Science teachers should hold class and group discussions to get pupils' misconceptions into the open before starting new topics, according to new official advice.
The government-backed Education Endowment Foundation today issued seven practical recommendations to improve science teaching in secondary schools, particularly for disadvantaged pupils.
These recommendations also include advising teachers to teach explicitly the scientific meanings of familiar words such as "field" and "random", which have a different meaning in everyday life.
The report says that children start to build their own understanding about phenomena such as how plants grow “long before [they] start a formal education in science”.
As an example, it says pupils need to know that there is an empty space between gas particles, but they “often think that the space between them is full of other things such as bacteria, pollutants or oxygen”.
It warns that “these self-constructed ideas may or may not align with scientific understanding”, and says pupils need to go through a process of adjusting or replacing these ideas with more scientifically correct ones.
Pupils' mistaken beliefs in science
The report says: “It is important to get pupils’ ideas into the open quickly at the start of a topic. You can then use the information to judge how best to approach the topic.
“It is useful for your pupils themselves to be aware of the ideas they hold so they can compare them with the scientific explanations you are teaching.”
It advises teachers that “to adjust their misconceptions, pupils need to see compelling evidence that helps them to change their thinking and accept the new conception”.
The report adds that misconceptions “can be difficult to shift”, and suggests that teachers get pupils to revisit their early ideas and acknowledge any changes in their thinking.
The report also lists examples of words that pupils will be familiar with in everyday life, but which have different meanings in science, such as incident, complex, spontaneous, relevant, valid, composition, emit and random.
It says that these words “often cause more problems for pupils than words we might normally consider to be technical language”, and adds: “Even though they are not ‘new’ words, they should be a focus of vocabulary teaching.”
For more information, see the full report here.