Combating science misconceptions: Help take the fiction out of science

As adults help youth grow, they can help youth identify and correct common science misconceptions.

Have you heard the sun is the same size as the moon, summer is when we are closer to the sun or deserts have almost no living things? Then you have heard a common science misconception. As youth learn about the world, they make assumptions and develop an understanding based on images and information from a variety of sources that may not always be correct.

Misconceptions are a common problem across all age groups and can be a major barrier in understanding science. Science misconceptions influence the way we see and understand the interactions within our world. Part of our responsibility as we help youth grow is to help identify and correct misconceptions. Helping youth to better understand science by reducing the influence of misconceptions is a complex cognitive process involving more than just providing the facts. According to “The Debunking Handbook” by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, “People don’t process information as simply as a hard drive downloading data.” To combat misconceptions, we need to understand how youth process information; understanding how youth think is more important than what they initially think.

One of the best ways to attack a misconception is to not mention it. Have you ever told a child, “Don’t touch the stove?” If so, you realize that what they really heard was “Touch the stove.” This holds true for most youth. Every time you state the misconception they are hearing an agreement to their thinking and the misconception becomes more entrenched. After all, everyone likes to be right.

To have a discussion with youth to correct a misconception requires careful thought and questions, lots of questions. As an adult helping youth to learn about their world, the greatest gift you can give them is a good question followed by silence as you listen to their reply. Through careful listening and thoughtful questions, you can guide youth through an exploration of their current thinking and understanding to the self-discovery of the correct conceptual understanding.

Helping people rethink misconceptions involves a complex cognitive process. This process can be supported through exposure to clear concise information, graphically represented in manageable pieces along with opportunities to explore our world. Inquiry-based learning can be an effective means of reducing the influence of misconception.

To learn more about inquiry-based learning and how to build science understanding, visit the the National 4-H Building Understanding, Inquiry-Based Learning and the Michigan State University Extension Science & Technology websites. 

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