Misconceptions are one of the most difficult things we as educators face. “It is only reasonable that students would not accept a new idea without first feeling that their existing views are unsatisfactory in some way” (NARST). Due to many factors including time restraints, lack of creativity and laziness, many teachers simply tell their students the correct answer and expect them to dispel their own previous views automatically. Pedagogically speaking however, that is a very bad idea. It can be embarrassing and devaluing for the students, whose ideas represent the culmination of a lifetime of trying to make sense of their world, and are therefore held as valued possessions (Horton, 2011). As Smith et al. (1993) put it, “misconceptions are faulty extensions of productive prior knowledge.” “The students have spent a lifetime, starting as toddlers, trying to be right, and they get defensive, angry and wary when told they are wrong. In any case, they simply cannot just switch off their own ideas and adopt new ones that are presented to them, even if the evidence is clear. Brains don’t work that way” (Horton, 2011). As Smith (1993) observes, replacing misconceptions “… is neither plausible nor always desirable; misconceptions thought to be extinguished often reappear.”
Horton also states that “new conceptions arrived at over time or through guided inquiry and student discourse are in fact stable and do come to replace old conceptions.” Mason continues this point by stating that “the biggest first step is to challenge students to become dissatisfied with their currently held concepts” (Mason, 2006). Therefore, what should be done to replace a misconception is to provide the students with an inquiry activity that will allow them to first state their initial thoughts then come to their own conclusions based on experimental results.
This was the problem I faced, I had a room full of grade 10’s and what do 16 year olds think about? Well two things would be: 1)getting their licence and 2) talking/texting on their phones. Unfortunately, they often think they can do both at the same time. They also are under the impression that they can truly multitask which is physiologically impossible despite what some people might think. “Humans, don’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly…. our [brain switches] from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.” Dictionary.com defines multitasking as the ability for one person “to perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” As stated, no one can actually multitask no matter how much it’s talked about in the media. “You cannot focus on one [thing] while doing the other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks.”
However, telling my students this before the activity would have defeated the purpose of it. I needed them to begin with their minds full of previous conceptions and try to first create doubt then correct that doubt. I first asked them what they thought about multitasking, if they knew what it was and if they felt they were good at it. I then asked them if they felt driving and talking hands free on their cell phone was ok or if their driving would suffer. What I found was that my students felt that they 1) could do two things simultaneously and 2) were for the most part, excellent multitaskers and that using a cell phone while driving (hands free because you avoid the distraction of holding the phone) doesn’t take away from your ability to drive safety. They were in for a huge surprise.
The Task Part 1 – Find a partner and answer a series of grade 2 level addition math questions, eight in all where the answer reached a maximum of ten (e.g. 4+5). Have your partner time how long it takes you.
The Task 2 – Answer a similar (but different) set of questions while singing Happy Birthday over and over until all eight problems are complete. Done separately, both these tasks are simple and would be done quickly and easily. Done together, the results are very different.
Result – Once each task was complete, one person from each group wrote the results on the board. What did we find? The average time to answer the eight simple math questions went from 9.8 seconds to 22.8 seconds, a 132% increase!! The kids were floored when they saw the numbers. This lead us into a discussion about the risks of driving while distracted and the dangers it presents. Once the discussion was complete, I handed out a recent news article which affirmed our findings by looking at the difficulty drivers have making a left-hand turn while on their phone. Their third and final task was the read the article and summarize its findings in 100-150 words. The article is well done and can be found here:
From my experience, it is difficult for teachers to address misconceptions because we either a) already know the correct answer and expect our students to simply take our word for it or b) simply don’t have the time or training to properly probe our students knowledge, determine where their misconceptions lie and then fix them. Most teachers are excellent, hard working individuals and therefore, most of the blame rests on the latter. This example above is only one instance where misconceptions can be uprooted and dispelled, as educators we need to take the necessary time in order to really reach our students.
Horton, Christopher. “Student Alternative Conceptions.” California Journal of Science Education 7.2 (2007). Web. 16 Oct. 2011.
Jon Hamilton. (October 2, 2008). Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again. In NPR. Retrieved April 3, 2013, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794.
Mason, D. S. (2006). “Especially for High School Teachers.” Journal of Chemical Education 83(5).
NARST Publications: http://www.narst.org/publications/research/concept.cfm
Smith, John, P., diSessa, Andrea A., and Roschelle, Jeremy (1993), Misconceptions Reconceived: a Constructivist Analysis of Knowledge in Transition, The Journal of the Learning Sciences 3 (2), p. 115-163.