Anticipating Misconceptions – Understanding the Source?

We talk about misconceptions all the time in subject knowledge – as if they are failures of knowledge, or epistemic understanding issues.

However, I’m not quite so sure it’s as simple as that.

This is where I think misconceptions come from, which might potentially offer some insights in to where we might go to fix them…

Insecure Prior Knowledge

The easiest way to encounter misconceptions in subject knowledge is to make assumptions about what is already known. In a useful blog post, Tom Sherrington reminds us of the importance of a “check for understanding” to be all encompassing: often, teachers will make a check for understanding in to a compliance check “are you all ready?” “is everyone finished?” “has everyone got that?”, rather than a genuine diagnosis of what vocabulary, conceptual information, or factual information has been covered.

I think this is important to focus on in observations, and explore in conversations. Be explicit as possible about the assumptions and pre-requisite knowledge needed to access the lesson; link that in to your do now and starter activity to check for understanding of those things. Plan effectively – consolidate effectively, and hopefully, we can avoid foundations of sand.

It’s also possible that we have insecure knowledge of our own, as teachers. Geography is a big, broad discipline – and we might be teaching concepts at A Level that we have never studied before. Certainly, I can remember starting my teaching career with deserts, having never studied them at A Level or university (regrets about that, to this day – curses to Quaternary Science, I say!) – and only really getting it when I’d been teaching for a while, and then done some fieldwork in the Sahara. We might have big subject gaps and blindspots, which we only really expose in the cold light of an A Level lesson, when we run out of explanations to give…!

Ineffective Sequencing of Ideas:

Often, one of the challenges of misconceptions is that ideas have been put together in an order that doesn’t make sense. Taylor (2017) explores ideas of curriculum planning in terms of step-by-step sequential knowledge development, but it may well be that we see problems with ordering material and explanations within a lesson, as well as within the curriculum. Teachers might introduce words without checking for understanding of meaning, or assume prior knowledge/contextual knowledge without considering how and why that knowledge needs to be built upon.

One of the most obvious ways this manifests is in presenting lesson content: perhaps the teacher shows a completed diagram, but the order in which they explain the stages to the students is not quite right, or leads to problems? They might try to teach evaluation, but without a coherent meta-structure to help students understand how to connect the ideas up. Structured thinking and lesson planning is key here: how do we model and reflect on what happens when you move this part of the lesson there and why that works, or doesn’t. You may want to refer back to Allison & Tharby (2015)’s modelling of lesson sequence to help colleagues identify issues, if helpful.

Misconception of Place:

In the high tempo of a Geography curriculum under time pressure, it is difficult for nuance to be thoughtfully incorporated in to the classroom. It’s easy for us to resort to quick articles, snapshots, and surface level understanding of case studies and illustrated points (Morris, 2021) – perhaps even chosen for pragmatic reasons about resources and available DVDs, rather than good Geography (Preece, 2021). At best, we end up with a slightly less optimal conception of place – perhaps a little date graphics, or a less high resolution video quality than we’d like to show.

At worst, we end up with out of date place knowledge; that risks the danger of a “single story” (Biddulph, 2011), and tells only a skewed version of the world (you may want to see this TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the way that can be presented), and risks generating significant misconceptions in student learning about different places around the world.  

The Geography has moved on:

There is an increasing increasing separation of university and school experience (Butt & Collins, 2018), and Enser (2021) reviews the changing academic leadership of the Geographical Association as an example of this in microcosm. During the 20th century, the GA was led by multiple academic Geographers, but since 1973, no academic Geographer has held the role. The last post-holder – Professor Andrew Goudie – wrote of an increasing ‘chasm between schools and universities’ (Goudie, 1993), as teachers were increasingly responsible as curriculum makers (Brooks, 2013).

This may well mean that the subject content that you arrive with is contemporary, changed and modern – while the specifications, and textbooks that we are teaching with in the classroom reflect the pedagogical understanding of perhaps ten years ago. This can be significantly disconcerting for trainees, and new colleagues, and cause obvious discomfort and cognitive dissonance – you’ll hear them plaintively ask why they are teaching something that’s wrong?

There are often two different experiences in here:

