Elementary Teachers’ Understanding of Students’ Science Misconceptions: Implications for Practice and Teacher Education

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<ul><li><p>Elementary Teachers Understanding of StudentsScience Misconceptions: Implications for Practiceand Teacher Education</p><p>Susan Gomez-Zwiep</p><p>Published online: 11 June 2008</p><p> Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2008</p><p>Abstract This study sought to determine what elementary teachers know aboutstudent science misconceptions and how teachers address student misconceptions in</p><p>instruction. The sample included 30 teachers from California with at least 1-year of</p><p>experience teaching grades 3, 4, and 5. A semistructured interview was used. The</p><p>interview transcripts were transcribed and coded under the following categories:</p><p>definition of misconceptions, sources of misconceptions, development of miscon-</p><p>ceptions, and teaching strategies for addressing misconceptions. The results suggest</p><p>that, although most of the teachers are aware of misconceptions, they do not</p><p>understand how they develop or fully appreciate their impact on their instruction.</p><p>Keywords Inservice teacher education Science education Concept formation Teaching methods Preservice teacher education Misconceptions</p><p>Introduction</p><p>Misconceptions appear across all areas of science and within all age groups.</p><p>Empirical evidence has shown that children have qualitative differences in his or her</p><p>understanding of science that is often inconsistent with what the teacher intended</p><p>through his or her instruction (Bar 1989; Bar et al. 1994; Pine et al. 2001; Tao and</p><p>Gunstone 1999; Trend 2001). Research findings consistently show that misconcep-</p><p>tions are deeply rooted, often remaining even after instruction (Eryilmaz 2002).</p><p>However, misconceptions are more than misunderstandings about a concept.</p><p>Misconceptions are part of a larger knowledge system that involves many</p><p>interrelated concepts that students use to make sense of their experiences</p><p>S. Gomez-Zwiep (&amp;)Science Education, California State University, Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd.,</p><p>Long Beach, CA 90840, USA</p><p>e-mail: sgomezwp@csulb.edu</p><p>123</p><p>J Sci Teacher Educ (2008) 19:437454</p><p>DOI 10.1007/s10972-008-9102-y</p></li><li><p>(Southerland et al. 2001). Misconceptions are extensions of effective knowledge</p><p>that function productively within a specific context. These misconceptions become</p><p>apparent when students attempt to use their knowledge beyond the context in which</p><p>the knowledge functions effectively (Smith et al. 1993). Thus, since misconceptions</p><p>are often integrated with other knowledge, they may include aspects of both expert</p><p>and novice understandings and may be useful in constructing accurate scientific</p><p>understandings.</p><p>A gap remains between what research has revealed about misconceptions and</p><p>knowledge of how this research is applied in the classroom. There is a significant</p><p>body of research on instructional strategies shown to be effective at dealing with</p><p>student misconceptions (Ausubel 1968; Guzzetti 2000; Posner et al. 1982). The</p><p>research-based strategies have demonstrated some success at addressing miscon-</p><p>ceptions by expanding student thinking through dialogue and experimentation.</p><p>Although these strategies often involve some form of activity, these activities are</p><p>selected to specifically confront the misconception by presenting unexpected results</p><p>not previously considered by the learner. The teacher is a vital piece in the success</p><p>of these strategies, often facilitating student thinking through questioning and</p><p>student discourse. What limited research exists regarding teachers and misconcep-</p><p>tions has shown that preservice and novice teachers are often unaware that their</p><p>students may have misconceptions. In addition, even when teachers are aware of</p><p>misconceptions, they are unlikely to use any knowledge of misconceptions in their</p><p>instruction (Halim and Meerah 2002). Meyer (2004) also examined expert teachers</p><p>and found that they have very complex conceptions of prior knowledge and made</p><p>significant use of their students prior knowledge, such as misconceptions, in</p><p>instruction. Past research has focused on the extremes of the teaching experience</p><p>spectrum, novice to expert (Halim and Meerah 2002; Meyer 2004). However, there</p><p>remains a gap regarding the teacher who falls somewhere between an expert and a</p><p>novice. Little is known about what the teachers know about this topicteachers</p><p>who have experience teaching elementary school, but do not have any particular</p><p>training in the area of misconceptions and natural sciences beyond what they have</p><p>experienced in their teacher preparation programs, teacher professional develop-</p><p>ment, or both. This study will attempt to identify to what extent teachers across a</p><p>range of experience are aware of how misconceptions develop in students and if</p><p>these teachers are aware of and use techniques to mediate misconceptions in their</p><p>students.