Monday, September 29, 2014

Misconceptions in teaching science

In my wanderings on the net I happened upon a paper entitled Misconceptions in the science classroom by Michael DiSpenzo. Although it is aimed at high school classes, it still seems to me applicable to tertiary and adult education, thinking about public education in climate change and so on. I thought it would be useful for me (and maybe others) to summarise.

Factual misconceptions are errors in individual facts. This might be as simple as a wrong date or capital city; an error in a largely inconsequential fact. In this case, if such information carries little emotion baggage, some repetitious reinforcement can deal with it. DiSpenzo notes that in order to deal with these misconceptions, they need to be uncovered, and this is best done before learning.

Such pre-learning discovery of learner factual misconceptions shows the value of pre-testing. Applying it to what I do when I go speaking about climate change, it could allow for asking "what do we know about...?" type questions. It opens up the potential to be railroaded, but it also lets you know where your audience is. This second comment however makes it clear that some facts are linked to a broader set of beliefs, which I'll comment on below.

Conceptual misconceptions are concepts that are in error. A classic one DiSpenzo mentions is weightlessness in space, that gravity is negligble for astronauts. A meteorological one might be the direction water spirals down the sink in different hemispheres (it doesn't change). In climate science, it might be that trace gases like CO2 can have no effect. These are harder to root out if they can't be directly demonstrated in front of someone - so chains of reasoning, video demonstrations, graphs, charts, etc have to be used. Appeals to beyond reasonable doubt and best possible explanation come in.

Preconceived notions I have found less common in teaching adults. This is application of things seen everyday inappropriately into other areas. The only area I can think of it a confusion between weather and climate, and the tendency to think too much in cycles when there is a secular trend.

Vernacular misconceptions are problems with language. The classic was the so-called canali (Italian for channels), which was translated to canals and had English speakers looking for an advanced but dying race on Mars. In meteorolgy, ideas of clouds burning off or the air holding moisture are poor use of language that lead to confusion in the physics.

Finally, nonscientific beliefs continue to be problematic. This includes religious insistence on a young earth (note I'm an Evangelical Christian but understand both the science of geology, astrophysics, evolution etc to know the Earth is old, and that Genesis 1 is ancient near eastern polemics, a topc for another time), or political and religious opposition to climate change.

In some contexts, these issues can be dealt with head on, as I often do in talks and writing on climate change. In the classroom, the science needs to be dealt with head on, and being able to say "x is consistent with y because" is the best approach. Also being able to say that "z is not a science question ..." will mean that appropriate discussions will be had.

So when dealing with well established scientific ideas, knowing what our learners know and what and how they misunderstand some ideas is helpful in knowing how to address them.


Anonymous said...

"...religious and political opposition to climate change"
presumably refers to your alarmist doctrine referred to as "global warming" until empirical evidence over nigh on 2 decades shot that malarkey to pieces. What a despicable con. Yours is the religion, brother - a mad bigoted hysterical scam that brooks no legitimate scientific scrutiny. History will shame you and your kind.

Mick Pope said...

LOL. I have a PhD in climate science and teach a course on climate change, so... Your comments are hysterical and full of name calling and that speaks volumes. If you have nothing positive to contribute here - go to Watts Up with that. Far more your scene.

Anonymous said...

PhD in climate science? Well bully for you! Is that where you learnt how to manipulate temperature data? Try enrolling in a real science program that stresses matters that may be trifling to you, like the priority of scientific integrity over groupthink propaganda.

As for name calling: I have not resorted to that in my comments but I note that your posts are replete with the disgusting use of "denier" to demonise those who would hold your climate nonsense to account.

Have a good day.