While a wealth of research exists examining elementary teachers' and students' alternative conceptions about science and offering recommendations for teacher preparation to include an emphasis on supporting conceptual change, this article presents a useful compilation that serves as a go-to resource on some of the most common oversimplified rules, incomplete or misleading vocabulary, and confusing diagrams promulgated in science teaching that could lead to enduring student misconceptions.

While a wealth of research exists examining elementary teachers' and students' alternative conceptions about science (Kikas, 2004; Aydeniz & Brown, 2010) and offering recommendations for teacher preparation to include an emphasis on supporting conceptual change (Gomez-Zwiep, 2008), this article presents a useful compilation that can serve as a go-to resource on some of the most common oversimplified rules, incomplete or misleading vocabulary, and confusing diagrams promulgated in science teaching that could lead to enduring student misconceptions. Guided by research on common alternative conceptions promulgated in elementary school science (http://www.amasci.com/miscon/opphys.html), we denote in parentheses the grade level in which the following concepts are taught as suggested in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013).

Rules That Won't Resonate in the Long Run

The following list of rules describes some common explanations of natural phenomena that are often referred to as “absolutes” (i.e., all or only) as well as some preconceptions that can lead to confusion as students are asked to construct deeper explanations when they matriculate through the grades.

  1. There are only five senses (K)

    Although this is very commonly taught to young children, humans actually have more than five senses. Thermoception (ability to sense heat and cold), sense of oxygen, ability to feel pain, balance perception, ability to sense time, and proprioception (sense of relative position of body parts) are some examples of other senses. To explore balance perception and proprioception, teachers can have students explore these “other” senses in the classroom through simple activities such as closing their eyes to determine the effect on balance and the ability to sense the position of body parts.

  2. Friction is caused by surface roughness (3rd)

    Because students generally observe that rougher surfaces have greater friction, they often think that roughness is the sole cause of friction and that smooth surfaces have no friction. In fact, friction is more than just exterior roughness and is due to the interaction between surfaces. Friction is caused by chemical bonding between the moving surfaces – by the “stickiness” of the interacting surfaces. A fun demonstration to do in the classroom is to alternate pages between two soft-covered books to show they cannot be easily pulled apart. In fact, the TV show Mythbusters demonstrated that it took two tanks to pull the books apart! The instructions and a video showing this activity can be found at http://hubpages.com/hub/how-to-do-a-friction-science-experiment.

  3. Static objects cannot exert forces; only active agents exert force (4th)

    Whenever two objects interact, a force is exerted. Often, questions about force mention “objects at rest,” leading to the erroneous idea that passive or at-rest objects do not exert a force. For example, a student might claim that the table a book is lying on does not push up on the book lying at rest on it. In reality, however, gravity and the table are exerting equal but opposite forces on the book, causing it to appear to be at rest. Although deeper understanding of this phenomenon does not come into the curriculum until middle grades, teachers can introduce the idea by discussing how a balloon stays afloat (by explaining to students that air, a gas, is actually pushing the balloon upward, while gravity is pulling it downward).

Vocabulary That Confounds

The following list describes misleading vocabulary that is often used in science classrooms but becomes such commonplace referents that students have difficulty letting go of the ideas. Care should be taken by teachers to use precise language when helping students construct explanations of these concepts.

  1. Offspring are a “blend” of their parents' genes (1st)

    Traits from parents do not get blended; instead, certain inherited genes are presented while other genes are not. Traits such as hair color and height are determined by multiple expressions of parents' genes. In essence, teachers can explain to students that offspring inherit their parents' genes, which influence their traits. Some genes that offspring inherit are expressed, while others are not.

  2. Heat and temperature are the same (2nd)

    Heat is a form of energy and cannot be measured directly. Temperature is how fast molecules are moving and can be measured directly with a thermometer. As an object is heated, it is gaining more energy. Temperature is what we use to measure the kinetic energy of the substance. In other words, temperature is the gauge for the measure of heat.

