Unlearning Scientific Misconceptions

January 8, 2012

In an eye-opening video clip available  though Annenberg Learner, we see Harvard graduates unable to complete to complete a simple experiment taught in third-grade: how to light a lightbulb with a wire.  A one-hour video from the same series (“From Thin Air”)  shows the Harvard graduates unable to explain basic concepts about plant growth, and then goes on to investigate the sources of common misconceptions that prevent learning from elementary school on.

Misconceptions arise when students are confronted with scientific concepts that are counterintuitive. For example, many students never truly grasp the idea that the weight of a tree is mostly carbon absorbed from CO2. They have heard teachers explain photosynthesis but since they don’t believe that air has weight, they consistently assume the weight in a tree trunk must come from the water, or soil or minerals…something that has weight. Show them dry ice; a form of CO2 that clearly has weight and they are very surprised! This is an example of a discrepant event.

According to Binghamton University Professor Thomas O’Brien, experiencing a discrepant event, with its surprising, counterintuitive outcome “creates cognitive disequilibrium that temporarily throws learners mentally off-balance”. In his book, Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events” (NSTA Press, 2010), O’Brien describes 33 hands-on activities that can lead students and teachers to question their implicit assumptions.

Effective inquiry teaching begins by finding out what students already know, including their misconceptions, and then guiding them to questions their assumptions and discover new knowledge for themselves.

As we all know too well, what typically happens in the classroom is that teachers “cover material” and students try to memorize as much as they can. Even hands-on labs often do not challenge students to solve problems and question assumptions. Some students are very good at memorizing and repeating information (the Harvard graduates in the video clip, for example) and others fail miserably, but neither is really developing a deep understanding of concepts, or learning science. Research shows that more is not better, when it comes to exposing students volumes of detailed information through lectures or textbooks.  The brain learns through making connections to prior knowledge, so dispelling misconception is an essential prerequisite for new learning.

See Dr. O’Brian’s keynote address: Misconceptions Matter: Where Do They Come From? Where Do They Go? at the Central Western Section STANYS Winter Workshop at Nazareth College, Feb. 9, 2012

Solving the “Algebra for All” Problem … Highlights

March 17, 2009


Yesterday, I attended the Solving the “Algebra for All” Problem conference by Edward A. Silver, Ed.D., Professor at the University of Michigan.  Here are some highlights of the conference, just in case you missed it.

Schools are being asked to offer Algebra earlier (in 8th grade) and for all students. Something that I didn’t know is that Algebra used to be taught in college.  Also, eighth grade algebra was taught just to gifted students.

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMAP) was established by President Bush in 2006.

One of the results of the NMAP discussed by Dr. Silver was:

– All school districts should ensure that all prepared students have access to an authentic algebra course, and

– Should prepare more students than at present to enroll in such a course by Grade 8.

Students are reaching Algebra without being prepared for it.  Therefore, they’re set up for failure.

Being prepared, based on the NMAP report, is to have:

  1. Fluency with Whole Numbers.
  2. Fluency with Fractions.
  3. Fluency with Particular Aspects of Geometry and Measurement.

Check the Benchmarks by Grade for the Critical Foundations on page 20 of the NMAP Report (page 47 on the pdf).

An authentic algebra course is “a course that addresses algebra consistently with the Major Topics of School Algebra” per the NMAP Report.

Check the Major Topics of School Algebra on Table 1 on page 16 of the report (page 43 of the pdf).

We already have algebra for all but not by ninth grade.

What are the driving forces behind all this?

– Global competitiveness

– Equity arguments

– Demand for higher standards

Students in the US are constantly behind students in other countries in mathematics achievement tests.  Check out our previous blog post about the latest results.  As a country, we are running the risk of not having enough of a technical workforce in the future.


Dr. Silver mentioned that kids get confused as to what’s an equation although they know
they know the concept of equality. He said that we need to tell them that we’re taking and old idea and adding a wrinkle to it. We need to teach them the different kinds of equations. They have an idea that the “=” sign means to do something, to compile.


8 + 7 = __

8 + 7 = __ + 3

8 + 7 + __ = 9 + 6

They may think __ is always 15.

Equality as Balance (Relational)

Use a visual balance to show them equality between different variables/unknowns.

Important Role of Equalizing in Algebra

If a quantity can be expressed in more than one way, then these different expressions are equivalent.

Is there a quantity that you can express in two different ways?

What quantity can be expressed in terms of others?


How many squares are on the border of a N by N grid (picture at the beginning)?


4(N-2) + 4

2N + 2(N-2)

N2 – N-22


All are equivalent

Writing equations is not trivial. It is fundamental.

In the Q&A session it was discussed how we need to help students form arithmetic to algebra which is an abstract world that may not be easy for all to transition to.

Personal Note:

I think that as teachers, we need to try to put ourselves in the students shoes and figure out their thought process to be able to solve their confusion and help them learn.  This may be a difficult task for us, when algebra was probably easy for us, but it’s not impossible.

Don’t forget to check out the NMAP Report and to tell us what you think about all this.

A Chimp That Plans Ahead

March 9, 2009


Santino, a male chimpanzee at the Furuvik Zoo in Gävle, Sweden, started throwing rocks at the zoo visitors after he became the only male in the group, which was completed by four females.  He started gathering rocks and concrete when he was calm in the morning and while the zoo was closed.  Apparently he was preparing for the time of the day when he became agitated by visitors.  Primatologist Mathias Osvath of Lund University in Sweden thinks that his behavior is clearly identifiable as planning for a future mental state.

To read more about Santino and the implications of his actions, check out the Science Now article.

Informal Education is Given a “Thumbs-up”

January 30, 2009

museumA new National Study, published January 14th, indicates that informal science activities, such as trips to museums and zoos, viewing of television shows, and even discussions between parents and children, have the power to improve students’ learning.

Education Weekly reports that while it is difficult to assess informal learning, findings have shown that these out-of-school activities foster excitement in students. Not only are students becoming more excited about the curriculum, but the informal interactions seem to do a good job at reaching out to students from different backgrounds.

Looking to motivate your students? Upon discovering the positive outcomes of informal experiences, researchers have identified why these programs seem to draw kids in. Here’s what they found:

Informal learning experiences…

  • draw on learners’ experience and knowledge
  • use everyday language
  • refer to common cultural experiences
  • use familiar tools

Your own house may be the perfect starting point for informal learning. Children can find plenty of games, simulations, and information on the internet to answer their questions, and promote further learning. Check out the RAC-CEMS “Fun Stuff” page to get started today!

Quality Counts 2009

January 21, 2009

Scoring above the national “C” average, is New York State with a “B” in selected educational policies and practices. Education Week has provided an indepth state-by-state look into America’s schools. Their findings are based on research conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center’s annual state policy survey.


The research center has chosen to split the survey into two parts, each is conducted every other year. This year’s survey focused on:

  1. Chance for Success
    • Assesses “the role education plays as a person moves from childhood, through the formal K-12 school system, and into the workforce”
  2. Transitions and Alignment
    • Determines “how well the states smooth the transition through the educational pipeline, including early-childhood education, college readiness, and the economy and workforce”
  3. School funding and finance equity
    • “Analyzes school spending patterns and how equitably that funding is distributed among districts within each state”

The results for the other three areas listed above (The teaching profession, K-12 Achievement, and Assessment & Accountability) are supported by research carried out in previous years.

How do these scores influence your teaching practices, and to what degree do they reflect the policies in your school? We would love to hear how this report card compares with your experiences.