Confronting Student Misconceptions

Last time on Next Time Teaching, we were talking about the role of destruction in teaching and some of the most prevalent student misconceptions.  Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way that seem to help confronting those misconceptions go more smoothly for both students and teachers.

Expect pain.  Resistance from students can be extremely frustrating.  In our eyes, we’re trying to help them be better readers/writers/scientists/thinkers/whatever, so why aren’t they more grateful?  But if we acknowledge that part of what we’re doing is asking them to question–and even throw out–their cherished beliefs, then we’d expect more negative emotions like anger and sadness.  After all, in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the people led out of the cave aren’t happy to be free and see the light, they’re in pain and want to go back.

Start by asking students what they think.  It’s much harder to fight an enemy you can’t see, so might as well get the beliefs out into the open.  And if I know there’s a good likelihood that I’m going to try to “destruct” some of the pre-existing ideas, I’d probably give students markers to write their ideas on the board rather than talking about them.  That way there’s a bit more separation of the idea from the person after they’ve sat down and it’s not quite as confrontational as disagreeing in the middle of a discussion.  Plus erasing an idea can be a strong signal of moving past it.

Acknowledge the process.  When a student says “I changed my mind” during the course of a discussion, I try to make it a point to say “thank you.”  It’s difficult to admit that you were wrong. You can also make an activity out of having everyone share something that they used to think was true that now seems crazy.  Students usually love talking about themselves as little kids. The tricky part is getting them to see that things their 15-year-old self believes will one day seem as silly to them as their 5-year-old beliefs do now.

Confront them with facts.  I used to work with a physics teacher who would talk about teaching and learning in such clear ways that I almost wanted to cry.  He would say things like “begin with a known misconception and give the students an opportunity to confront a situation where the misconception contradicts reality and then they’ll be ready for a new theory that offers a better explanation.”  And that’s the way he structured his physics labs and he measured success by analyzing differences in pre and post tests. It made so much sense.

And I’m still trying to figure out how to apply that to teaching English.  But I do think that providing facts and letting them speak for themselves can be a powerful technique.  If students look at a Shakespearean sonnet next to an example of Old English, they can clearly see that Shakespeare didn’t write in Old English, he wrote in Early Modern English.  Then I don’t have to use my teacher authority to proclaim the idea “wrong,” they’ve already abandoned it.

Let them hear other voices.  Another way to avoid the showdown of directly telling kids that what they think they know is wrong is to give them an opportunity to hear other people telling their own stories.  I like to use this student video where young women of color talk about the effect of a narrow cultural idea of beauty rather than me preaching that media can be dangerous.  

Help them make sense of old knowledge.  One idea that most of my students do seem to get is that history is written by the victors.  And that gives them a nice framework for learning potentially conflicting new ideas: this is different than what I learned earlier because now we’re hearing from other perspectives.  Any way they can make sense of their old belief is helpful.

And I think it’s really important for them to see that the course of learning is rough, and that many scientists and doctors and historians have been wrong about many, many things.  My daughter is really into all things prehistoric right now and one thing that’s been cool for me is seeing how much more we know about dinosaurs and hominids now then when I was learning about them in school.

Document the beginning.  One of the most painless things I’ve learned to do is to take a writing sample on one of the first few days of school.  I don’t say much and tuck it away and when I show them to the students again on one of the last days of school, the reaction often escalates to shock and disgust.  I hear “why did I write it like that?” and “what was I thinking?”

Those are satisfying moments and I try to soak them in, knowing I’ll begin again in the fall, with a whole new set of students and a new set of cherished beliefs to blow up.

4 thoughts on “Confronting Student Misconceptions

  1. Jane Carpenter

    When I was about five years old, my favorite cereal was Cap’n Crunch. For some odd reason, perhaps a vivid dream or an invention of my tastebuds, I was also convinced that Cap’n Crunch contained sunscreen. I held this belief for about six months until I mentioned it to my older brother and he waved the nutritional facts in my face, revealing my error. I remember feeling absolutely devastated and blindsided. How could my favorite cereal betray me like this? Of course, I moved on and gained an understanding that Cap’n Crunch is mostly just flour and sugar. As you stated, I think it can be really helpful to think of our beliefs like this. Who’s to say that in fifteen years I won’t look upon my current beliefs with the same astonishment that I remember my beliefs ten years ago? It’s certainly hard to be humbled or admit that you’re wrong. However, this blog is oddly comforting because it reminds me that as I try my best and occasionally fumble through classes, my teachers are only doing their best as well, just as human as I am.

  2. Isabella K

    I have noticed that teachers I particularly enjoy employ most of these methods. It is somewhat jarring, yet stimulating and satisfying to feel an old misconception I harbored being replaced by a more accurate belief. The only way I know I’m learning is when I’m being shaken up. For me, I enjoy being “confronted with facts” the most, and I especially enjoyed the activity comparing Old English to Early Modern English. As the old saying goes, seeing really is believing. I had thought for my entire life that Shakespeare wrote in Old English up until that very moment. My life changed once I realized that this misconception wasn’t true, and it felt strange that none of my teachers in the past had clarified the distinction. The distinction really brought Shakespeare’s work closer to me, because I no longer characterized Shakespeare’s work as removed from my own time period and experiences. If I’ve carried this simple misconception for so long, who knows how many other misconceptions I have? What if those other misconceptions have an even more detrimental effect on my life and worldview? It’s a sobering thought.

    1. Karena Nelson

      Thanks, Isabella. Sobering, maybe, but I also find it inspiring. Gives you something to do with the rest of your life!


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