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CHILDRENS MISCONCEPTIONS AND A LOOK ON HOW

TEACHERS RESPOND TO THEM


Maria Kambouri
Institute of Education, University of Warwick

Childrens misconceptions affect learning and acquisition of new concepts,


especially in science. However, many teachers state that they do not have
enough time to identify childrens prior knowledge and possible
misconceptions. This research will explore teachers responses to childrens
misconceptions and identify methods that teachers may use in order to
resolve them. Consequently, this research focuses on young childrens
misconceptions and investigates cases of early years teachers in Cyprus.
The investigation includes questionnaires that were sent to 150 schools, two
key informant interviews, observations of Cypriot teachers teaching science
and two focus groups.
INTRODUCTION
Discussion of the natural sciences has been part of discussion for a very long
time and everybody is affected by science in their everyday lives (Devereux,
2000). Nowadays, it is generally accepted that children already have
knowledge and scientific concepts, before entering formal education, which
will affect their school learning of science. Some of this knowledge is
incorrect and remarkably resistant to change (Black & Lucas, 1993).
Researching childrens misconceptions is crucial and the earlier we study
them the better we can work with children to rectify their misconceptions
which in turn helps childrens scientific learning to progress (Ravanis &
Bagakis, 1998).
Learners bring into the classroom concepts, which differ from those
accepted by the scientific community (Valanides, 2000). He adds that these
concepts are called misconceptions and they are not addressed by Cypriot
textbooks and traditional instruction. Consequently, in Cyprus, a learners
conceptual framework is usually not compatible with that of the teachers and
the textbooks and this can constitute a significant obstacle to learning as
learners may not receive the intended meaning from instruction (Valanides,
2000).

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BACKGROUND
Scientific concepts are those ideas that enable us to appreciate the patterns
and relationships between the way things are made and the way they behave
(Bradley, 1996). Johnston and Gray (1999) made clear that when talking
about science in early years education we refer to childrens understanding
about the world and its development. This includes making sense of
everyday experiences which develop skills and understanding.
On entering formal education children already have many scientific ideas,
based on these early experiences that may be partially formed or
scientifically inaccurate (Johnston & Gray, 1999; Treagust, 1988).
Experienced teachers agree that children have these pre-existing ideas called
misconceptions (Johnston & Gray, 1999). For the purposes of this paper, the
term misconceptions will be used to refer to childrens ideas that differ
from definitions and explanations accepted by scientists (Schmidt, 1995,
p1). Misconception is the most widely used term in the literature and this
is the reason that this term is considered as the most appropriate one to use
for this study (Hamza & Wickman, 2007).
Cohen and Kagan (1979) used the term misconceptions to refer to childrens
attempt to integrate new and old understandings. From Andre and Dings
(1991) point of view, misconceptions are ideas that children have
incorporated into their cognitive structures that they use to understand and
make predictions about the world (p303). Such knowledge is developed
through childrens own thinking (Russell, & Watt, 1992) and is based on
childrens experience, which explains how the natural world works, but in an
incorrect way (e.g. heavy objects fall faster than lighter objects).
Trying to understand how children form misconceptions, Hanuscin (2007)
pointed out that misconceptions form in various ways and one person often
passes them on to the next. She added that usually people who hold
misconceptions are not aware that their ideas are incorrect. As a result when
they are told that their ideas are incorrect they find it difficult to overcome
their misconceptions (Hanuscin, 2007).
Furthermore, children with misconceptions can convince others in a group to
take their perspective (Snyder and Sullivan, 1995). Worth (2000) believes
that childrens misconceptions arise from their own experiences while Cohen
& Kagan (1979) and Hanuscin (2007) all agree that misconceptions can arise
when two or more learned concepts get mixed up. Another possible source
of misconceptions are common words, which are used in every day
conversation but dont have the same meaning when used in science

