Why this approach is important

Students can have ideas and conceptual frameworks about any topic that are different to accepted scientific thinking. Even so, they may still be able to correctly answer questions that they have been asked. However, in the longer term, these ‘wrong’ ideas will be a problem, and will stop students from making progress. Teachers need to find out what their students actually think if they are to help them progress. Teachers also need to find ways of challenging unhelpful ideas and replacing them with something more useful. It is well known (Driver et al, 1994) that students can memorise new ideas in the short term, but if they don’t fully understand the new ideas, then in the longer term they will go back to their own ideas, which might not be completely correct. Students can be very tenacious in holding onto ideas they bring to lessons from their prior experience. Active learning is needed to bring about conceptual development (making new ideas and frameworks available to the student). The student must engage in mental activity as they explore new ideas and their relationships with other concepts.

For example, many students may confuse energy with fuel, and they may describe energy as being ‘used up’ in various situations. They may, for example, correctly predict that a ball released on a u-shaped track should not reach any higher than the height from which it was released, but will say this was because ‘all the energy has been used up’. As they move to higher classes, they will not be able to make progress in physics if they think of energy as being ‘used up’: they need to understand that it is conserved and can only be converted from one form to another.

What you can learn in this unit

1 Some common misunderstandings about energy