The perils of misconceptions—for students and teachers

This post is the sixth and final in a periodic series exploring common misconceptions around how students learn. We first touched on these misconceptions in our September 2015 report, The Science of Learning, and will be exploring them in more depth over the next few months.

In today’s post, Dr. Julie Booth explores how misconceptions can influence how new knowledge is interpreted – and why for teachers, that can result in missed opportunities for instruction or even cause direct harm to their students. Dr. Booth is associate dean of undergraduate education and an associate professor of educational psychology at Temple University’s College of Education.

“Kids say and do the darndest things!” You’ve heard it said, seen examples on TV or in your friends’ Facebook posts, and if you’ve spent even short periods of time with children between the ages of three and 12, you’ve probably observed it yourself.

“You must be 100 years tall!”

“If I have to stop fooling around with Pap’s light switches, which ones are Grandma’s?”

“You’re making my ears all noisy!”

“Look Mommy, (pointing to a bible verse), it’s Jesus’s phone number!”

You might assume these comments are just reflections of children’s willingness to share what they’re thinking. But the things kids say and do reflect how they have made sense of the world around them. And, as you might imagine, that understanding is fraught with misconceptions.

Have you ever asked a three- or four-year-old child what kinds of things they believe are alive? Here’s how my (now 11-year-old) daughter answered this question back when she was four years old.

Like my daughter, most kids will come up with the obvious ones, like humans or other types of animals. But they may soon diverge into different kinds of vehicles, like cars or airplanes, while missing things like trees, flowers or other types of plants. The characteristics we think of as defining something as alive are clearly not the same as a child’s! Why? Because children are using the most salient information to make sense of what they see, and for young kids, that is movement. They look around and see cars move, but the tree in their front yard never seems to go anywhere. Therefore, vehicles are probably alive, but trees probably aren’t. Slightly older children may draw parallels between their need to eat and cars needing gas—further evidence that their initial theory is right.

Parents and teachers would likely call these misconceptions, while scholars may call them either misconceptions or preconceptions. For our purposes, the terms are mostly interchangeable. Preconceptions are typically thought of as underdeveloped knowledge or incomplete ideas, whereas misconceptions may be ideas that are complete, but wrong. Preconceptions may therefore be less ingrained and easier to fix. But either can have an impact on someone’s ability to learn correct information in the future.

The effect of flawed conceptions on future learning was captured in one of my favorite studies in developmental psychology. Vosniadou and Brewer (1992) asked first- through fifth-grade students to do a simple task: draw the earth.  But the range of responses was far from simple (See Figure 1).

Of course, some kids drew a ball or sphere, and some drew flat ground. But as you can see in the figure, many drew variants that fell in between, from a flattened sphere to a hollow sphere with flat ground inside to a flat pancake and more. Where in the world did these ideas come from? Certainly, no one has ever told a child that the earth looks like a pancake, nor would children have ever seen a picture of the earth looking like that.

Kids start with an idea of what they think is going on (the earth where they are walking around looks flat to them), and then someone puts correct information on top of that (the earth is round). Unless the original, flawed conception is remedied, children simply reconcile the two pieces of information however they can. So you can end up with an earth that is flat but round like a pancake, or a hollow sphere where the sky looks like a dome but the part we walk on, inside, is still flat. The moral of the story is that these misconceptions greatly influence how new information (e.g., lesson being taught in the classroom, knowledge gained from books) is interpreted.

Why is this relevant in this particular blog series? For the past few months, we’ve been discussing common teacher misconceptions about student learning, like believing there are different styles of learning that one must cater to or that students can be “right brained” or “left brained.” Just like how children’s misconceptions can affect how they interpret new knowledge, holding these beliefs can be harmful to an adult’s future learning about how students think: Each time a teacher reads a article, takes a class, or attends a workshop, she is piling the new information on top of flawed conceptions and ending up with a pancake earth. Her interpretation of a new technique, for example, is skewed by what she already thought about how kids learn (e.g., this is a great technique, and I should use it, but only for the students who are kinesthetic learners), and her application of the new technique in the classroom is probably not going to improve student learning for all students in the way it was intended.

Unlike student misconceptions, teacher misconceptions don’t only affect themselves. And this can extend beyond missed opportunities for instruction—it can actually do direct harm to the students in their class. Have you heard of stereotype threat or learned helplessness? Essentially, if someone believes success isn’t possible for some reason, they are likely to behave in a way that confirms that belief (Steele & Aronson, 1995). And if it is a belief about themselves not succeeding, they are likely to not even try (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). As a teacher, maybe you’ll inadvertently call on some students more than others because you believe they have a better chance of learning, giving them more opportunities to express their knowledge and get feedback. Maybe you’ll grade some students’ drawings differently because you believe they are not visual learners and can’t be held to the same standard. Or maybe you will pass your beliefs, fears, and values directly on to your students. Any of these scenarios may lead students to think they are not as good as their peers, and discourage them from trying, which will inevitably lead to their failure.

Remember when I said that preconceptions and misconceptions for our purposes were basically the same? Here’s where the difference is important: Adults’ flawed ideas are often fully developed misconceptions, which are harder than young kids’ preconceptions to remedy. It will take active effort to correct these misconceptions so that they can move on with an accurate understanding of how learning works. So, don’t accept it when you hear teachers or parents say “the darndest things” about how kids learn or how the brain works. Feel free to use these blog posts to make them confront those misconceptions and fix the flaws, so that they can interpret new information and respond in instructional situations in ways that will actually improve children’s learning.


Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49–74

Steele, C.M., Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African AmericansJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.

Vosniadou, S., & Brewer, W. F. (1992). Mental models of the earth: A study of conceptual change in childhood. Cognitive psychology24(4), 535-585.

Julie Booth

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