In the past, I’ve talked a lot about why I love certain kinds of misconceptions. In this particular post, I talked about why I love the misconception that the earth gets closer to the sun in the summer. Two recurring claim of mine have been that (1) student ideas should be evaluated with respect to the evidence and reasoning they currently have available, and that (2) sensible, explanatory, and well-articulated misconceptions are to be cherished over impoverished but accurate scientific statements.
In this vein, If you have never read Philip Sadler’s 1998 article, “Psychometric Models of Student Conceptions in Science: Reconciling Qualitative Studies and Distractor-Driven Assessment Instruments” in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, you might want to.
To steal a quote from its abstract:
…instruction appears to strengthen support for alternative conceptions before this preference eventually declines. This lends support to the view that such ideas may actually be markers of progress toward scientific understanding and are not impediments to learning.
Misconceptions are markers of progress. Yes, he said it.
To give you yet another reason to read the paper. Here’s Figure 2 from page 276, showing the popularity of different ideas to explain the seasons at different “ability levels” collapsed along single dimension. What patterns do you see?
It is true that often times when we see misconceptions in class, we gasp. But here we have yet another reason to think about misconceptions as important for learning and possibly necessary to make progress. This year, I’m going to brag a lot more about all the misconceptions that come up in and because of my class. I’m going to brag because it might mean that my students are making more progress by developing misconceptions than by either idly sitting around not thinking about the world or by trying to memorize correct scientific statements. Be a good teacher this year: go out and cause some misconceptions.