Education and Misconceptions


Things are getting busy for me in my research as I have another batch of data sources to get through (i.e. students), and this is getting exciting since it should be the last bit I need to do by PhD thesis with. Strangely I haven’t talked too much about my line of work, so I want to make some preliminary points about what I do.

While I work in physics, my focus has been specifically in physics education research (PER), a topic so real it has its own Wikipedia page. So I have to know the physics I am teaching to students reasonably well (in some ways better than the normal physics grad outside their specialty), and I need to know something about the teaching process. Now, part of education is the dissemination of knowledge, and there is no way to do education effectively without it. However, that is far from the whole story. In particular, when you are teaching teenagers or full adults the student has built up a life of heuristics about how to think about the world and how it works. Be it in politics, religion, book keeping, or physics, we have notions in our heads built up by years of real-world experience. And while those experiences are certainly authentic and real, how they are drawn together into how we think about the world can be at significant variance with the system figured through the sciences.

So you let go of the ball.
And yet it moves!

Case in point: our ideas of how objects move is naturally closer to what Aristotle thought than Newton; after all, it took 2000 years of “natural philosophy” to get beyond the Aristotelian notions of how bodies move to get to things such as Galileo’s theory of relativity or Newton’s universal gravitation, let alone the advancements in modern physics. But somehow, even though we live in the macroscopic world that is perfectly explained by Newtonian mechanics, we have ideas that are clearly wrong with a little bit of experimentation. I talked about this example before, but it is worth repeated. Suppose you are walking at steady speed while holding a ball in your hand. If you let go of the ball and continue to walk forward, will the ball land in front of you, behind you, or at your feet? Aristotelian physics would say that because you don’t have a force pushing forward the ball will come to a stop and fall behind you (you continue on because you keep pushing forward). But Newton’s 1st Law says that the body will continue to go at the same speed and so it will fall at your feet.

So we humans generally have created a model in our heads that is wrong at a fundamental level. It’s not just in the realm of quantum mechanics or special relativity, but in objects we have played with since childhood. As part of my research, I have looked into the potential origins of these misconceptions, though one thing I have not done and wish to do is try to figure out when these ideas materialize in children. Is it there at the end of elementary school, a year after birth, somewhere in between?

But why do these misconceptions matter? For an educator they are a significant hurdle. If you have a preconceived notion, it is very difficult to dislodge; perhaps a student can learn how to get the right answer on the test, but afterward they will just revert to thinking their “normal” way. We see that with physics: six months later, and it’s like the class never happened. It’s likely the student can recite the three laws of Newtonian motion, but it has no real meaning other than it was hard back in his or her schooldays. This also means that students will seen the subject they are learning as something alien and unlike the “real world”. So perhaps it is no wonder they are not interested in the short- or long-term.

This pay in part explain some of the indicators of science illiteracy in the US and in other nations. In a bit of research for another project, I wanted to see what percent of people are still geocentricists–that is, the Copernican Revolution has happened for them yet. While the majority of people know better, only about 70% know the Earth goes around the Sun rather than the reverse (and barely half of adults know the Earth takes a year to go around the Sun, even when it’s multiple-choice). This comes from the National Science Foundation here, and the numbers have been stable for the last decade or so. I wonder if in fact the ~70% number getting the answer right is made artificially high because the following question asks about the Earth going around the Sun–is the test answering itself? I’m not sure enough about the methodology, but I have found people know how to use a test to make the best guess. I also suspect this potential inflation considering that a poll in Russia found about a third of the populace believed in geocentricism. There is also some connection between fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible and geocentricism, but even young-earth creationists tend to avoid this and make themselves look silly. Er, sillier. Nonetheless, with such strong fundamentalist views on display in the US, one would think that the “biblical principles/teachings” of geocentricism would come into play.

Again, considering that humans for thousands of years believed in everything going about the Earth, it makes sense that there would be many that would fall into this natural state even after a public education. In fact, this can be partially understood by having the same sorts of physical misconceptions that Aristotle did and most people actually do. You believe that to maintain speed you need a force, and to push the Earth around would require a fantastic force. Hold on to your butts! That was basically a point made by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy when arguing against both heliocentricism and dynamic geocentricism–the Earth spins on its axis to explain diurnal motion but otherwise stays in place. So not only are there significant misconceptions, they also play into each other.

Now, fortunately geocentricism is on the down-low and won’t have any political influence in the US (I hope), but other backward views about the nature of reality obviously do, be it with evolution, climate change, or even what happens to rape victims, and they can steer us in the wrong direction and do great harm. All the more important considering the tools and devices we have allow greater damage just by misunderstanding them. So understanding what the major misconceptions are, where they come from, and how best to deal with them is part of what educators do. It also means figuring out when best to teach something–could we avoid the misconception by learning about a subject early and nipping it in the bud?

Now, my research will hardly figure this all out (nor will it save the world…yet), but it is part of this package. It may also help to a small degree in explaining the history of science. But I need to get back to work on all that then. So much data for analysis, so little time…

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