ERIC Identifier: ED282776 Publication Date: 1987-00-00
Author: Blosser, Patricia E. Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Science Misconceptions Research and Some Implications for the
Teaching of Science to Elementary School Students. ERIC/SMEAC Science Education
Digest No. 1, 1987.
In July, 1983, an international seminar on misconceptions in science and
mathematics was held at Cornell University (Helm and Novak, 1983). Fifty-five
papers were presented and 118 people registered for the seminar. The proceedings
of this conference were published, with the papers grouped according to primary
emphasis: theoretical and philosophical perspectives (8 papers), instructional
issues (9 papers), research and methodological issues (12 papers), historical
and epistemological perspectives (5 papers), elementary school science (2
papers), physics (11 papers), biology (6 papers), chemistry (1 paper), and
mathematics (5 papers). A second international seminar is scheduled for the
summer of 1987, also at Cornell.
Although elementary school science as a primary paper emphasis accounted for
only two papers, the area of misconceptions research has relevance for the
teaching of science to elementary school students. This digest has been produced
to describe what this area of research encompasses, to highlight a few relevant
studies, and to communicate some of the implications that the findings of
misconceptions research has for the teaching of science in the elementary
A VARIETY OF TERMS
An article published in SCIENCE EDUCATION in April 1940 was entitled "An
Evaluation of Certain Popular Science Misconceptions" (Hancock, 1940). This
author defined a "misconception" as "...any unfounded belief that does not
embody the element of fear, good luck, faith, or supernatural intervention" (p.
208). Hancock considered misconceptions to arise from faulty reasoning. Current
science education researchers would probably take issue with this assumption.
Science educators, in the United States and abroad, who are interested in
conceptual development have used a variety of terms to describe the situation in
which students' ideas differ from those of scientists about a concept. Some talk
of students' misconceptions; others write of preconceptions; still others, of
naive conceptions; some, of naive theories; some, of alternative conceptions;
and some, of alternative frameworks.
Barrass (1984) wrote of "mistakes" or errors, "misconceptions" or misleading
ideas, and "misunderstandings" or misinterpretations of facts, saying that
teachers and brighter students can correct errors. But what attention is paid to
misconceptions and misunderstandings that are perpetuated by teachers and
Driver and Easley (1978) contend that semantics indicate the writer's
philosophical position, saying that Ausubel talks of "preconceptions," which are
ideas expressed that do not have the status of generalized understandings that
are characteristic of conceptual knowledge. However, those who use the term
"misconception" indicate an obvious connotation of a wrong idea or an
incorrectly assimilated formal model or theory. And, those persons who use
"alternative frameworks" indicate that pupils have developed autonomous
frameworks for conceptualizing their experience of the physical world.
Helm and Novak, in the introduction to the proceedings of the 1983 seminar,
stated that an issue which surfaced early in the meeting was that
"misconceptions" as a term carried with it some connotations that are not
appropriate (1983). This issue was not resolved, although Novak suggested that
researchers adopt the acronym LIPH, standing for "Limited or Inappropriate
Propositional Hierarchies." However, seminar participants decided that it was
too early in the history of research programs to attach an explicit label.
FINDINGS RELATED TO ELEMENTARY SCIENCE
What does all this mean in terms of teaching science in elementary schools?
Frequently, when science is taught to elementary school pupils, it is taught as
if the children had had no prior experiences relative to the topic being
studied. Misconceptions research contains findings indicating that this is not a
valid assumption. Children come to school already holding beliefs about how
things happen, and have expectations--based on past experiences--which enable
them to predict future events. They also possess clear meanings for words which
are used both in everyday language and in a more specialized way in science. A
child's view and understanding of word meanings are incorporated into conceptual
structures which provide a sensible and coherent understanding of the world from
the child's point of view (Osborne and Gilbert, 1980). Children hold ideas that
were developed before and during their early school years, and these ideas may
be compounded by the teacher and/or the textbook. It is possible that children
develop parallel but mutually inconsistent explanations of scientific
concepts--one for use in school and one for use in the "real world" (Trowbridge
and Mintzes, 1985).
