New Study Shows Incorrect Beliefs Are Learning Goldmines in Disguise

Knowing what students don’t know helps teachers teach better

My son, who’s 11, asked me the other day what makes spring turn into summer.

I said, “Uh, because of the Earth’s orbit around the sun?”

He scowled at me, so then I said, like every good 21st century parent, “Well, let’s Google it.”

Turns out the answer does involve the Earth’s orbit. The more complete response, of course, is that seasonal change is related to the tilt of our planet on its axis as it goes along its orbit, and whether that tilt leans toward the sun or away from it.

And it also turns out, comfortingly, that I’m not alone in my ignorance of this basic science fact: 95 percent of people, even most college grads, don’t get that question right.

All of this is a rather long-winded intro into the topic of this blog post: We all hold incorrect beliefs and misconceptions, even as adults.

In the classroom, students also show up with their own ideas — wrong, right, muddled — and some of them are pretty entrenched. The best teachers are able to identify those misconceptions in their students and figure out how to change them.

An article from the American Psychological Association identifies some common misconceptions students have in a range of subjects, from science to math and language arts. Young kids, for instance, are likely to think nickels are worth more than dimes because they are physically larger. In another example, kids often believe that all poetry has to rhyme. Or that heavier objects fall faster when dropped than do lighter objects.

What’s right about being wrong
Being able to predict what some of those “wrong” assumptions are gives teachers an intuitive advantage: They can develop lessons that challenge and change those incorrect ideas, choosing the kinds of examples and demonstrations that will resonate most with the students.

An unusual study led by Harvard University researcher Philip Sadler, a senior lecturer in the Department of Astronomy, shows that middle school physical science teachers who were able to predict their students’ wrong answers on standardized tests helped students learn the most. The study, published in the American Educational Research Journal, tested 181 middle-school teachers and almost 10,000 students and found that the most effective teachers were the ones who had both sound content knowledge and a deep understanding of how their students thought.

How do you know what your students don’t know?

The obvious answer: Ask.

The more robust answer:

•  Ask students to explain or demonstrate their understanding
•  Ask for proof or evidence to back up their claim
•  Ask students to speculate beyond the collected data)

•  Give them lots of wait time to encourage them to develop their responses further and talk with their fellow students
•  Play devil’s advocate and ask students to defend their position (provide opportunities for students
•  Maintain an open mind about alternative solutions and procedures)

(taken from From Misconceptions to Conceptual Change: Tips for Identifying and Overcoming Students’ Misconceptions)

Read how you can use the strategies outlined in Design Question 3 to help students grapple with their own errors and revise what they know to be true.

Another important strategy is to monitor students for understanding. You can read more about how that strategy, when implemented, can change the culture of your classroom.

By being mindful of, and responsive to, understandings and misunderstandings, teachers can encourage students to examine and expand their knowledge and engage in cognitively complex and challenging tasks. As they grapple with and generate new hypotheses, they develop deeper conceptual understandings that go beyond mere recitation of facts.

Having advance knowledge of where students may potentially misunderstand a new concept helps teachers design lessons that can nip misunderstandings in the bud — and maybe even inspire a new generation of lifelong learners.

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