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(Hanuscin, 2007). Thus, misconceptions can arise from both verbal and
conceptual confusion (Cohen & Kagan, 1979).
PREVIOUS RESEARCH INTO THIS FIELD
During the last two decades much research has been carried out which
demonstrated that childrens comprehension usually results from
misconceptions or inadequacies in their background knowledge (Eaton,
Anderson and Smith, 1984). Misconceptions affect the way that children
understand a variety of scientific ideas. For example, Eaton, Andersons and
Smiths (1984) research aimed to find out if childrens misconceptions
interfered with science learning. The results showed that students had
difficulties in learning about light because neither their text nor their
teachers adequately dealt with their misconceptions. Specifically they
suggested that experiences and common sense can sometimes lead to
inaccurate or incomplete conceptions that can prevent a student from
learning.
Osborne and Cosgrove (1983) investigated childrens misconceptions about
phenomena associated with water and specifically childrens concepts
regarding the changes of state of water. A series of events involving ice
melting, water boiling, evaporating, and condensing, was shown to children
in an individual interview situation. For each of the events, children were
asked to describe what they saw happening and explain what had happen.
The interviews analysis illustrated that children bring to science lessons
strongly held views which relate to their experiences and these views appear
to them as logical and sensible. Children have ideas about the changes of
state of water but these ideas are quite different from the views of scientists
and they can be influenced in unintended ways by science teaching (Osborne
and Cosgrove, 1983). As they confidently said the views can remain
uninfluenced or can be influenced in unanticipated ways by science
education and added that unless teachers identify childrens views and
design their teaching accordingly some childrens ideas will not change, or
will change in unanticipated ways, as a results of formal science teaching
(Osborne and Cosgrove, 1983, p836).
Pine et al. (2001) developed a questionnaire aiming to identify childrens
misconceptions about topics within the Key Stage 1 curriculum in the
United Kingdom. Their conclusion was that children have many
misconceptions about science topics and these misconceptions are of
considerable importance and cannot be ignored in the learning process since
they are foundations upon which knowledge in built (Pine et al., 2001,

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p93). They suggested that teachers need to place as much emphasis on
childrens incorrect ideas as on their correct ones if they want to accomplish
conceptual change in science. Their results also supported that teachers find
abstract concepts, like forces and electricity, to be more difficult for young
children to understand. Specifically, of all the topics sampled, the teachers
identified nearly one-third of them as being of above average difficulty for
the children (Pine et al., 2001). However, as they cited of significant
importance there was the fact that the data relate to teachers perceptions
about the topics children find difficult which might reflect teachers own
difficulties with certain topics (Pine et al., 2001, p91). As they stated,
teachers themselves, in common with many adults, can have misconceptions
about science and childrens misconceptions may be a reflection of this.
THE EARLY YEARS SCIENCE TEACHER
Ignoring childrens misconceptions and hoping that they will overcome them
on their own is considered to be inappropriate (Schmidt, 1995). Pine et al
(2001) agreed and highlighted that teachers need to organize childrens
misconceptions into coherent concepts. As they discussed, when teachers
are better informed about the types and false beliefs children are likely to
hold they will be quicker and better at identifying them, at helping children
call them to mind and make them explicit and at incorporating them into the
process of conceptual change (Pine et al., 2010, 93). However, even if
teachers think that misconceptions can get in the way of the teaching process
they usually tend to ignore or squash them when possible (Pine et al., 2001).
This might be happening because teachers do not have the time to identify
childrens misconceptions and are therefore often forced to assume a certain
base level of students knowledge (Chen, Kirkby & Morin, 2006). However,
if childrens misconceptions are known, then teachers can plan lessons to
rectify them (Schmidt, 1995). Childrens concepts should not be ignored but
they should be part of the content of teaching by identifying them and
providing opportunities for children to experience phenomena which run
counter to their conceptions for the purpose of inducing conceptual change
(Valanides, 2000, p362).
Teachers worry about not knowing enough; this might derive from their
belief that teaching is about having all the answers to childrens questions
(Russell, & Watt, 1992). However, in practice nobody could really answer
all the questions that children might raise. In many cases doing something
like that would be wrong. Giving facts to children that do not link into their
own experience and thinking can deter them from asking questions, since
they will find it difficult to understand the answers (Russell & Watt, 1992).

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School science is not about providing the answers to all the questions that
children might have. It is about reaching possible conclusions by exploring
relationships and explanations between ideas and events and it is essentially
about understanding (Devereux, 2000). It also includes the testing of ideas
and the proposal of new theories and questions, which change all the time as
ideas, skills and knowledge are developed through new research and
evidence (Devereux, 2000).
Moreover, Valanides (2000) declared that several teaching-learning
problems can be overcome by children who are encouraged to be actively
engaged in communication rather than passive children who just sit, listen
and respond when the teacher calls upon them. Childrens active engagement
needs, of course, a relaxed and non-threatening classroom climate and frank
exchanges between children and the teacher (Valanides, 2000).
Children mature at different rates and their pre-school experiences vary.
Therefore in order to help children develop their ideas and conceptual
understandings it is essential to provide opportunities to make links between
their own ideas and other alternatives (Russell & Watt, 1992). Making
predictions, gathering evidence through observations and suggesting
explanations based on their own interpretations of information could be
opportunities to help children link their knowledge. In this way children will
be assisted in developing scientific ideas which will make sense and will be
connected to their everyday lives (Russell & Watt, 1992).
However, we must be careful and not rush children from one experience to
another because they will have little opportunity to try out their developing
ideas and build upon existing ones (Johnston, 2005, p3). It is important to
remember that early-years children learn through trial and error and this
takes time and patience (Johnston, 2005). Dewey agreed with this and
recognized that children learn best when offered varied activities because
they have different types of intelligence and learning needs (Johnston,
2005).
Russell and Watt (1992) argued that the teachers role in science teaching is
to help children develop their understanding starting from ideas that they
already have through investigations of topics, discussions, explorations of
childrens ideas and experiences. Tirosh (2000) suggested that teacher
education programs should familiarize teachers with childrens common
misconceptions and the effects on their learning as this would assist them
with their teaching. It is also important for teachers to clarify their own
understanding of science and use it in their work in order to be comfortable

