For quite a long time I was not particularly concerned about misconceptions. Trained in a predominantly exploratory and student-centred style, misconceptions were inevitable in my lessons. Requiring novices to work in groups and to access material with limited or no support effectively guaranteed that, at least to some degree, children would misunderstand some content. The only way to avoid this was to make the content so simple that it wasn’t challenging.
This didn’t really worry me. After all, I thought, the world is a complicated place and misconceptions are part of life – I believed that by allowing my students to make them I was being more authentic and thought that their gradually improving historical skill would mean that, in the end, any stains would come out in the wash.
I now think this attitude was both misguided and damaging.
Cognitive load theory suggests that once a schema is formed it is quite inflexible. If we come to believe something which isn’t true, then we find it very tough to change our minds. This might be because we derive our sense of identity from our schemas, which means adapting them also means changing things about ourselves from which we get a reassuring sense of belonging and security. Generally, we don’t like what we hold close to be challenged so, when faced with contradictory information, we are probably more likely to ignore, disbelieve or challenge it than we are to engage.
This may be an explanation for why very clever people sometimes hold views that seem very silly to other people. I know an intelligent, articulate, kind and passionate creationist. I find this very hard to conceptualise. In order to interact with him I have to ignore the fact he is a creationist and actively avoid discussing any scientific topic as, I am sure, he does too. Neither of us are willing to listen to arguments that contradict the schemas on which our worldviews are constructed.
This has profound implications on the way we teach our children.
Firstly, this makes curriculum of great importance. If we accept that learning is the process of forming schemas (and I do realise not all people do accept this), then their inflexibility makes the responsibility of choosing what is in them an enormous one. If we teach something which is wrong there is a good chance we are helping form a flawed schema, which could last forever. I saw this clearly during my time in Ethiopia when I encountered children who’d been taught, from a governmentally approved textbook, that the rock hewn churches of Lalibela were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. As hard as I tried I could not convince them they were not. When, finally, I brought in an international encyclopaedia and showed them the real list, they reacted by saying “this book is wrong.”
Checking a curriculum for basic, factual errors is only the start. Some topics that are accepted culturally are evidentially problematic. For example, I am pretty sure that if we polled all British people, a large percentage would say that Britain and the USA played the most significant role in defeating Germany in World War Two. This belief is, at best, limited. A credible argument could be made it is actually just wrong, with the USSR playing a much more dominant role.
The point here is not so much that, especially in more subjective subjects like history, that we will ever arrive at a ‘right’ answer, but that if we are to avoid embedded misconceptions we must recognise and pay attention to what we teach before we even begin thinking about how we teach it.
This is not to say we should ignore teaching methodology. If we are to accept that misconceptions are dangerous then we must teach in styles that minimise them. This brings me, full circle, back to the concerns I raised regarding pure exploratory and student-centred methodology. If we allow students to access challenging material with only their friends to help them, we are inviting misunderstanding. A good teacher using this style will, of course, correct misconceptions where and when they spot them, but identifying them all, with perhaps thirty children talking at once, is very hard.
It is much easier when we teach directly. When we do this we can much more easily control what information children get at what time. We can use questioning and other methods to check whether children have understood. We can stop and directly re-teach if a misconception appears to be a widely held one. By doing this, we can be much more firmly in control of what goes into the schema and can be more confident it is correct.
I think this is actually a very, very important issue. The proliferation of information sources, real, dubious and fake, means we can now, more than ever, choose to reinforce what we already believe and ignore what we don’t like regardless of how convincing the evidence. If we want to, as we may well be predisposed do, we can retreat from real debate and reinforce our existing views even when they might be wrong more easily than we have ever been able to. Teachers can fight this worrying growth of tribalism and polarisation but to do this we simply must ensure that we do everything we can to stop children learning things which aren’t true.