3 ways to tackle common pupil misconceptions

Simple misunderstandings can take hold easily and warp students’ learning, but careful planning can stop them from creeping in

Andrew Percival


“But sir, a whale can swim so it must be a fish.”

One of the stark memories I have of my newly qualified teacher year was teaching my Year 3 class about animal classification — and having to convince a group of disbelieving seven-year-olds that a blue whale was a mammal and definitely not a fish.

After 10 minutes of attempting to convince a sea of bemused faces, I think they would have just been happy if I’d suggested we forget it and agree to disagree on the matter. If it looked like a fish and acted like a fish, then it must be a fish.

Why was this misconception so difficult to shift?

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Cognitive science can give us some insights here. American psychologist Eleanor Rosch explored this phenomenon in the 1970s, defining a prototype as a “classical typical member of a category”.  

Tackling misconceptions

As part of her research, Rosch asked people to rate whether certain words were good exemplars or prototypes of a particular category and which items were less prototypical.

For instance, a chair was seen as a very strong example of a piece of furniture, but a stool was less so and a refrigerator was on the cusp of being something entirely different.

When asked to rate bird species, she found that people rated robins and sparrows as highly prototypical, parrots and owls were somewhere in the middle, and ostriches and penguins were perceived as barely birds at all.

Alongside the rating of each word, subjects were also tested on how quickly they responded to different examples.

As you might expect, more prototypical responses were answered quickly, while those less typical were deliberated over for longer. Her findings suggest that some members of a category are more central than others.  

Building a solution

The idea that we have these prototypical exemplars in our heads might help us think about how we can preempt potential misconceptions and tackle them through a coherent curriculum.

What might this mean for us as teachers and how can we reduce the risk of misconceptions occurring?

1. Teach rules and definitions

Providing clear and precise definitions of concepts can go a long way in alleviating these problems.

To help clarify the misconception about whales, for example, children need to understand the definition of both a fish and a mammal, and then have some helpful knowledge of the animal to place them in the correct category (the blue whale gives birth to live young and breathes air through a blowhole, therefore, it must be a mammal).

In geography, when we ask students to name a desert, they are likely to conjure up an image of a hot, sandy expanse populated by camels and sand dunes with the Sahara as the prototypical example. Try telling them that the Antarctic is a desert and you will typically be met with disbelief.

Knowing the definition of a desert as an area with little vegetation and an absence of precipitation, we can then accommodate the idea that actually the freezing wasteland around the South Pole is also a desert.

2. Extend banks of examples

We might also consider enriching the pupil’s bank of known items in a category. In the case of mammals, we might ensure that the school curriculum covers a wide range of examples, perhaps starting with prototypical mammals such as foxes, badgers and lions, then moving on to bats and armadillos, before looking at the least prototypical mammals, which might include dolphins and the aforementioned blue whales. Extending the range of ideas can help give real and varied context to the more abstract definition.

3. Use non-examples

The use of near non-examples can help pupils to identify the boundaries of concepts more clearly. When learning about bird species, for example, it may be helpful to know that bats and butterflies are not birds, although they are bird-like in a number of ways. These near non-examples are far more useful than cases that are obviously incorrect, such as a snake or polar bear.

Pupils shown pictures of prototypical deserts might form a misconception that a sandy beach is just another example. If the beach is taught as a specific non-example of a desert (alongside the definition and wide-ranging examples), we can prevent this misconception.

A picture of Blackpool beach may look like a huge sandy wasteland but, as anyone living in the North West will attest, it does not suffer from a lack of precipitation that would define it as a true desert.

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Andrew Percival

Andrew Percival is deputy headteacher at Stanley Road Primary School in Oldham

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