Developing Scientific Understanding: The Importance of Misconceptions

“There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand.”
– Charles K. Kettering

Charles Kettering was a prolific engineer and inventor who clearly put his understanding to use in the almost 200 patents he holds. His quote provides us, as science educators, a point of reflection when considering the learning experiences we provide students. Is our goal to facilitate understanding, or add to the list of things students know? The Framework for Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Idea (NRC, 2012) clearly articulates a vision of science learning built around students developing an understanding of core science concepts:

“The framework focuses on a limited set of core ideas in order to avoid the coverage of multiple disconnected topics – the oft-mentioned mile wide and inch deep. This focus allows for deep exploration of important concepts, as well as time for students to develop meaningful understanding, to actually practice science and engineering to reflect on their nature.” (NRC, 2012, p. 25)

If the goal is to allow students to develop a conceptual understanding, then we need to start by first understanding their existing understanding. This is especially important in science because we know that even our youngest students come into our classrooms with their own understanding of the natural world, based on their experiences. The understandings students come into our classrooms with are not complete or completely accurate.

The strength of students’ conceptions was well document in A Private Universe, when Harvard and MIT graduates were unable to answer questions at graduation related to the causes of seasons, even though this topic is often covered in K-12 science education. A study of middle school science teachers’ knowledge revealed that teacher knowledge of students’ misconceptions was correlated with improved student learning outcomes (Sadler & Sonnert, 2016). Teachers’ subject content knowledge is critical but not sufficient: “Much of what happens in many science classrooms could be considered as simply a demonstration of the teacher’s own subject-matter knowledge, without taking into account the learner’s own subject-matter knowledge. Without teachers’ knowledge of misconceptions relevant to a particular science concept, their students’ success at learning is limited. (Sadler & Sonnet, 2016, p. 31).

Instruction must take into account students’ current conceptions and we must be careful to view students’ current conceptions, even if incorrect, as helpful resource and not as deficits (Campbell, Scwarz & Windschitl, 2016). Even the misconceptions are positive because they reveal students have actively engaged in reasoning to make sense of the natural world (NRC, 2007). Students’ correct and incorrect conceptions along with the associated reasoning need to be used as starting points for instruction (Konicek-Moran & Keeley, 2015).

The upcoming NYSSLS, which are based on the NGSS, require students to engage in sense making activities. These new standards will help students develop an understanding of fundamental science concepts. One transition we can begin to make now is to allow students to engage in learning activities that facilitate scientific reasoning: “It is helpful for us as teachers to think less about correcting misconceptions and more about helping students engage in science reasoning to try out, evaluate, and refine their resources (ideas, ways of thinking about the world) to explain real-world phenomena or solve problems” (Campbell, Scwarz & Windschitl, 2016, p. 71).

We cannot simply replace misconceptions with correct conceptions. We must allow students to confront the inaccuracy in their ideas by engaging in scientific reasoning. We should tap into our students’ natural desire to engage in scientific reasoning to make sense of phenomena. Students can engage in scientific reasoning, even at a very young age, and do so naturally (NRC, 2007). We need to provide more science learning opportunities for students to engage in scientific reasoning so they can truly understand. Science and science learning are about understanding not simply knowing.

Hehl_Jessica_150pxJessica Hehl





  • Campbell, T., Schwarz, C., & Windschitl, M. (2016). What we call misconceptions may be necessary stepping-stones toward making sense of the world. Science and Children53(7), 28.
  • Konicek-Moran, R., & Keeley, P. (2015). Teaching for conceptual understanding in science. NSTA Press.
  • National Research Council (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • National Research Council (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Washington, D.C. National Research Council.
  • Sadler, P. & Sonnet, G. (2016). Understanding misconceptions: Teaching and learning in middle school science. American Educator, Spring 2016.

1 thought on “Developing Scientific Understanding: The Importance of Misconceptions

  1. Is the issue of “saving face” a consideration when we “allow students to confront the inaccuracy of their ideas….” ? It sounds like a tricky proposition.

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