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Reconstructing understanding

As we discussed in step 1.7, misconceptions can occur due to children inventing rules to explain the patterns they see around them. Sometimes these rules can lead to incorrect ideas and assumptions.

It is not easy for children to forget their own explanations of the world, which are based on their observations and have made sense to them for years, and to replace these with explanations which may make less sense to them. Essentially we are asking children to “undo a whole mental framework of knowledge that they have used to understand the world.” (Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook).

Posner, Strike, Hewson and Gertzog’s 1982 paper for Cornell University explained how learners will only accept a change to these rules if ‘dissatisfaction’ with them occurs. This means that their current idea will not work in a certain situation or will not solve a problem which occurs. Any new concepts which may be introduced to counter their existing ideas need to be ‘intelligible’ (understood), ‘plausible’ (they work and solve the current problem) and ‘fruitful’ (they will solve future problems in different contexts).

In a classroom this means that we must begin to construct new learning through tackling prior learning. Asking children questions such as “What material would I use to make a bath?” would begin to cause dissatisfaction in any child who believed a material was just something which clothes are made out of. Making a bath out of cotton is ridiculous! The water would get everywhere and would not collect in the bath. Plus the sides would fall down as cotton is not rigid.

Allowing children to be hands on and experience new concepts is widely understood to aid learning. So, we may take children on a ‘Materials Hunt’ around the school. Asking them to identify as many different materials as they can. Working in pairs and groups can also be beneficial, as talk enables children to challenge misconceptions as they reason with each other and consider differing points of view.

You may give children a bag of labels for materials, for example: wood, metal, paper, plastic, glass, ceramic, rock, cardboard, water and fabric. Fabric is important as this will help children to understand the scientific term for the material clothes are made out of. They could then attach their labels to objects made of the matching materials. They could even be given a few blank labels for them to consider and place.


Can you think of an idea about the natural world which you once believed, but later realised was a misunderstanding? What made you realise, and how did this make you feel?

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This article is from the free online course:

Teaching Primary Science: Chemistry

National STEM Learning Centre