Science Teachers and the Raiders of the Misconception

Have you ever seen the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark? In the movie, there’s a scene where the intrepid archaeologist has made his way into an ancient temple where a golden idol is kept. At the end of the temple the idol is standing neatly on a pedestal. Indiana, being the smart guy he is, pulls out a bag of sand that he guesses is roughly the same weight as the idol. In a good example of slight of hand, Indy deftly swaps the bag out for the idol. This is my strategy for helping students in my classroom overcome their mis- or alternative conceptions….

Ok, I’ll admit, it’s not the best analogy. Mostly because it doesn’t work. Indy swaps the back for the idol but the trap is still sprung and a giant boulder comes rolling his way. So for the sake of this blog, let’s just pretend it does work out in Indy’s favor.

So what does this 80s actions film have to do with teaching?

That’s easy! It’s a two step process.

Removing the idol:

In this analogy, the idol is the misconception. Which kind of works here! A lot of times students misconceptions sound cooler than reality. These misconceptions appear “shinier” than the actual science. “The universe is infinite” oooooohhh. “Heavier object fall faster” woooowww. “Planetary orbits are circular” shiny!

So the first step as teachers trying to help out students is to remove the misconception. If we don’t show our students the error in their thinking they’ll grow up always believing that planetary orbits are circular, and we simply can’t allow that to happen.

A great way to help students realize they have a misconception is to confront the misconception head on. Have the students do a lab where they drop two objects of vastly different weight and see which one will hit the ground first. By giving students this hands on experience, they can start to break down their misconception just by observing the reality of the situation.

It’s important to create a safe area where student feel comfortable recognizing that they have a misconception. Labs and experiments are a good way of creating this environment because students don’t have to directly admit they thought something that was wrong. Plus, students are invited to discuss with their groups so that they can overcome misconceptions as a collective

Placing the sand:

I believe that one of the most important things to do when confronting misconceptions is to fill the gap in knowledge. It may sound obvious, but in order for a student to fully overcome their misconceptions, they have to learn the correct conception. No one wants to hear that they are simply wrong. If they are, they want to know exactly why, as these misconceptions are often deeply held.

One way to fill in this knowledge gap is by building off of prior knowledge. By accessing a students previous knowledge or experience we can take them on a logical step by step journey to the correct answer. In a lot of cases this step by step process will be necessary as we teach more complex ideas. Breaking these complex ideas into smaller components is a great way to help students build the knowledge and replace the idol with sand.

Addressing misconception in a science class is important because it helps students learn to admit when they’re wrong. Sometimes, incorrect beliefs about science can lead to people getting hurt (or pandemics lasting over a year). Helping students get past these misconceptions is about more than just the science, it’s about accepting that we all make mistakes, and that’s ok, we just need to be able to see when we’re wrong and fix it.

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6 Responses to Science Teachers and the Raiders of the Misconception

  1. vajentle says:

    Tommy,
    Fantastic post!! Your Indiana Jones analogy at the beginning is such a great way to start off, it grabs the reader’s attention while still relating to the topic at hand!! (I mean assuming we pretend that the boulder stayed in place LOL). I also really like how you compared placing the sand with filling in the gap with knowledge. This is such a great way to describe addressing misconceptions! Your post is so creative, I really really enjoyed reading it! 🙂

  2. curtisrc says:

    Tommy,
    I loved how you connected and articulated your thoughts about misconceptions with the movie, Indiana Jones. I think making that connection makes learning about whatever concept that much more unique because it lends itself as an opportunity to connect to students lives’ too! I also really appreciate the Marvin Williams quote you pulled in. I think this ties in the the concept of the growth mindset in how we encourage students to handle themselves in the face of confusions, setbacks or failures. So incorporating the growth mindset into conversations around misconceptions might be a good way to infuse some of these notions. Great blog post!

  3. chenj18 says:

    Hi Tommy,

    I really enjoyed the analogy between Indiana Jones and misconceptions in science classrooms. It was really creative and the segue towards your points are really sound. If you were put in a situation where a student is finding it difficult to change their misconceptions, how would you approach them? Do you believe there is a certain amount of time that you should wait before you talk about it with them again?

  4. Lauren Colliver says:

    Hi Tommy,
    Great post on misconceptions in science! I really like the Indiana Jones analogy for misconceptions and the role teachers play in replacing the “idol” of misconceptions with scientifically sound understandings. In your future physics classroom, what do you think will be one of the first misconceptions you will need to address with your students and how might you go about it?

  5. Brooklyn Wilson says:

    Tommy, Spectacular blog post!!!! This has got to be one of the best approaches I have seen when addressing misconceptions. Your connection to the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is just one of the powerful pieces that drove me to your blog. I really like how you compared Indy’s replacement of the sand-filled bag with how a teacher should approach student misconceptions. As a future educator, how would you address a misconception that only one student has and not the entire class?

  6. jaycoxck says:

    Tommy, wow wow wow! This post was so organized and written so well. I love the discuss of the task at hands for a teacher is two fold – “remove the idol” and “placing the sand.” What are some strategies that you would employ to “remove the idol” within your future classroom? Will you use unit pretests? Will use use prior knowledge about topics students typically have trouble with and ask them to self reflect on why they think as they do? Overall, great post!

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