Field Test: What Goes Up

Can teachers intercept children's naive intuitions before they take permanent root?

By Colin Weatherby, published on September 3, 2012 - last reviewed on February 5, 2013

Nearly 20 percent of American high schoolers struggle to understand basic science concepts at the time of graduation, and teachers routinely cite core physics principles—gravity, density, inertia—as the most difficult ideas for students to grasp. Like many teachers, Samantha Greenstein spends a lot of time unraveling her students' faulty logic. "They see pictures of the solar system and figure the planets are going to crash into each other," says Greenstein, who teaches middle school science in Solana Beach, California.

 Wooden blocks spell out E=MC2

It's an uphill battle from the start. As soon as children are able to form sentences, they begin to explain the world around them. But that means students tend to come to school with preconceived—and often incorrect—conclusions about observable phenomena. They may have decided that a paperclip is weightless, that air is the same as nothing, that the sun actually "rises." Now, new research published in the journal Cognition confirms that many childish explanations persist into adulthood despite teachers' best efforts to eradicate them.

"One mistake that science teachers often make is thinking that students are blank slates, that they are entering the classroom without any ideas about how the world works," says coauthor Andrew Shtulman, a psychologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles. "Science education is not a process of replacement, but teachers have to work with students to recognize their intuitions and inhibit them."

Marianne Wiser, an educational psychologist at Clark University, argues that material can be tailored to the way children understand the world—namely, by interacting with it—so that science education can instill core concepts earlier. If children were taught to internalize the fundamentals in elementary school, middle and high school teachers could spend less time untangling bad information. "A kindergartener can understand molecules and atoms," says Wiser. "They just need to be treated more like scientists from a young age."