MISONCEPTIONS - IDEAS ABOUT THE MOON - Instructor Jennifer Grier


What we think, How we think it, Why we think it, and

How we can change what we think AND what our audiences think.


NOTE! This page is complete - scroll down to Assignments (which have been renumbered again) to find out what to do this week.


Goals for the week. I hope to provide you, the student, with the following opportunities ...

  1. To understand what "Misconceptions" or "Preconceptions" or "Previous Ideas", etc. are, and what they mean in the context of science education.
  2. To appreciate the POWER of "previous ideas", and why they have to be tackled head on to promote learning.
  3. To understand that *everyone* has misconceptions about the Moon, even scientists.
  4. To learn what the common misconceptions are about the Moon and about lunar science in general.
  5. To find tools that help identify the *specific* misconceptions of your audience about the Moon.
  6. To gain insight into your *own* ideas about the Moon.
  7. To understand where our misconceptions, and those of our audiences, originate.
  8. To identify activities and other resources to help our audiences confront their misconceptions.
  9. To confirm changes in our thinking, and our audience, paving the way for the next level of misconceptions to be addressed.

Before the Week Begins

  1. (Completed) Pre-Test! (Found by going to the Introduction page for the course and scrolling down to the Pre-Test Grier heading.
  2. Obtain and watch the "Private Universe and Minds of Our Own" DVD. *Note, I am sending out a copy to all registered participants. They should arrive to the addresses you gave to Chuck by November 3.* (Technically, he video is free for educators direct from Harvard, but there seem to be some issues with it.) https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/pcgi/conf_reg/smgorder.pl>

Assignments (apparently other numbering schemes would make this #8a-8e)

  1. Download and read the first chapter of "Models in Earth and Space Science". PDF is here.


    Had to break it into two pieces to fit.
    This chapter starts with some definitions and nomenclature which will probably only be of interest to some, but then it gets into some very good straightforward talk about models.
  2. Read the text sections below. These are "Common Lunar Misconceptions", "Intermediate Models", "Reading Between the Lines" and "Changing Internal Models".
  3. Discussion Assignments. There are three discussion threads to be posted to specifically, these are 'Private Universe', 'Example of a Misconception' and 'How I'll Change What I Do'. (For those still getting a little lost on the Wiki, to post to these threads use the 'Discussion' tab at the very top of this page). The assignment is for you to make one post answering my questions for each of the threads AND make one post responding to someone else's answers to each thread. The reason for responding to someone else's post in each thread, after you have posted yourself, is so I know everyone is not just writing their own ideas, but reading and assimilating other's ideas, as well.
  4. Assignment to post to your own page. The only assignment you will post directly to your participant page is this. Find an image *related to the moon* that you might use as a teaching model (all images are models, by the way). I have posted examples below. List three things about the image that it properly represents about the Moon, and three misconceptions the image might engender about the Moon. Note that my examples are not lunar, since I didn't want to use up all the good moon images :) If you have the time, upload more than one image of the same thing, and then compare and contrast the conceptions/misconceptions in them.
  5. Not required - Feel free to ask questions that are not directly related to the three threads I've started! I'd love to see some of the lively discussion that has taken place in past weeks!

Examples for Assignment #4 (8d)

Images don't always say what we want them too. They can be powerful models for teaching, but they can, and often do, create or confirm misconceptions at exactly the same time. For each image below, I've listed several 'correct' interpretations (what I'll call 'conceptions') that can be acquired from the image, AND several incorrect interpretations (misconceptions) that could be taken away from the same image.

ss1.jpgConceptions:
- There are several planets in the Solar System, along with one other big orange thing that's probably the Sun.
- The Sun is much bigger than the planets.
- The planets are all essentially the same shape, round.
- Some planets have rings.
- The surface of the Sun is not boring, it has features like dark and light spots.
Misconceptions:
- There are exactly nine planets in the solar system.
- Exactly two planets have rings.
- Plus or minus, the planets are all about the same size.
- There is nothing in the Solar System besides planets and a star.
- The planets can be found in a line or an arc.
- The Solar System is all collected in a bunch close to the Sun.

