Academic journal article The Science Teacher

What We Call Misconceptions May Be Necessary Stepping-Stones toward Making Sense of the World

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

What We Call Misconceptions May Be Necessary Stepping-Stones toward Making Sense of the World

Article excerpt

The title of this article highlights a view of science learning uncommon in schools today--one in which teachers and students view misconceptions as useful for making sense of the world (NRC 2008). What are misconceptions? Many consider them to be student ideas inconsistent with science and sometimes hard to change. One example is the idea that "A ball eventually stops after I push it because the ball 'holds force' until the force runs out and stops." While we teachers may be tempted to quickly reject the idea of objects "holding force," simply telling students the idea is incorrect has little effect on their thinking. Such ideas might, however, become part of a sense-making conversation that can support reasoning and learning.

By sense-making, we simply mean working on and with ideas--both students' ideas (including experiences, language, and ways of knowing) and authoritative ideas in texts and other materials--in ways that help generate meaningful connections. This can involve asking students to talk about their thinking, to compare ideas, to test these ideas, and to see if they can be used to explain natural events and processes. These types of reasoning episodes occur often during students' engagement with science practices such as arguing from evidence, constructing explanations, or revising models. Learning as sense-making is emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013).

In the past, when students have offered explanations inconsistent with science (such as ascribing the seasons to the changing distance between the Earth and the Sun), these ideas were seen as problematic misconceptions needing to be "stamped out" by the teacher with the correct ideas "stamped in." In this strategy, the teacher generally asked students to replace the wrong idea with the correct one (such as the tilt of the Earth and its revolution around the Sun causing the seasons). While providing accurate scientific information to students is useful, an early focus on finding and fixing misconceptions can confuse students about why their own ideas aren't accurate and fails to engage students in reasoning or idea revision. When their misconceptions are "corrected," students learn that their own ideas need to be replaced by other ideas that they don't fully understand. When this happens, students will likely memorize official "school" knowledge but fall back on their original ideas when thinking about and explaining the outside world, since they naturally reason with their own real-world experiences, language, and rules for validating claims.

More recently, a resources perspective on learning has offered an alternative to repairing misconceptions (diSessa 1993; Hammer et al. 2005; Warren et al. 2001). Rather than seeing student knowledge from a deficit view, where "wrong" answers need to be eliminated, a resources perspective emphasizes how students can reason with different kinds of valuable knowledge to make sense of new situations and ideas. These resources include partial understandings, nonstandard ideas, everyday experiences and ways of talking. In this view, students activate the ideas, experiences, or language they think will help develop explanations or solve problems in the particular context (e.g., the social and physical environment) in which they find themselves. The NGSS uses this resources perspective and prioritizes sense-making in advocating for a new vision for science teaching. The goal is for students to engage in science and engineering practices as they use their developing understanding of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts to make sense of phenomena or solve problems. Science and engineering practices are tools the classroom community uses to recognize when an idea is or isn't productive in the context in which it is being used.


Strategies for supporting student sense-making

Strategy                            Rationale/Explanation

Include some level of uncertainty   Uncertainty is an important part of
in students'                        scientific activity
science activities rather than      that leads to engagement in
using activity to confirm           reasoning (Manz 2014)
authoritative science ideas. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.