Saturday, 30 January 2016

Three reasons behind common misconceptions in biology

Recently I saw a link to an interesting news article about biology students' misconceptions of the subject. When I read the article I noticed that many of the misconceptions identified chimed with observations I have made of my own students' misconceptions. Intrigued, I downloaded the original research article on which the news item was based, which can be found hereThe authors identify three common underlying causes, or cognitive construals, for these misconceptions, each of which I will look at in turn.
Rafflesia, a parasitic plant (Photo credit: Dick Culbert)

1. Teleological thinking

The first common underlying cause of misconceptions, teleological thinking, refers to our need for causal stories behind the observation of phenomena, based on the assumption of goals, purposes, or functions. An example of this underlies one of the most common misconceptions I come across from students when teaching evolution. Here is a sentence I might commonly see from a student who is explaining the evolution of the body form of dolphins:

'The ancestor of dolphins walked on land but lived near water. Eventually dolphins adapted themselves so they could swim in the water'. 

Here, the student is assuming a purposeful effort from a dolphin ancestor to change itself into a form more suited to a life aquatic. Clearly this represents a fundamental misconception of natural variation, natural selection, and changes in the makeup of a population over time. Individual organisms cannot 'adapt themselves' to their environment. Natural variation in a population means that some individuals may be better suited to their environment and are therefore more likely to survive and reproduce. The traits that make them more fit for their environment therefore become more prevalent in the population. 

This is a tricky concept for native speakers to express correctly, and would seem to be linked to the underlying teleological misconception that evolution is a purposeful process. For my students, who are ELLs, they have to cope with both the difficulty of the concept and the use of language to correctly express it. Knowing the nature of this misconception, however, will enable me to help learners address these issues when they encounter them in the future. 

2. Essentialist thinking

The second type of misconceptions are related to essentialist thinking - a set of assumptions an individual may make about concepts, such as the idea that a particular feature of a system is solely responsible for defining its overall identity. In biology, an example of this would be the misconception that all plants are photosynthetic. Rafflesia, the plant which produces the largest flower in the world, is parasitic and does not make carbohydrates through photosynthesis. In fact, in biology there is frequently an exception to every 'rule'. Thus we need to help move students' understanding away from the idea that systems or processes need not be defined by a particular characteristic most of them share. 

3. Anthropocentric thinking

The third misconception occurs when biological phenomena are viewed through an anthropocentric, or human-centred lens. A common anthropocentric misconception which I have been battling for a long time now, and remember being used as an example of science undergraduates' misconceptions during my MAEd, is that plants take in food from soil via their roots. This misconception can be addressed simply by asking students if this were the case, why then are there not enormous holes in the ground at the base of every tree on the school grounds? However, knowing that the underlying, anthropocentric reason for this misconception - that all organisms, including plants, must 'eat' food in a similar way to humans - is helpful, and provides a means for approaching similar anthropocentric misconceptions. 


The insights afforded by understanding the underlying causes of common misconceptions among biology students are both interesting and helpful. Interesting, in that these misconceptions would appear to be widespread, irrespective of culture or language (although there may of course be some communities where they may not be present. Helpful, in that by understanding the underlying causes of these misconceptions, it can provide biology teachers with a means with which to address them. In turn, once learners become more aware of these causes, they too may be able to spot them more easily and avoid falling into these common traps. 

I would love to hear others' experiences of common misconceptions and ways of dealing with them. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

A global classroom collaboration

Over the last month or so my students have been participating in a global classroom collaboration. This has been an exciting foray into my first proper collaboration of this sort, and was initiated via a Twitter conversation with a colleague, Jodie, in the USA. 

A screenshot from the Flipgrid web app.

The plan for the initial lesson can be found here. Briefly, we each had our classes do research about our respective local biomes, surroundings, and cultures. The students then developed clues relating to their research. I had my students write the clues out as scripts which would form the basis of video messages they recorded using the Flipgrid app. The students in my colleague's class then viewed the videos, and my students viewed theirs. The students then submitted written questions to each other using Padlet, with which to try & glean more information in order to guess the location of each other's school. The great thing about this approach is that it can be done asynchronously, avoiding any difficulties arising from being in very different time zones. 

I was very impressed with the level of engagement my students showed during the development of their clues, and they put a lot of thought into them. Since they are English language learners I assisted them with the development of their scripts, mainly just to remove words or phrases that would give away our location too easily.

The next lesson I had students download the free Flipgrid app onto their smartphones and enter the hashtag for our collaborative grid. This had been set up previously by Jodie, using her paid Flipgrid account. Once the grid has been set up, anyone can be invited to upload short video recordings to it via the app. These subsequent users do not pay any additional sign up fees. We experienced no problems downloading the app or accessing the class grid. 

I let my students find somewhere quiet to record their videos, and made sure they used areas where there were no distinguishing features that would have given their location away. They rehearsed their scripts briefly, then recorded and uploaded their video messages to Flipgrid. This was a very straightforward process, with no technical difficulties presented by using the app to record the videos. 

My students spent a number of periods working on this project, and were very engaged and actively participating throughout. Overall, their feedback from an evaluation questionnaire they completed following the project was extremely positive, as exemplified by the following comments (verbatim):
  • I learned a lot from the Flipgrid project, one of them being to not use the country or places you live as a barrier for your learning
  • I learned about biology in other country, such as climate and biomes. I also got to know their culture and lifestyle which is very interesting. 
  • I learned both of biodiversity in Thailand and Texas that I've never known before.
  • This project should continue. I really enjoyed it and I'm sure other students will enjoy it too.
The one drawback to this project was its timing, in that we began just before the Christmas/New Year break, and one of my students noted in their evaluation feedback following the project that this had had a dampening effect: 'May be not to use during the holidays? It was so exciting at first but then they had their holidays followed by our breaks so we kinda forgot about it'. This was a fair point, but as we all know the reality of school schedules means that we can't always fit things in where we would like. In the future, though, I would try to avoid spreading an activity such as this over an extended break. 

I have seen some educators criticise global classroom collaborations as being undertaken simply because technology now allows this. However, based on my students' own comments, together with my observations, this approach does seem to have positive learning outcomes. I feel that the main content-driven learning occurred during the initial lesson, when students were developing their clues relating to their local environment, such as which biome they are located in. The learning which took place in subsequent lessons related more to language skills, for example my ELLs trying to understand native English speakers talking at normal speed. It also offered students in their different countries cultural insights to see what their differences were and also their similarities - would the US teenagers have guessed that Thai teenagers' favourite foods were pizza and pasta for instance!

Overall, I feel that this was a successful activity, both in terms of the content learned and the level of student engagement. I would be happy to hear others' views on this, or similar undertakings that they have done.