were simply hypotheses about the way the world worked. “What I had to do as a teacher,” he says, “was to be clever enough to design experiences that would cause students to reflect on and rethink their ideas.’'

The software has proved successful, Minstrell says. In one study, he found that only 3 percent of 180 high school students taking his diagnostic quiz grasped difficult buoyancy and gravity concepts. Later, after using the software, 61 percent understood the material and could explain the concepts in writing. On an end-of-the-year exam given months later, similar percentages of students could still correctly answer questions on the subjects. The remaining students, Minstrell says, also showed evidence of a deeper understanding.

More recently, John Clem ent, a University of Massachusetts researcher, devised an instructional approach that he calls “bridging.” His idea is to start with what students know and then present analogous situations that help them build bridges in their minds to new understandings. Clement offers an example. Students tend not to believe that a table exerts an upward force on a book resting on its top. But they usually understand the force at work when a book rests on a spring. So using the spring as a starting point, he asks students whether a long, springy board pushes up against a book lying in its middle. To make the connection clearer, he asks students to push down on the spring and then on the pliable board. When they feel the resistance in both cases, he claims, the proverbial light usually goes on in their heads.

Ronald Thornton, a physicist and science education researcher at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, has built computer-based equipment that helps students visualize counterintuitive physics principles. In one scenario, a heavy cart moving on a frictionless track collides with a lighter, stationary vehicle. One of Newton’s laws of motion states that on contact both vehicles experience an equal and opposite force. But most students, thinking of a Mack truck plowing into a Volkswagen Beetle, intuitively believe that the larger, moving vehicle is doing all the work. To convince students otherwise, Thornton hooks probes to the carts that display on a computer the magnitude of the forces acting on each.

“In good situations where the materials are used in ways that we’ve developed them to be used, we can reach 80 to 90 percent of students who don’t know a concept,” he says. Traditional lecture-style instruction, Thornton’s research has shown, is effective with only 10 percent of students in high school physics courses.

Sometimes it takes more than a demonstration or experiment to pierce students’ preconceptions. New York University researcher Susan Carey describes the case of an elementary school teacher who wanted her students to discover for themselves that air has weight. She rigged up a straw with an empty balloon on each end and balanced it, seesaw fashion, on a fulcrum. She then filled one of the balloons with air. The class watched as the end with the air-filled balloon sank. Though the display was graphic, her students still didn’t grasp the concept.

“Just because you think you’re showing [kids] something doesn’t mean they’ll make of it what you expect them to make of it,” Schauble says. They might need another example to drive the point home.

Of course, many teachers suffer from misunderstandings of their own. “If they haven’t had the benefit of really good science learning-and most of us haven’t-teachers hold the same misconceptions as their kids,” says Tina Grotzer, a research associate at Harvard’s graduate school of education. Some education school professors address this problem by taking their students-future elementary teachers in particular-step by step through basic science concepts, just as they would with 2nd and 3rd graders.

Most education students, however, receive little of this kind of instruction, and it isn’t very effective. At all levels of schooling, teaching in ways that actually help students reshape wrong ideas takes much longer than tra ditional lecture-style lessons, and most educators don’t have the time. This is particularly true nowadays, as, across America, states implement new academic standards and assessments. With teachers feeling pressured to expose their students to the material on the tests, time-consuming demonstrations and experiments that help kids really grasp concepts get squeezed out in favor of chalk-and-talk instruction.

It is a weakness in the standards approach to education that many researchers believe needs to be addressed. “If you just tell kids what you want them to know,” Grotzer says, “then 10 years from now, they’ll be saying the same thing they said before you told them.”

The “Research” section is underwritten by a grant from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation.