Science educators have long noted that learners can hold misconceptions about important scientific concepts. These misconceptions are often formed in elementary school, and can be surprisingly difficult to shake. 1
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might help students create stories to contain and connect the information they are learning in science class. I wondered if misconceptions might somehow be connected with the stories we tell ourselves. 2
As Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow notes, our brains have a hard time NOT making sense of things. We create stories to help us connect things, to remember them, and to make sense of things. Sometimes we jump to conclusions because the “story” we tell ourselves makes intuitive sense, but might be built on flimsy evidence.
The fact that we can see a connection between things, even if it is superficial or tenuous, can serve as evidence that the connection is true and important. We sometimes don’t question the story we tell ourselves because it seems like the story confirms what we already knew. Contrary evidence is discarded or, perhaps, not even noticed because it does not fit with the story we have created.3
What if the stories we tell ourselves about why or how things happen is strongly influenced by this almost innate desire to create stories with some degree of coherence? What does that mean for how I address misconceptions in science class? Perhaps it is really important to interpret the stories we tell ourselves, to determine the underlying “theme” (theory or model) that holds the story together. Then we can test that unifying concept against alternate versions of the story to see what holds us to the evidence we see in the real world.
Such was my thinking when we entered our learning unit on what causes the seasons.
At the very beginning of our learning, I gave the students this task:
The weather in our area is much colder than it was at the beginning of the year. We started the year at the end of summer and now we are entering winter. What do you think causes summer and winter? Jot down some words to explain why this happens. Please make a sketch of the Earth, the Sun, and how they move in relationship to each other to help me understand your explanation.
That evening I looked at the stories that emerged and found some surprising commonalities. For instance, about 10% of the children drew diagrams that had the Sun revolve around the Earth. We needed to deal with that important minority opinion.4 A very large number of children described the Earth in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. In this model, the seasons are caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun in the summer, and farther away from the Sun in the winter.
The next day I asked the children why they thought this was the case. The first thing most said was that they hadn’t thought of trying to figure out the causes of winter and summer before, so my request was a challenge for them. But then they offered an explanation that the elliptical orbit placed the Earth closer to the Sun during July (a hot month) and farther from the Sun in January (a cold month). They argued that it made sense to them because the closer you are to a heat source, the warmer you get; the farther you are from that source, the cooler you get. In other words, this explanation makes intuitive sense based on their lived experience. Even though they had not really thought about the Earth’s orbit much before, they worked backwards from that lived experience to fit the orbit with the experience. While it bothered some that the Sun wasn’t in the center (“It doesn’t look right.”) they were willing to let go of that to make the model fit with the notion of how distance and temperature are related.
In fact, this explanation was also the one provided to the interviewers who asked Harvard graduates the very same question back in the 1980s.
Given our model, we made some predictions:
- The closer the Earth gets to the January position in the orbit, the colder the temperatures will be.
- The closer the Earth gets to the July position in the orbit, the warmer the temperatures will be.
I gave the children average temperature data by month for two locations: Dubuque, IA (close to our school location) and from Canberra, Australia (about as far from us as we can get.) Their task was to graph these data and to check it against what our model predicted.
Within minutes I heard exclamations like these:
- Wait! What’s happening?
- This can’t be right!
- Canberra is almost opposite of Dubuque!
- What could cause that…?
- Wow. I didn’t expect that.
I also showed the children a video that I had asked my wonderful brother to make. (He happened to be in Australia this last month.) On the day he shot it, the temperature was 84 degrees on the beach in Australia and 11 degrees in our town.
Then I asked the children to gather into groups to talk about the implications of what they had learned. Their task was to discuss these questions:
- Does the evidence support our model, or cause us to question our model?
- If it causes us to question the model, then what changes to our model would you make?
- What additional information do you request from me in order to revise this model?
After a few minutes in their groups to try to come up with a different model (using sundry balls we had in the classroom), we gathered together to talk. We discovered that almost everyone wanted to change the model. Most wanted to change it drastically. Now they felt that the Sun had to somehow be in the center. Since the Earth was both warm and cool at the same time, they felt that an elliptical orbit would no longer work as an explanation. However, they grappled with how to explain the seasons, then; how could they develop a model that would take into account the fact that winter and summer appeared at the same time, but in different places? The advantage of the previous model was that it had explained temperature differences between the seasons. The disadvantage of the model was that it didn’t fit the more complex reality of actual temperatures on the Earth. Now, we were left without an explanatory model. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in.
Acknowledging the work they had done to try to revise the model, I asked them what new information they wanted to make sure their next model was more accurate. Here is a list of some new questions/requests for information:
Toward the end of last week I gave them data about the orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the diameters of the Earth and the Sun in order to help them answer their question about the shape of the Earth’s orbit. Their task was to make a scale model of this system given the data that I presented to them. I’ll post about this fascinating discussion next week, if I get a chance.
This whole process has been intriguing and, well, scary — like walking a tightrope is scary: I don’t want to make a mis-step. For instance, I gave the children a lot of space in class to discuss the first “elliptical orbit” model, knowing that it was inaccurate. We even used class time to develop a rationale for why that might make sense. So, in a sense I was helping the children develop a misconception, maybe even solidifying that misconception in their own minds. I worried about that.5
But, I think it will work out okay in the long run. This has been a puzzle that they have to think about. They have had to be engaged, thinking through the entire activity: one child: “This is so hard! It’s confusing…but fun to try to figure out!” And now they are accumulating information that has caused them reject their first model. I’m noticing that they are not going back to it, even though they do not have anything to take its place. I suspect that reluctance to readopt it might stem from the fact that moving from it wasn’t imposed on them by an “authority figure” like me, but from their own reasoning through the implications of the model they created. I’m hoping that the next model we create will provide enough explanatory power that it will stick more strongly than the “closer means more heat, farther means less heat” model.
Our next steps will be to offer alternative explanations using data about day length and sun angle to help them see why the seasons happen when they do. I’ll report back on what I learn from this process.
- Check out the science-related website, Veritasium, for their Misconceptions playlist. It’s fun to watch. Here’s an example:
- My own inquiry explores the implications of the idea that our minds, as author Thomas Newkirk reminds us, are “made for stories.” I presented some of this early thinking with a panel of wonderful folks at the NCTE14 conference in Washington, D.C. in November. One recent project brought me to experiment with collaborative story creation as a way to more deeply learn science concepts. As I explored this process, I was impressed by how deeply the kids processed complex scientific ideas. It seems that being able to put ideas into words, to see and articulate the relationships between ideas, to tell the story of a particular idea really does matter. ↩
- This is the definition of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and assign greater weight to evidence that confirms our preconceived notions. I suspect that this tendency ALSO might come from our ability to create stories. Coherence matters to those stories. But, maybe my attributing this tendency to our need to create stories is an example of confirmation bias, itself! ↩
- We dealt with that by acting out the orbit of the Earth and the Sun as partnerships in various corners of the room. Then we compared our ideas and arrived at a community consensus that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. This wasn’t “proof” in any scientific sense, but everyone had heard that this was the case, so could accept the idea once they had acted it out and they could see why it looks like the Sun is orbiting the Earth each day. ↩
- One teaching associate who visited the classroom during one of those days later told me that she thought that she had the reasons for the season wrong after our discussion. That worried me! ↩