image of a sun that moves about the earth. In school, students are told by teachers (years after they have already formed their own mental model of how things work) that the earth rotates. Students are then faced with the difficult task of deleting a mental image that makes sense to them, based on their own observations, and replacing it with a model that is not as intuitively acceptable. This task is not trivial, for students must undo a whole mental framework of knowledge that they have used to understand the world.
The example of the earth rotating rather than the sun orbiting the earth is one of many that teachers refer to collectively as misconceptions. Misconceptions can be categorized as follows:
Preconceived notions are popular conceptions rooted in everyday experiences. For example, many people believe that water flowing underground must flow in streams because the water they see at the earth's surface flows in streams. Preconceived notions plague students' views of heat, energy, and gravity (Brown and Clement, 1991), among others.
Nonscientific beliefs include views learned by students from sources other than scientific education, such as religious or mythical teachings. For example, some students have learned through religious instruction about an abbreviated history of the earth and its life forms. The disparity between this widely held belief and the scientific evidence for a far more extended pre-history has led to considerable controversy in the teaching of science.
Conceptual misunderstandings arise when students are taught scientific information in a way that does not provoke them to confront paradoxes and conflicts resulting from their own preconceived notions and nonscientific beliefs. To deal with their confusion, students construct faulty models that usually are so weak that the students themselves are insecure about the concepts.
Vernacular misconceptions arise from the use of words that mean one thing in everyday life and another in a scientific context (e.g., "work"). A geology professor noted that students have difficulty with the idea that glaciers retreat, because they picture the glacier stopping, turning around, and moving in the opposite direction. Substitution of the word "melt" for "retreat" helps reinforce the correct interpretation that the front end of the glacier simply melts faster than the ice advances.
Factual misconceptions are falsities often learned at an early age and retained unchallenged into adulthood. If you think about it, the idea that "lightning never strikes twice in the same place" is clearly nonsense, but that notion may be buried somewhere in your belief system. (See the sidebar for another example.)
Although vernacular and factual misconceptions can often be easily corrected, even by the students themselves, it is not effective for a teacher simply to insist that the learner dismiss preconceived notions and ingrained nonscientific beliefs. Recent research on students' conceptual misunderstandings of natural phenomena indicates that new concepts cannot be learned if alternative models that explain a phenomenon already exist in the learner's mind. Although scientists commonly view such erroneous models with