Fisher contends that misconceptions serve the needs of the persons who hold
them and that erroneous ideas may come from strong word association, confusion,
conflict, or lack of knowledge (1985). According to Fisher, some alternative
conceptions, judged to be erroneous ideas or misconceptions, have these
characteristics in common:
1. They are at variance with conceptions held by experts in the field. 2. A
single misconception, or a small number of misconceptions, tend to be pervasive
(shared by many different individuals). 3. Many misconceptions are highly
resistant to change or alteration, at least by traditional teaching methods. 4.
Misconceptions sometimes involve alternative belief systems comprised of
logically linked sets of propositions that are used by students in systematic
ways. 5. Some misconceptions have historical precedence: that is, some erroneous
ideas put forth by students today mirror ideas espoused by early leaders in the
field. 6. Misconceptions may arise as the result of: a) the neurological
"hardware" or genetic programming (as in the case of automatic
language-processing structures, which may be invoked when "reading" an
equation); b) certain experiences that are commonly shared by many individuals
(as with moving objects); or c) instruction in school or other settings (p. 53).
Several reports have been produced as a result of a project carried out at
the Institute for Research on Teaching at Michigan State University (Roth, 1985;
Smith and Anderson, 1984a; Smith and Anderson, 1984b; Smith, 1983). This
representative (but not exhaustive) list relates to using activities from the
Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) with elementary school pupils. SCIS
activities were not sufficient to help students exchange their previous
conceptions so curriculum materials, a text, and a teacher's guide were
developed for use in the project. Even when these specially developed
instructional materials were used, misconceptions held by children proved
difficult to change, although the modified materials were more effective than
SCIS (Roth, 1985).
Operating on the assumption that, if science in the schools is to improve,
elementary school science teaching has to improve, Lawrenz (1986) investigated
inservice elementary school teachers' understanding of some elementary physical
science concepts. She devloped a questionnaire using items from the physical
science test questions given to 17-year-old students as part of the National
Assessment of Educational Progress science studies, and found that 11 of the 31
items were answered correctly by 50 percent or fewer of the 333 teachers
surveyed. Lawrenz concluded that some of the errors were due to lack of content
knowledge, but that others were indicative of serious misconceptions. If
teachers do not understand elementary physical science concepts, how can they
teach their students?
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING, TEACHER EDUCATION
Lawrenz (1986) advocated inservice education, beginning with very basic
science concepts so that inservice teachers could have experiences with concrete
examples that conflict with misconceptions they hold. Then, teachers should be
shown and given numerous examples of how to identify misconceptions held by
pupils in their own classrooms.
Smith and Anderson (1984b) suggested that, in teacher education programs,
preservice teachers should be helped to develop ideas about conceptual change in
learning. Teacher educators must realize that their students have conceptions
about teaching and learning that are different from those the teacher educators
hold--and that the teacher educators should work to change these students'
misconceptions. They wrote:
Among the important learning outcomes teacher education should address are
the following: 1. a conceptual change view of learning, 2. knowledge of generic
strategies useful in achieving conceptual change, 3. knowledge of common
misconceptions for several important topics and specific strategies for changing
them, 4. skill in selecting and adapting curriculum materials based on common
preconceptions held by students, 5. skill in diagnosing student conceptions and
recognizing them from student responses, and 6. a view of theory as invented to
account for observations rather than deriving objectively and reliably from them
Engel Clough and Wood-Robinson (1985) have suggested several things teachers
may try, although they admit that these ideas have not been tested: (1) start
with students' ideas and devise teaching strategies to take some account of
them; (2) provide more structured opportunities for students to talk through
ideas at length, both in small group and whole class discussions; (3) begin with
known and familiar examples; (4) introduce some science topics into the
curriculum at earlier grade levels, drawing on out-of-school knowledge (p. 129).
