Misconceptions : Some ‘Observed’ while some are ‘Learnt’

Everyday we all are bombarded with a lot of information. Most of the information we ignore or do not retain for long, but some we do. Some of the misconceptions or prior mental models, we have, originate from this retained information. These misconceptions or prior mental models, often make it difficult for learners to learn correct concepts.

Part 1: Types of misconceptions

Let’s look at two common misconceptions students have –
Misconception – Heavier objects fall faster.
Misconception – Plants take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen as a process of breathing.
On one hand both these are good examples of mental models that student create, these two misconceptions, share some differences as well. In case of the first misconception, it is very likely that the students would have formed this mental model based on observations of their surroundings. They would have seen objects like leaves, feathers or a piece of paper slowly drifting downwards while objects like a stone or a book falling swiftly.
While in case of plant ‘breathing’ misconception, there is no scope for children to ‘observe’ the actual process taking place. They learn about it from textbooks or teachers and then process that information to create their own mental model.
Thus, as we can see these two misconceptions or mental models originate from two different sources. The first misconception can be classified as ‘Preconceived Notions’.  While the second one can be classified as ‘Conceptual Misunderstandings’.
The terms ‘Preconceived Notions’ and ‘Conceptual Misunderstandings’ are two of the five categories mentioned in the Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook (1) published by the National Academy of Sciences, USA.
Here how the handbook defines each of the categories –

Preconceived Notions 

Preconceived notions are popular conceptions rooted in everyday experiences. For example, many people believe that water flowing underground must flow in streams because the water they see at the earth’s surface flows in streams. Preconceived notions plague students’ views of heat, energy, and gravity, among others.

Non-scientific Beliefs 

Non-scientific beliefs include views learned by students from sources other than scientific education, such as religious or mythical teachings. For example, some students have learned through religious instruction about an abbreviated history of the earth and its life forms. The disparity between this widely held belief and the scientific evidence for a far more extended pre-history has led to considerable controversy in the teaching of science.

Conceptual Misunderstandings 

Conceptual misunderstandings arise when students are taught scientific information in a way that does not provoke them to confront paradoxes and conflicts resulting from their own preconceived notions and non-scientific beliefs. To deal with their confusion, students construct faulty models that usually are so weak that the students themselves are insecure about the concepts.

Vernacular Misconceptions

Vernacular misconceptions arise from the use of words that mean one thing in everyday life and another in a scientific context (e.g., “work”). A geology professor noted that students have difficulty with the idea that glaciers retreat, because they picture the glacier stopping, turning around, and moving in the opposite direction. Substitution of the word “melt” for “retreat” helps reinforce the correct interpretation that the front end of the glacier simply melts faster than the ice advances.

Factual Misconceptions 

Factual misconceptions are falsities often learned at an early age and retained unchallenged into adulthood. If you think about it, the idea that “lightning never strikes twice in the same place” is clearly nonsense, but that notion may be buried somewhere in your belief system.