</p><p>Methods</p><p>Terminology</p><p>There are several terms in the research used in this area: misconceptions (Bar and</p><p>Travis 1991; Eryilmaz 2002; Schmidt 1997; Sneider and Ohadi 1998), nave views</p><p>or conception (Bar 1989; Hesse and Anderson 1992; Pine et al. 2001), preconcep-</p><p>tions (Benson et al. 1993), alternative views (Bar and Travis 1991; Gabel Stockton</p><p>et al. 2001; Sequeira and Leite 1991; Trend 2001), and alternative conceptions</p><p>438 S. Gomez-Zwiep</p><p>123</p></li><li><p>(Hewson and Hewson 2003). Teachers were found to be much more familiar with</p><p>the term misconception in the pilot study used to craft the interview questions and</p><p>it is for that reason that this term is used in this study.</p><p>Research Participants</p><p>The sample consisted of 30 teachers, representing 12 schools in seven different</p><p>districts across the state of California. The teachers had experience teaching third,</p><p>fourth, and fifth grade students. The level of experience ranged from 1 to 30 years of</p><p>teaching (Table 1). The intent of the study was to investigate teachers with</p><p>experience teaching elementary school, but teachers who would not be considered</p><p>an expert or a novice. Thus, the only requirements for participation were at least</p><p>1 year of teaching experience in a K8 setting and a valid elementary teaching</p><p>credential (certified to teach multiple subjects grades K8). The sample included</p><p>teachers from a wide range of school environments covering bilingual and English-</p><p>only classrooms, high-performing and low-performing schools, rural and urban</p><p>schools, and all levels of socioeconomic neighborhoods. It was assumed that some</p><p>level of expertise is necessary for a teacher to understand misconceptions in general.</p><p>Therefore, the selection of these teachers was based on recommendations from</p><p>principals, colleagues, and professional development consultants who were</p><p>contacted via telephone and e-mail. These individuals were requested to recommend</p><p>elementary teachers who taught in grades three, four, or five and who did not have</p><p>any specialized science training beyond the their credential program. In addition,</p><p>teachers were requested who were responsible for teaching science in a general</p><p>education setting, rather than a science-specific setting. Once a teacher was</p><p>recommended, I (the author of this article) contacted them either by telephone or by</p><p>e-mail to arrange a time and place for the interview.</p><p>Construction of Interview Questions</p><p>A pilot study was used to identify guiding variables and relationships for the current</p><p>study. The pilot study used qualitative data-collection methods to investigate the</p><p>level of understanding of students science misconceptions among a group of</p><p>preservice teachers. Twenty-five preservice teachers were interviewed about their</p><p>Table 1 Summary of years ofexperience</p><p>Years of teaching</p><p>experience</p><p>3rd grade 4th grade 5th grade Total</p><p>13 1 3 2 6</p><p>46 1 4 4 9</p><p>79 1 3 1 5</p><p>1012 2 1 0 3</p><p>1315 2 0 2 4</p><p>15+ 1 (28 years) 1 (28 years) 1 (35 years) 3</p><p>Total 8 12 10 30</p><p>Teachers Understanding of Student Misconceptions 439</p><p>123</p></li><li><p>current use and understanding of student misconceptions in science. A semistruc-</p><p>tured interview process was used to address issues, including what a misconception</p><p>is, what role misconceptions play in learning, and how might such misconceptions</p><p>be addressed in instruction, among other questions. The interviews required that the</p><p>students had little prior explicit instruction in constructivism as a philosophical</p><p>orientation toward teaching and learning. Common themes were identified,</p><p>analyzed, and evaluated. The results were used as the basis for the formulation of</p><p>the interview questions for this study (Table 2).</p><p>Interview Protocol</p><p>This exploratory research study was designed to address two research questions:</p><p>1. To what extent do teachers understand what students misconceptions are and</p><p>how science misconceptions develop?</p><p>2. What do teachers know about how to address misconceptions?</p><p>The interviews were used to explore practicing elementary teachers understanding</p><p>about misconceptions, namely, what they are, how they develop, and how</p><p>instruction can address a misconception. The interview questions were designed</p><p>to give an indication of a teachers understanding of misconceptions, origins and</p><p>longevity of misconceptions, and what they as teachers can do about dislodging</p><p>student misconceptions. Thirty interviews were conducted from January to April,</p><p>2005. Teachers were interviewed individually or in small groups of two to four</p><p>teachers. The interviews took place in the teachers classrooms or in a convenient</p><p>location, such as a local coffee shop. All interviews were audiotaped, and the</p><p>teachers responses were transcribed. Interviews lasted from 1 to 1.5 h. Teachers</p><p>were asked each question in order. If they had difficulty developing a definition of a</p><p>misconception or recalling specific examples of misconceptions, the interviewer</p><p>provided additional information, such as examples of typical elementary student</p><p>Table 2 Interview schedule: questions asked of all teachers in the study</p><p>Question</p><p>1. What grade level do you currently teach or plan to teach?</p><p>2. Are there any other grade levels you have experience with?</p><p>3. How long have you been teaching at this grade level?</p><p>4. How many science-related courses have you taken?