ss3.jpg Conceptions:
- There is a structure to the Solar System, with planets going around the Sun.
- Planets are bright on the side that faces the Sun.
- The Solar System seems to be a sort of flat, plate shaped thing.
- The Solar System is just one part of a larger band of stuff (a possible and advanced
interpretation, but unlikely given the image)
- There are things in the Solar System other than just the Sun and Planets (but again,
exactly what they might be is not at all clear)
Misconceptions:
- The planets move on actual tracks, like train cars, as they go around the Sun.
- There is some sort of weird smoky stuff in the Solar System that makes no sense.
- The Sun is tiny.
- There are only about five planets in the solar system.




Reading 1 - Common Misconceptions


As you know from watching the video, if from no other source, a 'misconception' is far more complex than just a 'wrong idea.' Very often, misconceptions have aspects that are true, real, and/or consistent with how a scientist would view the same phenomenon. As we grow and get more experiences under our belt, and build complex internal narratives of our ideas, it is more and more likely that some aspect of our scientific ideas will be correct and incorrect at the same time. Below is a list of common misconceptions, but I prefaced this section as I did to underscore the fact that 'right' and 'wrong' can be relative. More on this when we look at developing misconceptions, and at the Pre-Test results.

Common Misconceptions about the Moon (hardly an exhaustive list).
  1. The phases of the Moon are caused by: (From least complex, to more complex) The Moon actually physically growing and shrinking, Mountains or terrain blocking the Moon, clouds blocking the moon, and Earth's shadow falling on the Moon.
  2. If the Moon is observed as Full in one part of the world, it will be a different phase as seen from elsewhere on Earth, (In fact, the phase of the Moon will be virtually identical to any observer anywhere within the space of about a day)
  3. There is a 'dark' side of the Moon that never gets light.
  4. The Moon is larger on the Horizon than it is overhead: (From least complex to more complex) The Moon is actually, physically larger, and then shrinks, and the Moon is larger because light is bent coming through the thicker atmosphere you have to look through near the horizon. (In fact, the Moon is measurably the same in either position).
  5. The Moon has seas of liquid water (Maria, the dark areas, are in fact old dark ancient lava flows)
  6. Misconceptions of Permanence/Change with Time: The Moon's position is as it has always been (in fact, the Moon is moving slowly away from the Earth)
  7. Misconceptions of scale: The Moon is much bigger (smaller) or closer (farther) than it is.
  8. You can never see the Moon in the daytime
  9. Humans have never visited the Moon
  10. We do not have samples of Moon rocks
  11. Bits of the Moon do not fall naturally to Earth
  12. Aliens have lived on the Moon
  13. There is Air on the Moon (you can breathe there)

Some of these ideas may seem very naive, and indeed are commonly held by children. But don't assume that they are all confronted and corrected by adulthood. They are not! Some of the adults in your audiences will have these ideas. Again, as noted in the video, if the person in question thought something as a child and never challenged themselves to change the idea, there is no real reason for it to change. Even being in a class where you are told otherwise is not enough - that data can be forgotten or simply not believed.

Reading 2 - Intermediate Models


One of the hardest things for scientists to understand about teaching is that a learner cannot uptake the complete, perfect model on the first try. NO MATTER HOW CLEARLY THEY EXPLAIN THINGS. People learn by starting with what they have - their internal model which is likely to be fraught with misconceptions. Young people have an additional challenge - their brains are not done growing!

What really happens is that people learn in stages, often starting with naive ideas, and then developing them into more complex and correct ones over time. This can happen even when they are presented with the same data over and over. On the first exposure, they take in as much as they can, incorporate it into their internal model, and then stop. The next exposure, they move to the next level. With kids, this is inevitable because, for example, a fourth grader does not usually have the brain development necessary to think easily in the third dimension, things are still 2D to them. And middle schoolers - they are in the concrete, not the abstract, more than 99 percent of the time.

