EEF Blog: New resources for tackling scientific misconceptions

What colour is deoxygenated blood? Where does the mass of a tree come from? Chemistry teacher and EEF science specialist, Dr Niki Kaiser, explains the importance of confronting students’ misconceptions and introduces new resources designed to help teachers plan around them effectively. 

Have you ever betrayed a lack of knowledge about something you really should know more about? And more, have you ever done it on the first day of a new job with your new supervisor... about the very thing you’d be working on for the next three years?

Before training as a teacher, I worked as a marine scientist. More precisely, I was a post-doctoral researcher in Marine Biogeochemistry. The ‘bio’ part of this was important, because I hadn’t studied any Biology since my GCSE over a decade before. Nor had I ever studied the ‘geo’ bit, but I had a strong Chemistry background and I was keen to develop further.

My research would involve the study of photosynthesis and respiration in phytoplankton along with how these interacted with the ocean and atmosphere. On the first day of my new job, my supervisor assumed I knew all about photosynthesis and respiration.

“Oh yes!” I said, “Photosynthesis is carried out by plants, and respiration occurs in animals.”

My new supervisor looked horrified. It revealed an all-too-common scientific misconception. Plants do indeed carry out photosynthesis, and respiration does occur in animals. But unlike photosynthesis in plants, respiration is not unique to animals, it occurs in plants, too.

Of course, misconceptions, preconceptions and alternative conceptions are found everywhere in science. 

Sometimes, children develop them from observing the world around them, but we can also inadvertently trigger or reinforce them ourselves, as teachers. You can find examples of these in two infographics, 'From little acorns, how big do oak trees grow?' and 'Why are our veins blue?', published this week (see below).

So how did my embarrassing photosynthesis misconception emerge, despite what I’d learned in GCSE biology?

Any teacher who has ever taught a class will tell you that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Children often seem to forget things, even if they previously appeared quite secure in their understanding. 

But we also know that what we learn, and the way we frame our thinking, depends on what we already know and understand. So, it’s important to help children make links with previous learning, and with the things they’ll learn in the future.

Another thing that teachers know from experience is that there are certain concepts, within any topic, that children often find particularly tricky to understand. There are also common preconceptions that our pupils hold, before we’ve started to teach them.

Our job is to take account of these when we teach, to uncover them and help our pupils to confront their misunderstandings. It is also important to revisit concepts, and help our pupils see how they link to other things they know.

Improving Secondary Science

Seven recommendations for improving science in secondary schools

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Turn on the RADAAR for misconceptions

The RADAAR planning framework is designed to help teachers to plan around misconceptions, based around a 3-step (cyclical) process, prompted by recommendation one from the EEF's Improving Secondary Science guidance report. 

RADAAR_Planning_Template

It prompts us to Research and Anticipate misconceptions before teaching a topic. What are the key ideas and misconceptions, what language do we need to be careful about, and what have children learned about previously that will help them build their understanding in this topic?

The next stage is to Diagnose and Address those misconceptions that our pupils hold. This is the bread-and-butter of teaching: finding out what our pupils think, then building on these ideas.

Finally, we need to Assess and Review ideas later. We can’t assume that ideas will ‘stick’ forever, or that our pupils will understand how they link to other things they learn. We need to help pupils to review their understanding of key concepts, and explicitly prompt them to make links between ideas.

The process repeats and is cyclical. The ideas from this topic will be the building blocks for others in the future. As teachers, we have an overview of our subjects, and can take this into account as we plan.

You could use the 'From little acorns, how big do oak trees grow?' and 'Why are our veins blue?' infographics to reflect on the misconceptions that pupils hold, and how they might develop; and then the RADAAR framework could support curriculum planning, either individually or within a department. 

The questions prompt us to build on the ideas that pupils bring to lessons, and to continue this process as they develop their scientific understanding.