</p><p>5. What can you tell me about what a misconception is?</p><p>6 How do people/students get science misconceptions? Where do they come from?</p><p>7. In your experience, what are some common science misconceptions your students have had?</p><p>8 As students grow and mature, what happens to their science misconceptions?</p><p>9. How does a students misconception affect the success of your science teaching?</p><p>10. How much do you think about misconceptions while you are planning a science lesson/before you</p><p>teach a science lesson?</p><p>11. What have you done to help a student mediate or correct a science misconception?</p><p>440 S. Gomez-Zwiep</p><p>123</p></li><li><p>misconceptions. For example, a fifth-grade teacher might be informed that students</p><p>often have difficulty identifying gases as a state of matter consistently. If a teacher</p><p>provided a wrong answer as an example of a misconception, I did not correct them.</p><p>If I felt the teachers response was unclear, follow-up questions were used to elicit</p><p>additional responses. For example, if the teacher stated that he or she might use</p><p>hands-on activities to help mediate student misconceptions, I would ask, as a</p><p>follow-up question, if they had a particular example in mind or how they might use</p><p>an activity.</p><p>Data Analysis</p><p>The qualitative analysis of interview transcripts began with initial descriptive codes</p><p>being assigned to teacher responses (Mason 1996). Examples of these initial codes</p><p>include general awareness, student thinking, and instruction. These initial codes</p><p>were then subdivided according to common themes seen in the interview transcripts.</p><p>Common themes used included the definition of misconceptions, the sources of</p><p>misconceptions, the development of misconceptions, and teaching strategies for</p><p>addressing misconceptions. Qualitative data analysis is a cyclical process (Mason</p><p>1996; Strauss and Corbin 1990). Codes were modified, merged, or deleted during</p><p>the iterative coding process. For example, the transcripts were initially coded for</p><p>awareness of misconceptions. However, as more data were coded and recoded, it</p><p>became necessary to bifurcate this initial code to include definitions of</p><p>misconceptions and examples of misconceptions.</p><p>Two additional reviewers were used to ensure the reliability of the interview</p><p>transcript codes. The additional reviewers identified possible codes and trends in the</p><p>interview transcripts. The secondary reviewers individually identified similar trends</p><p>in the coding categories 91% of the time. When differences existed, raters discussed</p><p>evidence from the data and reached consensus on the final rating.</p><p>Findings</p><p>The interviews were given a numeric code to hide the identity of the participant.</p><p>This code contains two numbers. The first number refers to the grade level taught</p><p>and the second number refers to the order in which the interview was conducted. For</p><p>example, a code of 4.2 represents the second fourth-grade teacher interviewed.</p><p>The Nature of Misconceptions</p><p>Teachers Definition of Misconceptions</p><p>The current literature defines a misconception as a belief that contradicts accepted</p><p>scientific theory (Eryilmaz 2002). Out of the 30 teachers interviewed, only 5</p><p>(13.67%) were unfamiliar with the term and were unable to provide any definition</p><p>of a misconception. However, the five teachers were familiar with the experience of</p><p>Teachers Understanding of Student Misconceptions 441</p><p>123</p></li><li><p>their students misinterpreting science concepts. The majority of teachers</p><p>interviewed (83.3%) were able to partially define a misconception. These definitions</p><p>tended to be vague and broad. Although the teachers were aware of misconceptions,</p><p>they had difficulty putting their thoughts about misconceptions into words: [The</p><p>students] perception isnt correct. Their reality doesnt match what is real. It is</p><p>almost prejudging (5.6). Another said, Being unclear in whatever in science that</p><p>can be unclear (4.3). Teachers described misconceptions as a lack of knowledge</p><p>about a science concept. Teachers tied their definition of a misconception to formal</p><p>science instruction, rather than the childs own thoughts or personal experimen-</p><p>tation: A misconception is a misunderstanding about what we are saying to them.</p><p>They think they understand the concept, but they have the wrong understanding of</p><p>it (3.1). Another teacher stated, They dont understand what they are learning, the</p><p>right way; they think it happens the wrong way. They think that science is just</p><p>animals (4.6).</p><p>Several teachers went so far as to suggest that students do not have personal</p><p>ideas about science. These teachers suggested that students do not think about</p><p>science outside of school and that, despite several years of education, they enter</p><p>upper elementary classrooms with virtually no science knowledge of their own:</p><p>Children dont have much of an idea about science in any way. I assume they are</p><p>blank slates, ready to take in whatever I have to give (3.7). Another said, They</p><p>dont really have a lot of knowledge about what science we are teaching them. It is</p><p>like a blank slate (4.4). A third teacher stated, [Stud...</p></li></ul>

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