The phases of the Moon are a good example. As kids, we look up, see the Moon, and see it change shape. The easiest explanation, and one that works well with our personal experience, is that it is, in fact, changing shape. As we grow, we are taught or realize that the Moon is some kind of big ball, or at least 2D plate, that can't actually change shape. But by this time we have the mental perception to understand that something can block something else. Without the sophistication of understanding any atmospheric phenomena, young children will resort to 'mountains or buildings sometimes block the Moon'. They've seen buildings or mountains do just that. They know if a tree is in front of a house, they can't see all of the house. This idea is taken to the next level when the child develops the capacity to understand that the Moon is in the sky, not more organically tied to the Earth, and then they pick an atmospheric blocker - clouds. This idea can be held easily into middle school. It takes a leap to move to the more sophisticated idea of shadows as blockers. An ability to think in the abstract. In addition, one has to move the Moon mentally from out of the Earth's atmosphere and into space, where it belongs. With a Moon going around the Earth, and a sun far away for light, the stage is set for the most commonly held misconception among adults - that it is the Earth's shadow falling on the Moon that causes the phases. MANY adults who develop this idea in middle school are never in a position to challenge it again, and so the idea remains. It does a good job of explaining many things that we observe. However, if we start to compare observations from eclipses to our nightly observations of the Moon, adults will begin to see a disconnect. The final idea, the one that is phrased oddly but is essentially correct, is that the phases of the Moon are caused by the Moon's own shadow falling on itself. Or in other words, nothing is blocking the light - other than the Moon. The side facing the Sun is lit, the side facing away is dark. We see phases because we are sometimes looking at the edge of the lit area, the 'terminator', and so see some of the dark and some of the lit areas simultaneously. To get to this idea, we need a completely grown brain, and at least four encounters with the idea of phases and the models that explain them. Its a wonder anyone understands it :)

Reading 3 - Reading Between the Lines


So if we all have these misconceptions, how do we change them? Step one is knowing what the common misconceptions are for the subject matter. That way even if you can't conduct an assessment with your audience, you know what they are likely to be thinking. With very little information about their backgrounds, you can make a pretty good guess at what intermediate stage your audience is likely to fall on the topic you are trying to teach. Some will be at an earlier stage, some later, but you'll be able to challenge most of them directly where they are. Of course, ideally, you do what I did and find an assessment, either drawing a picture, taking a quiz, writing an essay, etc. that allows you specific insight into each persons' view. So armed, misconceptions can be tackled more directly.

Dealing with the assessment data can be tricky. I gave out a multiple choice test, knowing full well that such an instrument is loaded with problems. I mitigated that with the 'explain' section. Critical to helping me 'read between the lines' about what people are really thinking. Whatever you do, make sure you get your learners to COMMIT to an answer. Writing is best. It is a psychological truism that anything difficult to take up or explain will be mentally glossed over. This is like your eye creating a seamless movie for you by having your brain interpolate between the snapshots from the retina. We are not seeing continuous motion - we are *perceiving* continuous motion because our brains have filled in the middle bit complete unconscious to us. That can happen with ideas, too. If our internal model has a gap, we might not see it, even if confronted, as our brain moves to gloss over the spot so we can still use the model to run away from the thing attacking us, or keep us from drowning, etc. When we commit our ideas to paper, and then are given data or ideas that conflict, we are psychologically much more likely to spot the dissonance, and realize it represents a problem with our internal model.

So, from the Pretest, some thoughts and some examples of 'reading between the lines'.

First of all, you guys knew a lot about the Moon before you even started the course (although by now hopefully you have learned even more!). Even so, the evaluation tool did bring out some interesting thinking. Even when someone can get a correct answer, the thinking written down gives a clue that the internal model - the internal narrative - for the phenomenon in question, is still not fully developed. That's how we all got through school giving all the right answers and then forgetting a bunch of stuff when the course was over. We didn't really lock them in.