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and teach with confidence (Johnston & Gray, 1999). Consequently the
teachers role can be complicated and very demanding.
SCIENCE EDUCATION IN CYPRUS
Science education in Cyprus has never been purely Cypriot (Zembylas,
2002). Cyprus has had a national curriculum in science since its
independence from the British in 1960 with periodic reviews of 15 years or
more having been undertaken since then. Other countries in the European
Union (e.g. Germany, Italy, Portugal) have curriculum reviews every 6 to 10
years (Zembylas, 2002). The latest, third curriculum was completed in 1994
as was the science curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1996).
The Cypriot Curriculum is based on child-centred teaching (Cyprus National
Curriculum, 1996). However, it does not give any indications to teachers
about how they could find out about what misconceptions children have and
about how they can help children overcome those misconceptions. This led
to the need of creating a reference book for early years teachers, which
includes ideas and examples about how early-years teachers could teach
specific science conception (Reference Book for Kindergarten Teacher,
2004).
In primary schools, subjects like physics, chemistry, biology or other unified
courses are constructed on the basis of specific curricula whereas preschool
curricula are not frequently founded on explicitly articulated theoretical
principles. Science activities at nursery schools used to be more fragmentary
and were confused with logico-mathematical concepts and problems of
social living (Ravanis & Bagakis, 1998). After the publication of the
reference book a series of seminars took place which aimed in training
teacher on how to teach natural sciences in a way that would help children
develop their abilities to observe, investigate, calculate, predict, explain and
give their own definitions (Reference Book for Kindergarten Teacher, 2004).
As it is implied in the reference books introduction, scientific knowledge
and childrens misconceptions are not included in the main issues to be
considered when teaching science in as early years classroom in Cyprus as
the main target is the development of childrens skills and competencies like
observation, classification and prediction (Reference Book for Kindergarten
Teacher, 2004).
RESEARCH QUESTIONS
The aim of the research is to investigate how early years teachers in Cyprus
respond to childrens misconceptions when teaching science. In addition to

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the literature review and my experience in regard to the science education in
Cyprus, the following research questions were identified:
Main Question: What do teachers know about young childrens
misconceptions in science?
Sub-questions: Do early years teachers identify childrens
misconceptions and if yes how? How does this knowledge inform teaching?
How do teachers respond and use childrens misconceptions during the
lesson? What kind of training do early years teachers receive about
childrens misconceptions?
METHODOLOGY
The research methodology is the process of collecting and analysing data
and information to answer the research questions. Thus it was very carefully
selected carefully for this study (Hitchcock & Hughes, 1989). For the
research questions presented it was considered more appropriated to use
qualitative research methods as they enable the researcher to learn firsthand
about the social world they are investigating, through a focus upon what
individuals say and do (Hitchcock & Hughes, 1989; Robson, 2002).
A mixed-method design, including interviews, observations and focus
groups, was designed for this research. Questionnaires were used as a
secondary means of data collection, in order to collect demographic
information in regard to the research population. The sample for the
questionnaires was randomly selected and it consisted of qualified teachers
from all schools of Cyprus working with three to six year old children. On
the other hand, the participants of the observations and the interviews could
be labelled as an opportunistic sample as they were selected based on social
contacts.
Specifically, the research was completed in two phases. The first phase
aimed to identify key topics on which the research will focus. This occurred
after analysing the teachers responses to the questionnaires and the key
informants interviews. The questionnaires were designed, piloted and sent
to 150 schools in Cyprus aiming to discover teachers perception of teaching
specific natural sciences subjects. SPSS was used for the analysis of the
questionnaires, which led to the key topics that interest teachers.
Additionally, key informant interviews two Cypriot university lecturers and
researchers took place. The main aim was to identify the current situation in
Cyprus with regard to science teaching. There was also an attempt to find
out what kind of research was currently taking place in Cyprus in relation to