  • Changing Concepts: some elements of our Geography content is unchanging and relatively confirmed through time. Our knowledge of rivers and the Bradshaw Model is not likely to be subject to a paradigmatic understanding of the way that water now works, for example. Other parts of the discipline are still being explored and emerging, and perhaps one of the best areas to illustrate this is in plate tectonics. Let’s not forget, Einstein wrote his theory of General Relativity in 1917, while the theory of plate tectonics only emerged with the Vine-Matthews-Morley hypothesis in 1963. Since then, there has been significant change in the way we understand the mechanisms of plate movement, particularly as we apply seismic techniques to ‘scan’ inside the Earth. A trainee fresh out of a Geosciences degree will have a *very* different understanding of the way that the Earth moves, and the driving mechanics of convection currents in the mantle, of ridge push versus slab pull, and a number of more complex debates, than your typical A Level textbook. And here we face a challenge: do they teach what’s “right” and “new”, with the risk of it not being marked right in an exam? Or do they teach what’s specified by the exam board, knowing that it’s not quite up to date? There is no right answer to this – but it’s easy to see how students might generate misconceptions and potentially inaccurate answers when being taught by someone whose knowledge now post-dates the specification and textbook!
  • Changing Utility of Concepts: in Teaching Geography there have been a recent series of articles about the changing use of the Burgess model in teaching urban morphology (Rawding, 2019; Puttick, 2020). While the model itself – originally developed based on 1920s Chicago – has not changed, the debate illustrates the way in which our pedagogical utility of the model has moved on. Some teachers argue that it should be taught, provided that you explain how and why thinking has developed; while others argue that it is out of date and leads to misconceptions when applied to the modern world. Unlike in our previous example, where the Geography and the science itself has changed, there is no new knowledge in the Burgess Model. Instead, Enser (2021) argues that this is an example of how concepts are being implemented in the classroom: can you still teach Burgess, but explain how the discipline has changed how we employ urban models?

A pragmatic and academic conversation is required with a colleague experiencing this dissonance. What is “right” versus “what is needed” is a difficult idealistic bridge to cross, and many Departments will want to explore this debate as part of mentor meetings and discussions over time. It can often be worth exploring Examiners’ Reports with them, looking specifically for the evidence and analysis of case study and detail!

The world has moved on:

Many of us have an outdated and inaccurate view of the world in terms of data and situations. If you don’t believe me, take a few moments to try this quiz. How did you do?

According to the Rosling Foundation, the successful team behind Gapminder, many of us have a statistical perception bias based on information that is no longer true. You can see them explain it in this TED talk, and read the mechanisms and causes in their superb book on Factfulness. But it leads to misconceptions in the classroom – students using outdated terminology (like “Third World”), and not sure how that’s going to happen unless teachers reinforce it through their own teaching! Be alive to it in your lessons: consider what sources you’re using for information, and challenge the use of outdated information, case studies and terminology with your colleagues if it occurs.

In this section, we also have outdated ideas about colonial curriculum, and the way that it’s been structurally embedded in to our teaching. A number of excellent writers have explored specific issues on this theme – far better, and with more authentic understanding than I can hope to achieve – including this excellent article on why we should remove the word ‘slum’ from classrooms.  

The Curse of the Expert

Experts, by their definition, have a different mental map (schema) of their discipline of knowledge than novices. Connections, terminology and sequences which are embedded in to their schema, and are therefore “obvious” to them can sometimes be impossible to ‘unsee’ and unpick, and they will presume much about others’ ability in their audience. For teachers, this curse of knowledge (Dawn Cox) is difficult to move past; and can sometimes lead to “gaps” in the explanations and student misconceptions. They may see it reflected in marking, or in student explanations of their work – the part where the expertise explains something, or makes a connection will be absent from the lesson, as it was implicit not explicitly and directly said.

You can help colleagues address this by asking good coaching questions, and perhaps even co-planning with them. How do they script their explanations? What sequence do they assume, what prior knowledge do students have, how do they check for understanding of that – at heart, this is where the Rosenshine reminders are helpful for trainees and early career teachers!

Separation between threshold (core) and hinterland knowledge

Meyer & Land (2003) identified a conceptual variance between ‘core’ (threshold) and ‘hinterland’ concepts in education and pedagogy. The threshold knowledge is the core content of our subject – transformative, irreversible and the way we move our understanding forwards. However, the hinterland knowledge is the way in which we enable students to access that world. It may be through stories, videos, or examples that introduce salient points, critiques or places – but we need to be mindful of the potential for novice learners to confuse the core and the hinterland knowledge, and privilege the wrong bit! Many of my students will remember Mike Needleigh, the pig farmer, and his amazing jumpers. Fewer will be able to articulate the aspect of the Holderness case study example that his argument illustrated.

Telling too many stories, getting distracted in to anecdotes – or worse, getting students deliberately taking lessons off track by asking questions? Help colleagues to clarify the core knowledge, and the right sequence, and to carefully choose the hinterland they explore! Balancing ‘relationships’ in a classroom is critical!

The need for false balance

The intention of neutrality in topics, sometimes driven by the need to “evaluate” in specifications by presenting arguments for and against can occasionally lead to misconceptions driven by false narratives. For example, in the climate change debate, the science is now “unequivocal” about the causes – which equates to greater than 99% certainty. To present a “for and against” in this debate – as if there are equal weightings for e.g. human vs. physical causes of climate change; or that there are equal weightings of “yes it exists” vs. “no it doesn’t” is to introduce a significant misconception to students. Be wary of false balances – they happen more often than perhaps we might like to think!

Can you think of others? Have I missed some?

Having considered how and where misconceptions may arise, I think it becomes increasingly important to reflect on how “planning” or “better subject knowledge” address these challenges. I don’t think it’s just as simple as “plan better” – it’s a critical evaluation and engagement with the academic literature, the data and the changing world versus our perceptions of it, and this is a constantly evolving journey.

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