  3. One can “adapt” to their environment (3rd)

    Classroom activities such as “Create an organism that adapts to its environment” may leave students with the notion that individuals can genetically adapt or respond to their environment. The use of the term adapt is problematic because it implies that genetic responses can be determined by the organism. However, individuals cannot adapt in a biological sense; adaptations can only develop in populations over several generations. The process of adaptation happens in species over many generations and is not goal directed. Individuals cannot adapt, nor is the process a result of wanting or needing certain traits. Because students are asked to understand the concept of adaptation prior to learning explicitly about natural selection, teachers can structure “Create an organism” activities to focus on whether or not an organism is well adapted for a given environment, rather than focusing on how that organism can change to accommodate its environment.

  4. There is no gravity in space (3rd)

    Contrary to this statement, there is actually a substantial amount of gravity in space (though gravity does decrease with distance). Gravity is the reason the Moon orbits the Earth, the Earth orbits the Sun, and the Sun orbits around the center of the galaxy. Gravity is a force that any object with mass will create. At the distance of the International Space Station (~250 miles from Earth), gravity has decreased by only 10%. Even a 10% difference in gravity can have a significant influence on living things and celestial bodies (i.e., think of the physiological effect on astronauts in near space).

  5. Mass and weight are the same (5th)

    An object's mass does not change, but its weight can change depending on the pull of gravity. So, in effect, we weigh less on the Moon, even though our mass stays the same because gravity is lower on the Moon than on Earth. On the International Space Station, a 100-pound person would weigh only 90 pounds!

Diagrams That Inaccurately Illustrate

The following list of cautions comes from diagrams commonly used in science classes (Driver et al., 1994), which depict confounding visual explanations.

  1. There are only seven colors in the rainbow (1st)

    There are many colors in the rainbow other than the seven frequently highlighted in the traditional diagram; humans have created these categorical boundaries because this is what we see. The depiction of rainbows with very distinct color bands confuses this fact. The familiar mnemonic ROYGBIV, which likewise stands for the seven colors, limits student thinking. Teachers can show pictures of what other animals “see”; for example, bees see in a higher spectrum than humans, so bees would be able to see more ultraviolet colors.

  2. Gases expand to fill their containers (2nd)

    Illustrations of gases in textbooks regularly show the molecules evenly spread out in their container. In these illustrations, gases would fill up their containers if there were a vacuum of air in the container, which is often not the case. Because we live in a gas-filled environment, gases rarely expand to fill their container. When poured out, dense gases actually behave like a liquid – running out onto the floor and making an invisible mess (teachers can shoot carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher to show this)! The reason behind this is that gases have varying densities (this concept can be modeled by a balloon filled with helium, which is a gas that is less dense than air, causing it to float). Students at this age have learned about floating and sinking – a foundational concept to density. The same concept they learned with solids applies to gases as well.

  3. Materials can only exhibit properties of one state of matter (2nd)

    Though often seen in a table or chart where they are three distinct categories, there are actually five states of matter, including plasma (essentially what stars exist as) and Bose-Einstein condensates (which exist as a clump of atoms or “superatoms” with very little molecular motion). While second-grade students will not be discussing Bose-Einstein condensates, they can do simple demonstrations showing that matter can exhibit some properties of more than one of these five states. For example, students can make Dr. Seuss's “ooblek” by combining two cups of cornstarch and one cup of water to make a non-Newtonian fluid that acts like a liquid when being poured, but like a solid when a force is acting on it.

Teaching with Attention to Clarifying Common Alternative Conceptions

One feature of the Next Generation Science Standards is the focus on more rigorous standards at each grade – and the directive to have greater coherence as students progress through the elementary grades. The level of accuracy and precision that we discuss in this article is an effective starting place as schools build a trajectory of science concepts, models, and terminology from one grade to the next. This consistency of presentation and vocabulary helps students build conceptual understanding of terms, diagrams, and explanations.

References

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