For question four, the distance to the Moon, there were a variety of answers. One idea is based on an internal model that knows that all objects have gravity. Naturally, this model can generate the idea that the Moon is getting closer, because gravity is a force of attraction. The more correct concept for this question requires some understanding of orbits. It is a sophisticated idea to move from the internal realm of linear to circular acceleration. The gravity of the Earth pulls on the Moon, and it accelerates it. But not to fall straight down, the initial conditions of the system had everything in motion, so we have to conserve angular momentum at the very least. The Moon does not fall down, it goes into orbit around the Earth. It is 'falling' in a way, but one way to think about it is that it is falling down to the Earth, just as fast as the ground of the Earth is dropping away under it. The Moon never hits, just keeps on going 'round. In fact, tidal forces are slowly pushing the Moon away from us. At the present time, the Moon is getting farther from the Earth.

For question six, the amount of water bound in Moon rocks, there were several ideas expressed, many based on an attempt to assimilate new data or information into a sound existing model. For example, the new data might be 'there is possibly water permanently frozen at the poles of the Moon'. For many, this creates some internal dissonance. They know Moon rocks are 'dry' but are now forced to try to understand how that can be, even though there is water on the Moon. For some, the way the information gets integrated is that Moon rocks must have some water in them, it is just a very, very small amount. So for the answers given, they choose B. This is also the answer of choice for those who understand that the Moon underwent widespread volcanic processes in the past. Seeing that answers B and C have volcanic rock in them, and forced to choose, the choice is for B, again trying to incorporate this idea picked up somewhere that Moon rocks are dry. It takes a wide conceptual leap to move to the model where the water content of Earth rocks has essentially no bearing on Moon rocks. No matter what rocks we look at on Earth, even the very driest, we can find some small evidence of water. Part of the reason for that is that no matter where you are on Earth, there is some water vapor in the atmosphere, however small. Even a dry, baked Saharan rock is exposed to tiny amounts of water vapor, and will have some small bit of it bound into the minerals, adsorbed onto grains, or whatever. That is not true for Moon rocks. They formed completely dry. There is no water. And the water (that may be) at the poles is frozen solid - with no thick atmosphere to retain it and carry it around it has never had the chance to interact with the rocks. Even the rocks it is on top of might not show any sign of it, because the binding of water, and the adsorbing of water, does take some energy to drive. If the ice never got above a certain temperature, those reactions will never have taken place.

For question nine, the size of the Moon on the horizon, there were two prevalent answers. Both were that the situation was an 'apparent' change, since this group has developed ideas about the Moon well beyond it being the Moon actually changing size. But there is a strong idea that that Moon's apparent change is a real, measurable change, caused by light being bent at the horizon. Many people understand that the color change of the sunset, for example, has to do with looking through the increased column of airmass on the horizon versus overhead. Such an internal model can lead to the idea that the Moon's image gets 'stretched' as we see it. Note that when the actual measurements are made, there is no difference in size. The change is entirely illusory - our brains have changed the perception due to context clues on the horizon.

Reading 4 - Changing Internal Models


So once we have some idea of what our audiences are thinking, that is what there ideas are likely to be, what stage they are at, etc., we can make a plan for changing these ideas into more sophisticated ones. For a grade school teacher, this means accepting that your students can't understand lunar phases at their most complete because the kids brains have not developed to a point where they can do that. You can, however, know how far they can be pushed with the concepts based on their developmental stage, understand how scientific ideas develop, know where they will be going from here with what they have, etc. You can create a scenario that creates fewer misconceptions to be unraveled later, and lays fertile groundwork for the kids to be able to apprehend, comprehend, and change their internal models more quickly and efficiently. Working with adult learners, we are often most challenged by the short contact time, maybe as short as the three minutes they will stand looking at an exhibit, or if we are lucky, the fifteen minutes they will spend reading our carefully crafted news piece on the science section of the paper. They have the brain power, they just don't have the time. And to top it off, unlike the kids who deep down know they don't know, the adults might think they know it all fine, thank you very much.