Several researchers have emphasized the importance of allowing pupils to
explore their own ideas in a non-threatening atmosphere. Teachers need to devise
strategies for encouraging this exploration and for creating the necessary
Teachers also need to consider the extent to which misconceptions may be
language difficulties. Teachers and students may fail to share the meaning of
the terms they use or the questions they ask.
Hopps (l985), in discussing cognitive learning theory and classroom
complexity, has provided some suggestions that are relevant to structuring
elementary school science lessons to deal with misconceptions:
--We cannot expect learners to identify and select key stimuli without
specific advice from teachers
--We cannot expect that all pupils will focus attention on key aspects of the
learning activity without deliberate action on the teacher's part
--Models of conceptual change imply that the learner's ability to reforge
links between prior knowledge and sensory input is likely to be of critical
importance in learning
--Teachers can assist learners by providing the kinds of information and
experiences which will enable them to bridge the gaps between sensory input and
prior knowledge...ideas to be taught should always be related to the relevant
frameworks held by the learner and revision of the key parts of such frameworks
should not be undertaken lightly.
--Explanations of any links between new information and prior knowledge
should be made in a variety of ways so that learners are presented with visual,
verbal and/or a diagrammatic format of the principles to be taught.
--Whenever concepts or definitions are to be introduced, teachers should
provide significant numbers of examples and non-examples pp. 171-172).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Barrass, Robert. "Some Misconceptions and Misunderstandings Perpetuated by
Teachers and Textbooks of Biology." JOURNAL OF BIOLOGY EDUCATION 18 (1984):
Driver, Rosalind, and Jack Easley. "Pupils and Paradigms: A Review of
Literature Related to Concept Development in Adolescent Science Students."
STUDIES IN SCIENCE EDUCATION 5 (l978): 61-84.
Engel Clough, Elizabeth, and Colin Wood-Robinson. "How Secondary Students
Interpret Instances of Biological Adaptation." JOURNAL OF BIOLOGY EDUCATION 19
Fisher, Kathleen. "A Misconception in Biology: Amino Acids and Translation."
JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING 22 (1985): 53-62.
Hancock, Cyril H. "An Evaluation of Certain Popular Science Misconceptions."
SCIENCE EDUCATION 24 (1940): 208-213.
Helm, Hugh, and Joseph D. Novak. PROCEEDINGS OF THE INTERNATIOAL SEMIAR ON
MISCONCEPTIONS IN SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, July,
1983. ED 242 553.
Hopp, John C. "Cognitive Learning Theory and Classroom Complexity." RESEARCH
IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGICAL EDUCATION 3 (1985): 159-174.
Lawrenz, Frances. "Misconceptions of Physical Science Concepts Among
Elementary School Teachers." SCHOOL SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS 86 (1986): 654-660.
Osborne, Roger J., and John K. Gilbert. "A Technique for Exploring Students'
Views of the World." PHYSICS EDUCATION 15 (1980): 376-379.
Roth, Kathleen. "Food for Plants: Teacher's Guide. Research Series No. 153."
East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, Institute for Research on Teaching,
January, 1985. ED 256 624.
Smith, Edward L. "Teaching for Conceptual Change: Some Ways of Going Wrong."
Final Report. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, Institute for
Research on Teaching, June 1983. ED 237 493.
Smith, Edward L., and Charles W. Anderson. "The Planning and Teaching
Intermediate Science Study: Final Report. Research Series No. 147." East
Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, Institute of Research on Teaching, June,
1984a. ED 250 161.
Smith, Edward L., and Charles W. Anderson. "Plants as Producers: A Case Study
of Elementary Science Teaching." JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING 21
Trowbridge, John E., and Joel L. Mintzes. "Students' Alternative Conceptions
of Animals and Animal Classification." SCHOOL SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS 85 (1985):
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