My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Monday, 4 June 2018

The problem with misconceptions

Misconceptions and how students respond to them are key bits of a teachers PCK. This post aims to outline the difficulties they pose to learning and teaching. 

Where do misconceptions come from
Misconceptions can have a strong grounding in our students’ everyday experiences. Misconceptions can lie in the use of everyday language, or they may be partially formed ideas that have persisted as they haven’t yet been challenged. In some cases students have actually seen the phenomena with their own eyes! And seeing, as we know, often results in believing. The word ‘belief’ tells us that our students’ misconceptions can be deeply held to the point of feeling as if they are unquestionable. The importance of this is brought to bear by Graham Nuthall in writing, “What is learned depends upon the prior knowledge the student brings to bear to understand the [new] information.” Here, he is saying that students use their prior experiences and what they know to interpret and make sense of any new ideas being presented. If this ‘knowledge’ is actually incorrect, then the students will not make the correct interpretation of this information and learning simply will not happen. This model of learning suggests that, for learning to take place, there must be enough information to be assimilated into the students working memory before it can then be transferred to the long-term memory. If insufficient information is available - and misconceptions will reduce the amount of correct information - then the new information is either thought of as a different version of a known idea and is absorbed into it, or, alternatively, is simply forgotten.

How are misconceptions different to mistaks?
Although this may sound a trifle hair splitting, there is a useful distinction to be made between misconceptions and mistakes. Misconceptions are genuinely held beliefs:  as a result, they can be difficult for students to spot and to address. Their roots are in preconceived notions and stereotypes, our misinterpretation of concepts and facts, and our confusions common and technical use of language. Mistakes, on the other hand, are often a result of carelessness or of the fact that the thing being learnt is pretty difficult.  Misconceptions often  appear as the  important things to address, and mistakes seem  less so. As teachers we can therefore dismiss mistaks as being less unimportant- “They just made a mistake.” But this is not necessarily the case. We must therefore consider the content being learned and its potential difficulty to determine if dealing with mistakes should be as important dealing with misconceptions

Many factors can go to contribute to conceptual difficulty (as shown in this chart). Knowledge which can be described by any of the conditions on the left-hand side are easier to learn than those found on the right-hand side. Based upon Perkins. .

Beliefs are strong.
Beliefs are also notoriously difficult to shift by logic and reason alone so, more than ever, we need to structure our students’ interactions with the right (and wrong) conceptions. Pedagogical content knowledge, or more precisely our knowledge of potential misconceptions, gives us a decent start point here. Detailed information about subject specific misconceptions is easy to search for, is readily available on the internet and will become well known to you the longer you teach your subject. After a couple of years teaching, you will often find yourself thinking, “They always do that”. It is a genuinely sensible thing to wonder why they always do that. Each teacher experiences these moments, so asking colleagues about common student misconceptions can be a treasure trove too. Once we are aware of them, we can then go on to help students become aware of their own misconceptions; we can scrutinise resources for potential errors; we can design our instruction to reduce the chance of students misinterpreting the information we’ve provided; we can therefore avoid reinforcing or forming misconceptions.

Learner avoidance tactics
Learners do a version of all of these things when faced with a new idea that conflicts with something that they previously believed. Even when the idea presented to them is as true as the passing of time.  Some spot the beauty in the new idea and accept it readily. But not many. Most will either ignore it, reject it, exclude it, hold it in abeyance, or reinterpret it. Few will readily accept the new idea as their new belief as it overrides what they hold as true.

What can teachers do?
Posner and Strike (1992) suggest that the following conditions must be met if students are to correct their misconceptions (or to have them corrected):
  • There must be some dissatisfaction with the student’s current understanding. Students are unlikely to be aware of these, and it therefore falls to us to make them purposefully aware of the ones they hold. This can be difficult, as theories” work for them perfectly well in their everyday lives, and we have to tutor students to become critical of their own thinking.
  • The new conception must be intelligible or understandable to learners. This is where our skill in representing ideas specifically tailored to the learning needs of the students in front of us comes to the fore. Our assessment practices need to allow the students (and teachers) to see that they are ‘getting it’.
  • The new conception must appear initially plausible; it must seem to be a better possible answer than the misconception. Keeping our instruction ‘real’, rooted in what is known (i.e. their prior knowledge), making connections clear and using concrete examples all help students to alter their understanding of things.
  • Finally, the new conception should suggest the possibility being fruitful or useful to them as learners. We can do this by helping students transfer their new understanding and applying it to new examples.

Five things to consider during planning the tackling of student misconceptions:
1.            How can we make students aware of misconceptions?
2.            How could deliberately leading them towards a moment of ambiguity help?
3.            How does making our teaching ‘real’ and connected help?
4.            Why should we keep misconceptions the focus of our assessment?
5.            How might the development of student’s critical thinking help?

[1] Chinn and Brewer 1993- The Role of anomalous data in knowledge acquisition- Review of Educational Research   Vol. 63, No. 1, Spring, 1993

[2] Posner and Strike 1992- A revisionist theory of conceptual change. In Philosophy of Science ed. Duschl and Hamilton.

[3] David Perkins- Making Learning Whole 2009

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