Shattering Common Science Myths

My sister, Lisa, majored in physics in college and then taught physics at the high school level before her children arrived. Together, we have just completed a very exciting new material called Forces Set 1 – Classical Physics. This set of charts and activities is meant to be an introduction to Newton’s Laws of Motion for children ages 9-12.

As we worked on this project, we were both struck with how many misconceptions exist about science; children and adults alike seem to struggle with understanding the physical world. We decided to collaborate on a series of blog posts about this topic, beginning with this one.

Humans are always looking for explanations. From infancy onward, we are drawing conclusions about the things we see around us. The trouble is, our conclusions about how the world works are often wrong.

baby_crib1A baby lying in a crib may kick her legs and see the curtains flutter in the breeze. The baby makes a connection between the two, and assumes that the curtains fluttered because she kicked her legs. If the baby kicks again and the curtain doesn’t move, the baby may become frustrated because reality isn’t matching the pattern she thought it would—but the baby concludes that the curtains aren’t working correctly, not that she herself has made an error.

A child may notice that the Sun sinks below the horizon when it sets, and conclude that it disappears for the night. Based on their observation, this seems like a logical explanation. If you didn’t already know why the Sun sinks below the horizon, would you ever leap straight to the understanding that the Earth is a sphere, and that a light can only shine on one side of a sphere at a time?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that the natural tendency of all objects is to come to a rest position. When an object was at rest, it was in a “natural state.” Aristotle taught that a constant force was required to keep an object moving with constant speed or it would naturally stop moving.

This is not true.

However, it was taught for centuries before Isaac Newton came along and showed that an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force (Newton’s First Law of Motion). Why had Aristotle been so wrong? He relied on his own observations and assumptions rather than logic and empirical evidence. Sadly, many of us still do that today.

Why Do We Have So Many Misconceptions About Science?

1. Casual observation of the natural world can lead to wrong conclusions.

Common misconceptions are rooted in everyday experiences. Simply observing the motion of objects around us is not enough to lead us to correct conclusions. Too often, we go by what “seems” to be happening rather than figuring out what is actually happening.

Humans are hard-wired to seek explanations for the things they see around them, but often, we sacrifice logic in order to arrive at an explanation. One common logical fallacy is “After it, therefore because of it”. We often assume that if B comes after A, then A caused B to happen. The baby kicks her legs and the curtain flutters; the baby assumes that one caused the other.

Aristotle noticed that when he stopped pushing a book on a table (A), the book stopped moving (B). He assumed that it stopped moving because he stopped pushing, when really it was the force of friction that caused the book to stop moving. It requires a deeper look at physical phenomena in order to truly understand them.

The reasons why the planets and stars behave like they do are complicated; that’s why it took humans so long to figure them out. Each person will have to work through the original obstacles that Galileo and Newton did in order to reform their thinking. As one physics teacher says, “Aristotle lives in your head and it’s my job to kick him out!”

2. Experiments aren’t explained, or are explained incorrectly by teachers who do not truly understand it themselves.

Parents and teachers sometimes sacrifice correct information on the altar of fun and excitement. They may help kids perform a science experiment but not explain the concept that is being demonstrated. Or, they may give an explanation that is misleading or incorrect.

A perfect example of this is the idea of centrifugal force. How many of us remember a teacher taking the class outside and swinging a bucket full of water in a circle? I do. We were told that there were two forces acting on the bucket: centripetal force, which was pulling it in, and centrifugal force, which was pushing it outward.

This is not true.

Centripetal force does exist in the bucket experiment. It is the force needed to keep an object moving in a circular motion, and is provided by the tension in the string. But nothing is pulling the bucket outward. When you let go of the string, the bucket flies away because of an object’s tendency to move in a straight line unless another force is acting on it. With the centripetal force (the string) removed, the bucket flies away in a straight line.

3. Concepts are portrayed incorrectly in drawings or pictures.

If you show children a picture of the Earth (in order to explain its rotation) and you make the Sun smaller than the Earth just to save room on the page, they may come away thinking that the Sun is smaller than the Earth even if you tell them some other time that the Earth is much smaller than the Sun. The mental picture they have formed of the Earth and the Sun cannot be swept away by words and explanations.

What Are Some Common Science Myths?

Take a look at this website, Children’s Misconceptions About Science, and you might be surprised at how many of these are things you’ve heard or believed; here are a few:

  • Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night.
  • We experience seasons because of the earth’s changing distance from the sun (closer in the summer, farther in the winter).
  • The moon does not rotate on its axis as it revolves around the earth.
  • An object at rest has no energy.
  • If an object is at rest, no forces are acting on the object.
  • Objects float in water because they are lighter than water.
  • Objects sink in water because they are heavier than water.
  • Air and oxygen are the same gas.
  • Gravity increases with height.

Sound familiar? You may have been told some of these things when you were in school or erroneously drawn your own conclusions based on poorly explained experiments or diagrams.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Sadly, this is one of Montessori’s biggest failings. Because of our desire to be true to the “Montessori method” and to use Maria Montessori’s original materials, we have often used materials that are out of date or scientifically incorrect. I am aiming to rectify this, but it is a big task and outdated materials still exist in many classrooms.

Here are some recent corrections:

1. The Parts of a Fruit – for decades, Montessori materials have used an apple as an illustration of the Parts of a Fruit. A botany expert emailed me a few months ago and mentioned that an apple is an accessory of the fruit and actually doesn’t contain the three parts of the fruit as traditionally taught.

I have re-done the Parts of a Fruit with a peach, which is a correct illustration of the parts of a fruit. If you have purchased the Fruit from me at any time (as a PDF, printed, or on a CD), please email me to get a free PDF of the new Parts of a Fruit.

2. Geography Charts and Experiments – this material was well-intentioned, but sadly embodies every scientific misstep we’ve mentioned so far. Concepts were poorly explained, incorrectly explained, or not explained at all. My work on this material turned into a total and complete revision; if you are still using the old Geography Charts in your classroom, it is imperative that they be replaced with updated materials.

Our Challenge

I think we have a huge challenge before us, but one that is exciting rather than scary. We have the chance to help children become critical thinkers when it comes to analyzing the “whys” and “hows” of the world around us.

We can help them look beyond casual observations and illogical thinking, and instead lead them to a deeper (and correct) understanding of scientific principles. In helping children form correct ideas, we have a chance to dispel some of the science myths that we ourselves have held for so long.

Stay tuned for the rest of this series; Part 2 will deal with the challenge of teaching science correctly, and Part 3 will be a guest post by my sister Lisa on the potential pitfalls of science experiments.