When knowledge is wrong…

Babies are born knowing physics. They express surprise when an object appears to be suspended in mid-air or pass through walls (nice article here). These are the primitive physics schemas we are all born with. Onto these, we add experiences from our lives: metals are cold; batteries run out of charge; the sun moves. Then in physics lessons we try to supplant this knowledge with formalised knowledge. With mixed results.

A metal cup to keep drinks cold.

All of our children come to class with a head full of unhelpful knowledge – misconceptions. These were a huge area of phd research in the 80s and 90s. We know a lot about them.

With the current emphasis on knowledge, the research into misconceptions becomes very relevant. One of my favourite books is Children’s Ideas In Science edited by Driver, Guesne and Tiberghien (you may be able to get a copy secondhand). It explores the world of novice scientists’ minds, rich with rational, but incorrect knowledge.

More recently, I have found Harvard’s MOSART project – resources for teachers to identify misconceptions (it is useful for teachers to try too!) You have to go through a short training process before being allowed access to the assessments. Below is an example:

Scientists say a metal doorknob indoors often feels cold to you because:

  1. cold from the doorknob goes into your hand.
  2. heat from your hand goes into the doorknob.
  3. cold moves from the doorknob to your hand.
  4. heat is pulled from the doorknob by your hand.
  5. metals are always colder than air.

(MOSART test question)

The mark scheme tells you the percentage of students who chose the incorrect answer 1. and what the misconception is.

Refutation Texts

Misconceptions are tenacious and resilient. When you think you’ve got rid of one, it reappears. Long-term memories are for life. Instead of trying to remove the misconception, the solution appears to be to add to it the knowledge that it is wrong. Refutation texts have been shown to work.

A refutation text is a short paragraph, written by the learner, that does three things:

  1. State the misconception.
  2. Explicitly say that this is not correct.
  3. State the accepted scientific viewpoint.

I use sentence starters to reduce cognitive load (I’m interested in adding knowledge to a misconception):

  1. Many people believe …..
  2. However, …..
  3. Most scientists state that ….

Using the MOSART example above:

Many people believe that when you touch a metal doorknob, coldness moves from the metal into your hand. However, cold does not move. Most scientists state that it is heat moving from your hand into the metal that makes it feel cold.  


Find the misconceptions in your class and address them using refutation texts. And, be warned – you’ll probably have to do this over and over.

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