At school, students of all ages are taught difficult concepts that go against their intuitions. A major challenge for teachers is getting these counterintuitive concepts to stick. Often they don’t stick, and misconceptions about the world persist into adulthood despite teaching. Where do misconceptions come from, and what can teachers do about them?

Concepts that are counterintuitive – that go against our intuitions – are particularly difficult to learn. When we haven’t successfully learnt a counterintuitive concept, we hold a misconception. One classic example of a counterintuitive concept is that a lead-filled ball will fall to the ground at the same speed as a feather-filled ball, when dropped from the same height. This goes against our intuitions; it feels intuitive that the lead-filled ball should reach the ground first, and yet it doesn’t.

One reason for our incorrect intuitions is that experiences and language can be misleading. For example, every day we see the sun rise and set – it looks as though the sun goes round the Earth, and yet the Earth goes round the sun. When we talk about the sun ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ we give children the impression that the sun is indeed going round the Earth before they are taught otherwise.

In other instances, students are taught a simplified scientific or mathematical theory at school, which is later superseded by a more complex theory. The original theory, which may contradict the new theory, may then be hard to shake. In fact, research suggests that we never really forget the original theory – whether that’s something we’ve been taught, or something we’ve assumed based on our experiences.

A challenge for learning

There are many examples of counterintuitive concepts like these that appear in school curricula for science and maths. Our intuitive understanding becomes a barrier to learning new information; a considerable challenge for educators. While it seems that old theories are never forgotten, it is still possible to learn the new theory and get the answer right through using a skill called inhibitory control.

Inhibitory control allows students to suppress their automatic, incorrect response in favour of the counterintuitive, correct response. Teachers may be able to help students to use their inhibitory control in class by encouraging them to ‘stop and think’ before giving an answer, and by reminding students that their first, automatic answer might be incorrect. Fast responses are sometimes considered important, especially in maths, but encouraging speed may not allow students to use their inhibitory control. Teachers could consider allowing students to take their time over a problem, perhaps extending to giving more time for class tests.

“Fast responses are sometimes considered important, especially in maths, but encouraging speed may not allow students to use their inhibitory control.”

Raising students’ awareness of misconceptions and counterintuitive concepts is another way that teachers may help students to supress their intuitive response. If students know the classic intuitive errors that are made on a certain type of problem, they may be better equipped to identify when they’re likely to make a mistake, and engage their inhibitory control. Explicitly telling students about misconceptions, rather than just teaching the correct concept, may actually help students to learn better (a counterintuitive concept in itself!). It would be important for teachers taking this approach to explain in detail why the misconception is wrong.

There are many skills involved in science and maths learning and problem-solving; inhibitory control is just one. Nevertheless, identifying counterintuitive concepts, explicitly addressing them, and encouraging students to stop and think, may help students reach the correct answer.

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