Two Roads to Rome

There are two basic ways to unlearn misconceptions about science. Both are based on the premise that in order to change, you must first identify your (incorrect) belief about something and then actively compare it to how nature really works. This process starts with a question, like "Why is the sky blue?" You might give the answer, "Because it contains a blue gas." The two methods of dealing with this incorrect belief differ in the way the teacher interacts with you when considering the validity of your idea. In one method, the teacher provides gentle, positive guidance as you figure out an experiment to test your belief, find the results of the experiment to be inconsistent with your idea, and construct a correct belief. In the other, the teacher aggressively confronts your incorrect belief every step of the way with irrefutable arguments and experiments.

These methods can lead to the replacement of deep-seated incorrect beliefs with correct beliefs, a process called conceptual change, but to appropriate a refrain from a Beatles tune, "you know it don't come easy." Some people respond well to the supportive approach, others to the confrontational. The supportive method has the disadvantage that it takes a lot of time and effort on both the student's and the teacher's parts. It takes much more time to help students "discover" important concepts than to tell them the same things. Discovery-based learning is effective in leading to conceptual change, but the number of concepts that can be discovered in a semester or a year is many fewer than the number that can be acquired by more conventional teaching— especially when combined with the more aggressive methods of addressing misconceptions. While more efficient, the confrontational method has the disadvantage of being, well, confrontational. I will have more to say about this issue shortly.

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