A learning environment to counter misconceptions

Below we provide an extract from an article discussing the importance of teaching to challenge students’ misconceptions. Although the article is written from the perspective of developing students’ ideas in science the principles can be applied to other subjects.

In the article, Scott, et al., identify two teaching strategies:

  • Making students’ existing (mis)conceptions explicit and then challenging them.
  • Building on students’ existing ideas to extend them.

Underpinning both approaches requires acknowledgement of students’ existing ideas.

A copy of the full article by Scott, et al. is available should you wish to read it.

Article extract

Demands upon students

If, for example, students have views of learning which are essentially transmissive in nature and they adhere to positivist views of science then asking them to consider their own, and other, perspectives about a phenomenon may not appear sensible to them. This dilemma is encapsulated in a comment made during a practical science lesson; a fourteen year-old girl, on being asked for her ideas about a phenomenon, replied, ‘why ask me? Just tell us the right answer.’ The girl’s response is perfectly valid in the context of her own thinking about science and learning.

Dreyfus, Jungwirth and Eliovitch (1990), however, remind us that students bring more than alternative conceptions with them to science lessons, they also import attitudes which will influence subsequent learning. In particular, they found that ‘bright successful students reacted enthusiastically to cognitive conflicts.’ They liked the ‘flabbergasting effect’ of the method and the confrontation with new problems.’ In contrast, ‘unsuccessful students …. have been shown to develop negative self-images, negative attitudes towards school and school tasks and high levels of anxiety.’ As a result, ‘they tried to avoid the conflicts. They were most characteristically apologetical when confronted with a conflict which, to them, seemed to represent just another failure’ (pp. 565-566). Stavy (1991) makes a similar point when she argues that conflict training can, result in students’ loss of self-confidence and can sometimes cause regression.’

However, a central feature from the student’s point of view is that knowledge is not provided for them ‘ready made’. They need to take ultimate responsibility for making sense of learning activities.

Demands upon Teachers

[A] fundamental demand upon the teacher lies in creating a classroom environment within which students feel confident and able to express and discuss their views openly. Such an environment can only be created through the teacher both being sensitive to students’ needs, feelings and ideas and being an effective manager of class groups… for many teachers, demands such as these are likely to represent a significant change from existing practice.

The teacher is required to:

  • be aware of students’ ideas and understandings relating to the topic under consideration.
  • be aware of likely conceptual pathways for that topic.
  • be sensitive to students’ progress in learning.
  • be able to generate learning tasks to support and encourage that progress in learning.
  • be sufficiently confident in his/her own understanding of the subject topic to be able to appreciate, and respond to, differing points of view.
  • be able to organise and manage a classroom which will allow for all of this to happen.

Source: Scott, P.H., Asoko, H.M. and Driver, R.H (1991)

Reflect

Your classroom environment

One of the key themes from the article is to provide a classroom environment that allows “students [to] feel confident and able to express and discuss their views openly.”

Take a moment now to consider what opportunities you provide for students to ‘get things wrong’. Think about how these opportunities provide you with an insight into their misconceptions. Record your thinking on your reflection grid.

We would like to see your ways of allowing students to show misconceptions in the comments below. Draw upon your reflections from reading the article above.

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This article is from the free online course:

Teaching STEM Subjects: Planning for Learning

National STEM Learning Centre