Monday, March 29, 2010

How Many Harvard / MIT Students Does It Take To Light A Light Bulb? - Science Misconceptions

"The interesting part about the batteries and bulbs question is that people always predict that they can do it..." - Philip Sadler

After a wonderful interview with dyslexic astrophysicist Matt Schneps last week, we watched his now-classic documentary for science education Minds of Our Own with our kids. You can watch it free online here.

When Schneps and Sadler asked graduating seniors at Harvard and MIT whether they could light a lightbulb with a battery and a wire, they all said "Yes!" or "Definitely yes!" - but in reality only very few could actually do it. The scenario highlighted of the challenges that teachers face when trying to learn. It's not sufficient just to teach; if we want 'deep learning' then we also need to attack pre-existing misconceptions.

We are watching the 3 hrs series with our kids - and heartily recommend it for stimulating family discussions.

The show also jogged a memory of something the famous dyslexic architect Richard Rogers had said, "If you’re forced to question everything, you’re actually likely to make less mistakes…The things that don’t work in my experience, are never, at least practically never, the new things. They’re the old things that you forget to question.”

With the brain's economy, it's much easier to sneak in a wrong idea that fits with a pre-existing schema (plausible) than a new idea that might be true, but is unexpected (implausible).

If all this sounds sinister, it can be - this laziness of learning means that the propaganda technique of misinformation is so effective (for more reading, check here.

So what's a teacher to do? It seems as if one way to overcome misconceptions is to use effective analogies. An isolated fact won't stick, but if you can find something to hang a new fact on, then maybe long-term learning will take place.

Eide Neurolearning Blog: Why it's hard to get rid of old ideas
Cautions of bad analogies.
More analogies to overcome misinformation
Bridging analogies


  1. Oh good, because analogies are my favourite thing. I always say "this is because......", or "this is like....." Now I can say you guys told me to.

  2. However, questioning everything can turn out to be ... unpopular. (Just ask Socrates.) Some of us, unfortunately, take a couple of decades to figure that out. (No matter how much Plato we thought we read.)