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.