Misconception Rejections: A Lot of ‘What They Know’ Isn’t So

It is warmer in the summer because the Earth’s orbit takes it closer to the sun. Good writers say exactly what they want without the need for editing.

Eastern North America was sparsely populated when Europeans began to arrive. People who are dieting should not eat fat. Any fluids you drink will keep you from becoming dehydrated.

Or not. Each of the above statements represents a misunderstanding regarding some important concept that influences the way we look at the world. Yet many people, including some who are highly educated, subscribe to some of these misconceptions.

Summer’s hot days are a function of the angle of the Earth on its axis as it orbits the sun. Few writers, even among the most talented, can write without editing and revision, and some authors struggle for years to get the words just right.

The North American seaboard was populated by thriving native cultures, including sophisticated agricultural communities before diseases carried from Europe decimated them. Fat is an essential dietary component, although some types of fat are more beneficial than others. And many fluids are diuretics – they remove water from your system – so a glass of iced tea is a poor choice on a sweltering day.

Unfortunately, misconceptions such as the examples above are a frequent and powerful impediment to student learning in our classrooms. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner argues that children develop naive and erroneous theories about how things are in the world and that in spite of education to the contrary, they tenaciously adhere to these misunderstandings throughout life. Even some of our most impressive students, Gardner laments, still view much of life through the lens of their “5-year-old” minds.

Teaching/Learning Activities

Because misunderstandings are so persistent and widespread, it is critical to directly counteract them in teaching. The following steps can help prepare students for confronting misconceptions they may hold related to your curriculum.

Step 1: Initiate a discussion about misconceptions by asking students to generate a list of false beliefs that people in past times once accepted. As students work in cooperative groups, they may come up with items such as: the Earth is flat, bleeding a sick person will make them healthy, Columbus was the first European to “discover” America, whales are fish, tomatoes are poisonous, and so forth. Some of the false beliefs will likely fall into the realm of superstition (toads cause warts, diseases are caused by evil spirits, etc.).

As groups offer their “historic” misunderstandings, note how it is natural for people to trust their limited experiences and to develop serviceable notions about what they see around them. And emphasize that both teachers and students, like everyone in society, hold mistaken ideas about things which experts have disproved.

Step 2: Carefully analyze a unit of study to determine whether any common misconceptions may impact whether students will truly internalize key ideas they will be learning. As you identify these potentially harmful misunderstandings, consider ways you can directly counteract them in your instruction and assessment.

As part of this process, be especially alert during activities that elicit student background knowledge to detect important misunderstandings. For example, during a brainstorming activity on the American Southwest, student comments reveal that they regard Spanish culture in that region as solely a function of immigration from Mexico. Although a reasonable assumption, this represents a misconception that will need to be specifically addressed during the unit. Spanish culture was predominant in the region from Texas to California because this area was part of Mexico until it was annexed by the United States through the war in the 1840’s.

Confronting “common-sense” explanations is an especially critical need for science teaching. Students may successfully maneuver through a unit on photosynthesis and still retain their rock-bed understanding that “plants get their food from the soil.” Instead, using a metaphor that plants are little factories, which take raw materials from the soil as they manufacture their own food, can help to dispel this significant misunderstanding.

Step 3: Activities such as anticipation guides can help focus student attention on “what they know that isn’t so.” Contrive statements for student small group discussion that directly reflect faulty thinking. For example, a statement such as: “Forest fires are natural disasters for plants and animals” can lead students to understand the vital role that fires play in the ecosystem. A statement such as: “Because the United States is a democracy, the candidate who receives the most popular votes is elected president” helps students realize the widely misunderstood role of the electoral college in determining presidential elections.

During the assessment, items that specifically challenge students to verbalize why a misconception is wrong to have the potential to replace false notions with real understanding. Provide students with a scenario that represents a common misunderstanding and ask students to explain why this thinking is incorrect.


Gardner maintains that real insights and understandings about our curriculum will be modest unless the instruction is systematically geared to rooting out our comfortable but inaccurate ideas about how the world is. In addition, zeroing in on misconceptions has other benefits:

  • Students become aware that it is a natural human tendency to cling to personal but flawed views of what they see and experience.
  • Students are prompted to verbalize how what they are learning contradicts firmly held beliefs.
  • Students are more likely to remember what they have learned because it becomes connected to relevant background knowledge.