Misconceptions about misconceptions?

October 28, 2013

In checking my Google Scholar profile the other day, I was happy to find that a recent paper in CBE Life Sciences Education cited my 2012 review article on the use of music in science education. I was less happy to discover that my paper was cited as an example of bad pedagogy.

April Cordero Maskiewicz and Jennifer Evarts Lineback summarize their own paper as follows:

The goal of this paper is to inform the growing BER [Biology Education Research] community about the discussion within the learning sciences community surrounding misconceptions and to describe how the learning sciences community’s thinking about students’ conceptions has evolved over the past decade. We close by arguing that one’s views on how people learn will necessarily inform pedagogy. If we view students’ incorrect ideas as resources for refinement, rather than obstacles requiring replacement, then this model of student thinking may lead to more effective pedagogical strategies in the classroom.

I find this position interesting and sensible. I agree, of course, that how we teach should be based on research on how people learn. More specifically, I’m sympathetic to the viewpoint that (in the authors’ words) “Learning … is not the replacement of one concept or idea with another”; rather, “students learn by transforming and refining their prior knowledge into more sophisticated forms.”

The article provides two useful examples of how instructors can build upon students’ naive views of evolution, rather than simply rejecting them as wrong. So far so good.

Then comes the section “The use of the term misconceptions in current BER [Biology Education Research] Literature,” in which Maskiewicz & Lineback assert that many instructors have been slow to adopt this transform-and-refine-prior-knowledge view of learning. It’s a significant point because if everyone already holds this view and teaches according to it, there’s not much to discuss. Accordingly, Maskiewicz & Lineback searched the past three years of CBE Life Sciences Education for problematic as well as enlightened uses of the word “misconception.” Here’s what they found:

In some of these articles, the authors seemed to equate misconception with the more traditionally accepted definition of a deeply held conception that is contrary to scientific dogma (Baumler et al., 2012; Cox-Paulson et al., 2012; Crowther, 2012). Others, in contrast, seemed to use the term to reflect an ad hoc mistake or error in student understanding, one that exists prior to or emerges through instruction but, in either case, is not robust, nor does it interfere with learning (Jenkinson and McGill, 2011; Klisch et al., 2012). The authors who considered misconceptions to be “deeply rooted” spoke of instructional strategies designed to specifically elicit, confront, and replace students’ incorrect conceptions (i.e., Crowther, 2012). In contrast, authors for whom misconceptions were more tentatively held and/or emergent, suggested that students’ incorrect ideas can be amended through tailored instruction grounded in those ideas (i.e., Klisch et al., 2012). This latter perspective on learning is consistent with approaches supported by recent research in the learning sciences community (Carpenter et al., 1989; Ruiz-Primo and Furtak, 2007; Pierson, 2008).

Not only am I being dissed, but Baumler et al. (2012) and Cox-Paulson et al. (2012) are too! So, do we deserve it? Let’s look at the use of the term “misconception” in each of the articles cited.

From Baumler et al. (2012):

Questions of conservation lend themselves well to a “teachable moment” regarding the choice of nucleotide versus protein BLAST. In one group of 28 students, students were asked to provide a written response justifying their choice of using BLASTP or BLASTN. Twelve of the 14 pairs of students provided answers that were complete and exhibited clear comprehension of relevant concepts, including third position wobble. One pair gave an answer that was adequate, although not thorough, while the last pair’s response invoked introns, an informative answer, in that it revealed a misconception grounded in a basic understanding of the Central Dogma, concerning the absence of splicing in bacteria.

From Cox-Paulson et al. (2012):

Student misconceptions about DNA replication and PCR have been well documented by others (Phillips et al., 2008; Robertson and Phillips, 2008), and this exercise provided an opportunity to increase understanding of these topics.

From Crowther (2012):

My own opinion is that songs can be particularly useful for countering two types of student problems: conceptual misunderstandings and failures to grasp hierarchical layers of information. Prewritten songs may explain concepts in new ways that clash with students’ mental models and force revision of those models, or may organize information for improved clarity (e.g., general principles in the chorus, key details in the verses, other details omitted). Songwriting assignments could have similar benefits by forcing students to do the work of concisely restating concepts in their own words and organizing the information in a musical format. As an example of using music to counter misconceptions, I once team-taught a “biology for engineers” course in which my coinstructor complained that many students failed to internalize the difference between genotype and phenotype. I wrote and performed a song to drive home this distinction, the chorus being, “Genotype, ooh… It’s the genes you possess—nothing more, nothing less! Versus phenotype, ooh… Your appearance and health and reproductive success!”

Note that these were the sole instances of the word “misconception” in each article. Do they illustrate what Maskiewicz & Lineback say they illustrate? I don’t think so.

The first claim made by Maskiewicz & Lineback is that some papers (e.g., the three cited) consider misconceptions to be “deeply held” or “deeply rooted.” None of the papers cited uses either phrase, nor do I see any discussion of misconceptions’ deepness in the passages above.

The second claim is, “The authors who considered misconceptions to be ‘deeply rooted’ spoke of instructional strategies designed to specifically elicit, confront, and replace students’ incorrect conceptions (i.e., Crowther, 2012).” The “deeply rooted” business aside, is Crowther indeed advocating wholesale swapping of students’ incorrect conceptions for correct ones? No. “Prewritten songs may explain concepts in new ways that clash with students’ mental models and force revision of those models.” That is, the models should be revised — NOT discarded! As far as I can tell, this is consistent with Maskiewicz & Lineback’s recommendations up to this point. (Later in the article, they propose abandoning the term “misconceptions” altogether.)

I suspect that Maskiewicz & Lineback found the above wording (with its talk of clashing, forcing, and failures) overly adversarial, and I concede that the tone is not ideal. But the passage is basically agreeing with them!

Not being an expert on addressing misconceptions (or whatever they should be called), I was glad to get Maskiewicz & Lineback’s perspective. But if their best example of the problem is a paragraph that neglects to mention the positive aspects of one particular misconception, perhaps the problem is not as big as they are making it out to be.

One comment

  1. […] Performance in Marathon Runners” by Benjamin Rapoport, Wheat Belly by William Davis, and “Misconceptions Are So Yesterday!” by April Maskiewicz and Jennifer Lineback. Results are […]

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