When a person encounters a new idea, and they are forced to really think about how that idea fits with what they know, then they will attempt to internalize it within the context of their current model. Internal models of adults are very complex, and cherished, because they have been good until now, and have been proven adequate to get along in the world as necessary. Changing them is tough, even if the person who is learning really wants to change. Those old ideas have amazing power, and are very sticky :) If the new idea encountered can be fit into the model easily, then it usually is. If not, then the person is first most likely to assume, even if unconsciously, that the new idea is in error, and the internal model is still good. It takes effort to push past that point, and realize that the internal model has to change to fit the new idea, or new data encountered. If the internal model can be changed to fit the new idea, after some struggle, it may be. The most difficult situation is when the internal model differs so widely from the scientific idea that the whole model has to be shelved in favor of a new one. This is tremendously tough because to do this we are forced through a time when we know the old model does not work, so we don't have that anymore - but we haven't figured out a new model. We are in the inbetween spot where we have no good way to explain what we have seen from our past experience, and what we are now seeing in the form of the new idea or data. This is often the cause of a frustration in learners that can vary from annoying to unbearable. If annoying, they usually can push through, grasp a new model, and then move on, having really learned. If the frustration is more towards unbearable, they will not engage - they will find a way, consciously or unconsciously to avoid incorporating the new idea, and will devolve to the old model as 'good enough'.

So part of our strategy for change has to include a means for lowering the anxiety and frustration level of the learner. We know that to be effective we have to do authentic inquiry, which can give students the chance to come up with some really wacky answers, and in fact drive right down the wrong road completely. At young ages, anxiety can be avoided by carefully tailoring inquiry interactions to have a smaller number of possible outcomes, and as always, lots of guidance as they go along. Older students don't need as much, in general. But anyone at any age can have a low tolerance for the stress of learning, or issues with feelings of low-self esteem when they don't 'get it' right away. Adults in particular need a chance to demonstrate what they DO know before being confronted with what they don't. And while no one wants to be a slave to the entertainment industry, we know fun things keep a student's attention longer than something boring. Of course, for a really engaged student, 'fun' can also be working on the tough problem they were given, because we have already set up a reward system of some kind that the student can count on for a good payback for all that work.

The most effective strategy for me, in my environments, is to allow learners to explore the same set of ideas or systems through a variety of different models. The pictures from Images as Models assignment, for example. Each of the two I posted can be used to help teach about the solar system. Using them both, however, is much much more powerful. We instinctively have to figure out why they don't look the same, and what that means for the 'real' solar system. Adding movies, activities, more images, readings, etc to the experience offers the learner a wide set of models to have to integrate into a whole. The resulting internal model is usually much richer, more robust, and less likely to contain critical misconceptions.

And in the end, tracking change is the same as finding out what the misconceptions were in the first place. COMMIT to your new model, and see what has changed, and what hasn't. Then, the biggie, TEST the new model just as you did the old one. And now can you find another idea or data that conflicts with it? And the process goes right on to the next level of learning ...


Further Reading

The reading noted below is by no means required. This is simply a place that I'm listing some of my own sources of material, and a place to put some resources I have found useful in one capacity or another, regarding this week's topic. Also just making sure that for what was in fact required, you have the full reference.

Misconceptions - From the Research
  • Making Sense of Secondary Science, Research into Children's Ideas. Driver, Squires, and Wood-Robinson. RouteledgeFalmer, 1994. Reprinted in 2003.
  • An Examination of Misconceptions in an Astronomy Course for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Major, Michael Zeilik, University of New Mexico, Vicky J. Morris, University of New Mexico, The Astronomy Education Review, Issue 1, Volume 2:101-119, 2003

Identifying Ideas - Tests and Assessment Probes
  • Peer Instruction for Astronomy. Green. Prentice Hall. 2003.
  • Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, 25 Formative Assessment Probes, Vol 1. Keeley, Eberle, and Farrin. NSTA Press. 2005.