Africa is NOT a country!

Dealing with misconceptions.

There are a whole range of misconceptions that creep into the wider educational debate, as clearly laid out and challenged in numerous books (see, for example, Seven Myths about Education – Christodoulou; The researchED Guide to Educational myths – Barton). However, there are also many misconceptions that appear within the classroom. In geography these often include the following:

  • A hole in the ozone layer causes global warming
  • Africa is a country (normally followed by a cry of anguish from the teacher)
  • Development is binary (you are either an HIC or LIC)
  • The Equator is the hottest part of the world because it is closest to the sun (2 for the price of 1 there)
  • Tectonic plates are destructive in and of themselves
  • Tertiary jobs are always better (paid, qualified, skilled)
  • The greenhouse effect is a bad thing
  • Plastic waste causes climate change

The fact that these misconceptions seem to persist and keep cropping up again and again, year after year with new sets of students made me think, where do these ideas come from, and how do we deal with them more effectively so that they don’t perpetuate?

Thinking about this has led me to what I see as 4 stages in the development and removal of misconceptions:

  1. Formation
  2. Embedding
  3. Recognition
  4. Challenge

Formation – where misconceptions come from

Sometimes this may be because of my own failure to adequately explain a concept, using imprecise language, or examples and explanations that confuse students more than aid them. When teaching, we must remember that students already have their own schemata into which they will incorporate any new information we give them. Enabling students to hang this new information onto relevant knowledge that they already possess is therefore key, otherwise, if we do not fully articulate the correct links to prior learning or fail to explain the new information adequately, they will just hang it onto whatever makes most sense to them, whether that is actually correct or not. However, these misconceptions can also come from anywhere else in life – conversations had at home, social media posts that have been read, information that has been heard or perceived in the media (including films and TV – a veritable mine-field of misinformation and misconception building dross). As students try to piece together all of this information that they are constantly being bombarded with, they are inevitably going to misinterpret some of what they encounter, bringing misconceptions into being.  

Embedding – why they persist

The problem with misconceptions is that once they have been formed, they often sit there under the surface without ever being identified. Unless the student is given a piece of information that challenges a misconception, they will just carry on believing that piece of ‘knowledge’ to be true. The longer that this misconception goes unnoticed, the deeper it becomes embedded in a students’ schemata as more and more pieces of information become connected to this misconception. For example, even though I never teach about the ozone layer and in the past have actively avoided mentioning it so as to not confuse the students and introduce a potential for misconception generation, there are always a number of students who write about the ozone layer when tasked with writing about the enhanced greenhouse effect and climate change. It is now my belief that this can only be because they have picked up information about the ozone layer somewhere else and incorporated it into their schemata, and because it has never been challenged by the expert (me), then they have assumed that it must be right. In order to prevent misconceptions embedding themselves further and further like this, two things therefore need to be done…

Recognition – identifying the misconceptions which are commonly encountered

First of all, time needs to be spent thinking through the misconceptions that regularly appear in our disciplines, or have the potential to appear (like the list at the start of this blog post). Some of these misconceptions will be immediately obvious and will repeatedly respawn, like some kind of undead creature, others may occasionally surprise us in a student question, piece of work, or answer and others require more effort to be hunted down. A mine of misconception identification material is the larger whole class assessments that are carried out at the end of topics or at summative points. As discussed in my previous blog post (Assessment and Feedback) and originally outlined in Adam Boxer’s helpful blog post (link here), jotting down repeated misconceptions that multiple students have is a very helpful way of simply identifying where students’ misunderstandings lie. Once they have been identified, then the next step is to challenge these misconceptions.

Challenge – how to deal with the misconceptions that exist

I believe that there are 2 approaches to challenging misconceptions:

  1. Correction: Put simply, one of the easiest ways to correct a misconception is to make students aware of what it is that they didn’t understand and then teach them the correct knowledge that they should know instead, assessing them again at a later point to make sure that they have learnt it properly this time. This may involve going back and re-teaching an aspect that has previously been covered or it may mean building in some correctional teaching that links with whatever it is that is currently being taught. However, I think that a lot of correcting is done every single lesson and so am going to spend more time focusing on one specific way to avoid misconceptions in the first place.
  1. Advanced planning: Where it has been identified that specific misconceptions keep appearing, the use of examples and negative, or non-examples can be strategically employed to prevent misconceptions from developing in the first place. The use of examples and negative examples is a key part of the Direct and Explicit Teaching approach, as outlined in the recent researchED Guide to Explicit and Direct Instruction (Ed. Adam Boxer). In Tom Needham’s chapter on Teaching through Examples (pages 37-53), negative examples are held up as being ‘crucial for teaching’ to show the specific qualities that are irrelevant to the concept being taught. In practice this means demonstrating what something isn’t, as well as showing what it is. For example, in recent years, a not insignificant number of students in year 10 have revealed their misconception that individual tectonic plates are constructive or destructive in and of themselves (e.g. The South American plate is destructive). They can effectively describe what happens at a destructive plate boundary, but, because it has not been challenged effectively in the past, assume that the individual plates involved must therefore also be destructive. Having identified this, the next time I teach tectonic plate boundaries, as well as demonstrating what a destructive plate boundary is, I shall also be demonstrating what it isn’t (e.g. the individual plates, the different types of crust, the different landforms found there). Hopefully, as a result of this pre-planning, this misconception will not develop in the first place and if it is already there, will be challenged at a much earlier point than previously, which is ultimately the desired end point for all of those misconceptions, whether the surprising ones, or the ones that we know all too well.  

3 thoughts on “Africa is NOT a country!

  1. This is a really interesting point and I think that the key is planning for misconceptions as well as noting them down as they occur. I wonder if it is worth having a collective log of misconceptions for the department, as well as individual logs. This would be especially useful for teachers delivering a unit for the first time, or if a teacher has previously only taught that topic to either lower or higher sets so might not have been exposed to some of the misconceptions.


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