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  5. P4.1 Misconceptions and naive ideas of children

P4.1 Misconceptions and naive ideas of children


This article explores in some detail the ideas and misconceptions about science that are held by learners (and even by experienced scientists and science teachers when they are working outside their personal areas of specialism) The nature of children's alternative ideas in science and how they can be probed are discussed. The importance of eliciting these ideas is emphasised and strategies to do this - such as talking, brainstorming, writing, word association, questionnaires, concept mapping, drawing, - are presented. Elicitation tasks that can be used by trainees in the context of ITT courses are discussed and exemplified. Clearly the role of language and the interpretation of its meaning by both teachers and learners is central to developing and implementing the ideas that are presented here in the classroom. A number of downloads are available that provide further supporting material for direct use of for adaptation. References to some of the more important literature are provided.

Standards that are particularly relevant to this section include Q4, Q7&8, Q10, Q14, Q18&19, Q22, Q25-29.

Keywords: Alternative conceptions, Constructivism, Elicitation, Language.


1.0 Introduction
2.0 Children's alternative ideas
3.0 Ways to probe pupils' ideas
4.0 The need to elicit children's ideas
5.0 Eliciting children's ideas
6.0 Elicitation tasks for trainee teachers

This section is based on Part II (esp Chapter 5 Children’s ideas of the world) of Ross, K., Lakin, E. and Callaghan, P. (2004) Teaching Secondary Science. (Second edition) London: David Fulton. Price £17 IBSN 1843121441

1.0 Introduction

There is clear evidence that children develop frameworks of belief about natural phenomena that conflict with our accepted scientific understanding. Just as scientists’ own understandings have undergone revolutions over historical time, so children’s ideas will also change, over a much shorter time-span. It is difficult to teach children new ideas until we know the existing ideas they hold - these often appear to conflict with accepted scientific ideas and are described as ‘misconceptions’ or ‘alternative frameworks of belief’ (Driver et al, 1994). There may be many grains of truth in these ‘alternative ideas’ and we need to pay careful attention to what children say about their ideas in science.

This unit will suggest ways to alert trainee teachers to the literature describing these alternative ideas. To help trainees deal with these naïve ideas please see the unit entitled: “Active learning – pupils talking, reading and writing effectively in the classroom.” Gordon Guest has written a detailed guide to a constructivist approach to teaching, provided here in a slightly edited version as download P4.1_1.0a 'Discussion of Constructivism'

2.0 Children’s alternative ideas

Methods of teaching science which are based on the idea that pupils build up, or construct, ideas about their world are often called constructivist approaches. If we want pupils to understand and use scientific ideas their existing beliefs need to be challenged or extended. We cannot always replace their naive ideas, but we can encourage pupils to use the scientific ones when appropriate, and to show them the inconsistencies in many of their existing ideas. This unit examines:

  • ways to probe pupils’ ideas
  • Sources of information about what these ideas are

Please see the unit on active learning for implicarions for teaching - there we discuss active learning approaches that allow pupils to reconstruct the scientific ideas.

3.0 Ways to probe pupils’ ideas

Elicitation questions are used in schools to probe children’s understanding. It is worth while getting your trainees to try the questions themselves – if they do happen all to agree, and you are happy with their responses, they can be asked to predict what pupils of various ages might say. If they disagree it is a chance to sort out their own misconceptions.

The university of Gloucestershire (GITEP Scheme) uses a set of such questions at (group) interview. The purpose here is not so much to test applicants’ knowledge as to judge the quality of their explanation and listening skills. The group of three or four interviewees will argue for their answer, but will be persuaded by others’ answers. Do they appreciate the grains of understanding in others? Can they see the conflicts in their own point of view? It tests both their listening skill and their ability to explain. See chapter 5 of Ross et al for a further set of questions with a commentary.

The full set of questions is available from ESCalate.

Perhaps the most useful source of questions, with a commentary, is Concept Cartoons. (Naylor and Keogh 2000). See the full details of both their web-based and book-based publications. For Key stage three the Strategy has produced some resources relating to misconceptions (Most schools will still have these materials). This is also available as download 3.0b 'KS3 Strategy on misconceptions'.

The research on misconceptions was reviewed in Driver et al 1994, and although this is nearly 15 years old, it is still an important reference source of naïve ideas which teachers need to look out for. For a review, and details see this link. On the primary front the SPACE project provides a similar comprehensive review of children’s ideas. This is also available as download 3.0c.

The PowerPoint in download 3.0d is used by GITEP in Gloucestershire, for both primary and secondary trainees, to alert them to known misconceptions and to illustrate techniques to probing children’s ideas. You will need to download the two mp3 sound files into the same folder as the PowerPoint file in order for the sound to play.

4.0 The need to elicit children’s ideas

It may be somewhat depressing to find out how many pupils reach GCSE and even A-level standard and still answer the sort of elicitation questions mentioned in paragraph 3 in a naive way. However experience shows that these naive ideas are built up through common experiences and they can be very persistent. We need to find out what these ideas are and devise learning techniques that will challenge or reconcile the two views – the naive and the scientific.

Elicitation of ideas is important for two reasons. Teachers need to know where their pupils are, and pupils need to compare their existing ideas with the new ideas they are being taught, to enable these new concepts to be built firmly into their (new) understanding.

