As a young girl growing up in Chennai by the beach, I saw the Sun rise from the sea every day and go across the sky to set on the other side of the city. It appeared to me that the Sun was disappearing below ground to reappear from under the sea the next morning.
When I learnt later in school that the Earth goes around the Sun, I was faced with the difficult task of deleting a mental image that made sense to me, and replacing it with a model that was not intuitively understandable.
Misconceptions have been a bane for educators since time immemorial. Even the best students at the best universities have been known to harbour misconceptions about simple things.
For example, most people believe that Polaris - or the North Star - is the brightest star in the sky. The belief exists because it's the only object in the sky that appears bright and stationary, and has been used by explorers to navigate. But the brightest star in the sky is actually Sirius. Polaris doesn't even make the top ten.
Another example is the way people understand respiration. Many think that they breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide through their nostrils like a filter. The truth is we breathe in air and breathe out air, and the gas exchange happens in the blood vessels of the lungs.
Research says that students do not come to the classroom as "blank slates", rather they come with notions constructed from everyday experiences. Teachers and schools further help build this understanding. During this process, the mind forms ideas and attempts to connect the new with information stored in memory. Some of these ideas may be erroneous and may result in faulty concepts or misconceptions.
We at Centre for Science of Student Learning (CSSL) come across many such misconceptions in our work with students and teachers in urban and rural India, some of which are shared below:
Religious or mythological beliefs
During training sessions, we often come across science teachers incorrectly identifying the Moon as a planet. We found it is common in eastern religions and astrology to worship the 'navagrahas' or nine planets, in which the Moon is represented as a planet. This belief interferes with the scientific understanding of the Moon and teachers with these faulty concepts carry it to classrooms.
These are perceptions derived from everyday experiences, or from ideas we gather from our socio-cultural surroundings. These can be notions we build about people from different cultures, religions or regions that lead to prejudice.
In a study we did across rural areas of Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh that tested more than 6,000 students in government schools, as many as 16.9 percent of students said they would not like to be friends with a new student who does not speak the same language. Xenophobia, or a fear of strangers, can be detrimental to co-existence and building multicultural societies.
Misconceptions arising from language
Sometimes misconceptions arise because words mean one thing in common parlance and something different in a scientific context. Idioms or figures of speech can be confused with facts. A popular example is the adage - lightning doesn't strike twice.
Stereotyped beliefs that have existed for too long can have huge ramifications. The reason behind racism or sexism is stereotyping communities or individuals by attributing faulty traits to them based on race, nationality or sexual orientation.
The rural study cited above showed 27 percent of students tested saying that women were suitable only for feeding children and it was inappropriate for them to play football, drive a motorbike or wield a rifle. Similarly, 41 percent believed the most suitable thing for men was to drive a tractor and not dance, bottle-feed a child or wash dishes.
Data from diagnostic questions that CSSL uses in student assessments show a number of misconceptions across different subject areas. These include: “Plants breathe only in night, and in the morning, they make food”; “If a person gives others what they ask for, then he is likely to be rich”; “A foolish person is one who makes fools of others.”
Misconceptions interfere with learning, as they impede the student’s ability to see the big picture, to understand and internalise concepts, and to apply the principles to everyday life.
Addressing a misconception and replacing them with correct concepts is not a trivial task, as it often involves deleting the student’s existing mental models. The first step is to identify the misconceptions through well-designed assessments.
Vyjayanthi Sankar is a leading education, assessment and management expert. A Fulbright Humphrey fellow and an Ashoka fellow, Vyjayanthi regularly consults for the Brookings Institution, The World Bank, UNICEF and the Learning Metrics Task Force. She is the Founder & Executive Director of the Centre for Science of Student Learning, a Delhi-based education research organisation.