Misconceptions in the Science Classroom, part 1

Students can easily become enmeshed in their “preconceived notions” about science, and unfortunately, these ideas often come from those of us most invested in preventing them.  At the university level, I have encountered quite a few students well into their twenties who cling to inaccurate ideas.   These ideas start when students are young and if they are not dealt with, persist throughout their educational experience.

Some of my favorite misconceptions in science:

  • Seasons are caused by the variation in the distance between the sun and Earth.  When Earth is closer, we experience summer, and when it is further away, we experience winter.
  • Volcanoes erupt as the result of a chemical reaction within the earth.
  • Polar bears and penguins live in the same places.
  • The earth is sitting on something.
  • Space has an “up” and “down”.
  • Acquired characteristics can be inherited.
  • Evolution is purposeful.
  • Cladograms = phylogenetic trees.

More about misconceptions later, but in the meantime, what misconceptions have you encountered in teaching your students?  Post them in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Misconceptions in the Science Classroom, part 1

  1. What is the best way to teach bullet one? Showing an animation is good for short-term, but what works best for retention.
    What are cladograms (I’ll be googling?)

    1. Hi Sarah!

      As for the misconception about the cause of seasons, I will write an extended reply as a post later this week. In short, I have taught the idea of seasons by having students help me create a classroom size model of the sun, Earth and Moon. We set it in motion and make guided observations. We also look closely at the fact that the axis of the earth is tilted, and use flashlights to show what that means for sunlight that strikes Earth. Most children base their “understanding” of the seasons only on their experience, and it makes sense to them without knowing that 1) the earth is tilted and 2) the orbit of the earth is round. But more on that later.

      A cladogram is a diagram that shows similarity between different organisms, based on shared derived characters. It makes no statement about evolutionary relationships, but is a tool (and a graphical one) that shows the degree of similarity between organisms. I’ll take a look at the draft of the core standards, and if cladistics/cladograms are in there I will post about this too.

      Thanks for posting!

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