Science Education Research: Misconceptions are suppressed, not supplanted

Very interesting report from Neil Brown. Here’s the question I’d like to know: So what are students intuitions about computing as they enter the classroom? Are they suppressed or supplanted through instruction? My guess is that it’s different for computing than for science. We live our lives for many years, 24 hours a day, in the real world before we enter school. That’s a lot of time to invent science hypotheses about the world. Not so much for computing. While we may increasing live our lives in a computing world, it’s a constructed, designed world — a world in which the computer science is explicitly hidden. I bet that students only make up theories about computing in times of break down, when they have to invent a theory to explain what went wrong. How often does that happen? What theories do they develop?

The paper title here says it all: Scientific knowledge suppresses but does not supplant earlier intuitions. A consistent theme across the research described in this post is that when you are explaining science to pupils, you are not adding totally new knowledge, in the way that you might when explaining a lesser-known historical event. When you explain forces to someone, they will already have an idea about the way the world works (drop something, and it falls to the ground), so you are trying to adjust and correct their existing understanding (falling is actually due to gravity), not start from scratch. The paper suggests that the old knowledge is generally not replaced, but merely suppressed, meaning people carry their original misconceptions with them forever-after.

Deepa Singh
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