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science and misconceptions. This helped in understanding the participants
background and subject knowledge.
The second phase included lesson observations and focus groups.
Specifically, teachers were observed teaching science topics that were
selected as determined by questionnaire analysis. An observation schedule
was designed which facilitated note taking. The observations would give an
opportunity to approach teachers and childrens world in order to understand
their ways of thinking and acting during a science lesson.
Finally, interviews and focus groups were held which focused on how
teachers identify and respond to childrens misconceptions. Interviewing is
one the major tools of social and educational research (Hitchcock & Hughes,
1989). The use of the interview in research marks a move away from just
seeing humans as subjects that can be manipulated. Interviews are about
listening to peoples external realities or internal experiences (Hitchcock &
Hughes, 1989).
ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
One of the necessary ethical considerations for this study was informed
consent, which refers to the voluntary consent of the individual to participate
in research (Burgess, 1989). It was important to ensure that all participants
in the research understood the process in which they were to be engaged
(BERA, 2004). As a result, informed consent was collected and it was made
sure that the teachers that would participate in the study had a clear idea
about the research procedure, the research methods and how they would get
involved.
Additionally, morality and privacy are two more issues that were considered.
Morality informed the research of reminded the importance of considering
other peoples interests and concerns when thinking about how to act, what
to say and what to do (Gregory, 2003). On the other hand, participants
privacy and rights to confidentiality and anonymity were also important.
Therefore, the teachers were assured that their personal information would
be kept safe and that their identity would be secured at all times so they
could feel free and safe to express their true opinion. Fictional names were
used in order to ensure privacy. Finally, their right to withdraw was known
from the outset. They were also informed about how and why their personal
data would be used and stored as suggested by BERA (2004).
Finally, this research conformed to Warwick Universitys ethical guidelines
and has also been examined and accepted as ethical from the Ministry of
education in Cyprus, which gave its permission for this research to take

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place at Cypriot schools. This permission had to be renewed for each
academic year until the research was completed which ensured that the
research did not ignore any ethical considerations at any time.
PRELIMINARY FINDINGS
The response rate to the questionnaires was 72%, which is quite high and
shows that the results (from approximately three quarters of the 150 schools
sampled) may be considered representative for the small population of
Cyprus (about 750 000 citizens). The questionnaires revealed information
about teachers preferences when teaching science topics. The most
important finding (that informed the rest of the research) was that teachers
say that they feel more confident teaching concepts related to Plants and
Animals while less confident teaching Electricity.
The results were used to select the topics on which the research would focus.
This research did not wish to put teachers in a difficult position of teaching
Electricity which is something that they usually avoid and is also not
specifically in the Cypriot early years curriculum. There was an attempt to
find participants for observations while teaching Electricity, but the
teachers responded very negatively to this and they were not willing to be
observed while teaching this topic. As most of them said I would not feel
comfortable so I would prefer to be observed while teaching something
else. On the other hand, focusing on a subject such as Plants and Animals
which was the preferred topic, might effectively address the research
questions. As a result, it would be more appropriate to focus on something
that teachers characterised as having middle confidence when teaching such
as Weather, Earth and Space.
Additionally, results indicate that when teachers believe that they have good
background knowledge of topics they tend to feel more confident teaching
and they would also choose to teach these more often. Whereas when they
do feel that they do not know a lot about a topic they tend to teach it less
often and with less confidence. At the same time teachers believe that
children have more misconceptions associated with a topic because teachers
themselves do not feel very confident with their knowledge.
On the other hand, based on a preliminary analysis of the key informants
interviews, it seems that generally university professors, in their lectures,
refer to childrens misconceptions when teaching Natural Sciences to
student teachers. However, they do not require students to complete any
assignment specifically about misconceptions. They sometimes use
childrens misconceptions to detect student teachers misconceptions and

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one of the interviewees specifically said that this is very important because
teachers have to realise that they themselves have misconceptions and they
pass them to children, and this is the main problem.
Finally, during the interviews the two expert interviewees referred to some
particular problems that usually teachers who teach science come across.
These problems are firstly the large number of children in each classroom
(approximately 25 children). Secondly, the issue of time in combination with
the national curriculum and the amount of topics that needed to be covered
in a school year. Additionally, the books, which are used today at schools,
especially in primary schools, do not take account of childrens
misconceptions. One of the expert interviewees said that It is very difficult
for a teacher to apply the theory that they might have learnt during their
studies in the time that they have and without any particular guidance in
regard to childrens misconceptions and how to teach science. More
information about this area will definitely be revealed during the focus
groups and the observations analysis.
CONCLUSION
The hope is that the results of this research will guide not only teachers but
also policy makers to improve science teaching as this research is not just a
matter for teachers, however central their role. There are also policy makers,
managers, support staff, teacher trainers, examiners, inspectors and parents
all of whom can consider the findings of researchers like this in order to act
more effectively (Hegarty, 1996). In any case, teachers, policy makers and
educational leaders have much to gain from educational research approaches
and research results can increase their understanding of education.
Nowadays, we should be grateful for the knowledge that we have but we
must ensure that we are always moving forward, searching and pursuing
greater understanding (Greig, Taylor & Mackay, 2007). As a teacher and as
an educational researcher I hope that my work and the findings of this
research will extend knowledge and understanding in the area of Natural
Sciences and childrens misconceptions.

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