Previous research will tell us what we might expect, but not what is actually the case in our class. So what is needed are ways to bring ideas quickly into the open, so they can be built on or challenged.

5.0 Eliciting children’s ideas

Probing the cognitive structure of the whole class through talking

Question, tell-each-other, vote

If previous research has already uncovered possible alternative ideas, we can use this method to provide a quick picture of where the pupils are.

Present the class with a multiple-choice question, in cartoon format if you wish, and give them 10 seconds with their neighbour (talk partner) to explain their choice (preferably in a whisper). Now take a vote on each alternative. This is more powerful, and quicker, than asking them to write, because talking is so much easier than writing if you need to clarify an idea.

At this stage simply thank the class and say we’ll take another vote at the end. Assuming the class does display some misunderstandings we will need to set up discussions, videos, practical work, teacher explanations etc. to challenge them. Every now and then we say ‘Several of you thought...who still thinks this way?’ and if necessary get other pupils to explain the problem. Take the vote the same way at the end to enable the pupils to make a commitment to the new idea.


This is a similar technique, but useful if you are not giving suggested alternatives. Ask the pupils a question; allow 10 seconds for them to tell-each-other (as before, in pairs or threes) but now collect in the range of ideas. As each idea is suggested, write it on the OHP or whiteboard, and ask how many others thought that (this allows a tally to be made to find the most popular responses). The important thing is to accept every idea as of equal merit, which will encourage a full range of ideas. As the lessons progress you can show the pupils how their ideas shift (we hope!) towards the more scientifically acceptable ones.

*The term "brainstorming" has been accused of being politically incorrect and offensive to people with epilepsy. There appears to be little truth to this criticism. A survey in 2005 by the UK charity National Society for Epilepsy found that 93 per cent of people with the condition surveyed do not find the word offensive. From

Probing the cognitive structure of the whole class through writing

If you want a method of eliciting the ideas of the whole class, where you can link ideas to individual pupils, one of the following written methods will need to replace the much quicker ‘tell-each-other’ or ‘Brainstorm’ techniques above.

Word associations and definitions
Get pupils to write the word/concept in an oval in the centre of a page, and write a simple definition inside the oval. Round the outside write all the words and ideas that they think are closely linked to the word. (Sutton 1992, p. 61).

The advantage of a questionnaire is that it can be administered to a large sample but it can require considerable reading and writing skill on the behalf of the student answering the questionnaire. If multiple choice questions are used they need to be based on interviews to generate the possible alternatives.

Concept mapping
This is a very powerful technique which can be used to find out pupils’ initial ideas, but also can be used by them to modify or build on them during learning, and is discussed in Chapter 10 of Ross et al (2004)

Drawing, annotations, writing...
All the techniques we use to help pupils make sense of their learning may also reveal any remaining misconceptions. All these active learning tasks are reviewed in Chapter 10 of Ross et al (2004)

Everyday language and idiom
By listening to the way people talk we can often discover the ‘accepted’ everyday understanding typical of a culture. In everyday English we say ‘it’s burnt away’, ‘no animals allowed’, ‘light as air’, ‘heavy as lead’. All of these imply meanings for the italicised words that are not the same as their scientific meaning. It is almost certain that our pupils will use these words in their everyday sense (see grains of truth in Chapter 4 of Ross et al (2004)).

6.0 Elicitation tasks for trainee teachers

In our work (Gloucestershire GITEP) with trainee science teachers we ask them to interview a small group of pupils from a range of three ages to find out their existing beliefs (Download 6.0a). They have to provide a written evaluation of the exercise. We provide feedback to the trainees by means of numbered comments (Download 6.1), which have built up and evolved over the years. This feedback technique allows evaluative comments to be shared by the whole group, and it allows us to make detailed but very quick responses to trainees' written work.

Also attached is a very comprehensive paper by Gordon Guest (Download 6.0b) that he gives to his trainees to make them aware of the naive ideas that children may have. At the very end of the download is an assignment task for trainees, to undertake some elicitation in schools to enable them to get a feel for the reality of these alternative conceptions children have.

Material from this download (Download 6.0b) has also been used and expended upon in the "Subject Knowledge" section of this website, where we provide ideas on how to develop the subject knowledge of those entering teacher education. 

Only when we know the ideas held by our trainee teachers can we begin to challenge them (where necessary). In their turn we need our trainees to identify the ideas held by their pupils so, as teachers, they can start to build on or challenge these ideas. That is the topic of the Active Learning section of this website.

Download P4.1_6.0a 'Interviewing children – Trainee task'
Download P4.1_6.0b 'Alternative frameworks And Misconceptions in Primary Science'


Sutton, C. (1992) Words, Science and Learning, Buckingham: Open University Press 
Ross, K., Lakin, E. and Callaghan, P. (2004) Teaching Secondary Science. (Second edition) London: David Fulton. ISBN 1843121441 
Driver, R., Squires, A.,Rushworth, P. and Wood-Robinson, V. (1994) Making sense of Secondary Science: Research Into Children’s Ideas, London: Routledge
Naylor, S and Keogh, B (1998) 'Concept Cartoons in science education’ Sandbach: Millgate House Publishers
Other references are provided within the downloads

This Section prepared by Keith Ross, University of Gloucestershire

Published: 23 Oct 2005, Last Updated: 24 Sep 2008