students will fail to master science in meaningful ways. Often their ideas are parts of larger systems of thought that make sense to them, even though they may be wholly or partially incorrect.
Consider, for example, that many children (and adults) believe that temperatures in the summer are warmer than those in the winter due to the distance between the sun and earth. This is incorrect. Scientific accounts would point to the length of the day and the tilt of the earth as factors that account for seasonal temperature change. However, underneath the child’s reasoning is a way of thinking that works. The child knows, for example, that when she moves her hand closer to a radiator, it feels hotter. She can use this knowledge to navigate the world. The child who follows this kind of reasoning is linking her own experience with radiators and other hot objects, to the seasons, a new problem that she cannot experience physically. She is essentially testing a “theory” against a new observation.
What we call misconceptions may be necessary stepping-stones on a path toward more accurate knowledge. They may coexist with some accurate ideas about the natural world. Mistaken ideas may be the only plausible way for a child to progress toward a more accurate understanding of scientific concepts. And not all errors necessarily require instructional intervention. For example, very young children often believe that individuals can become giants by eating heartily, that death can be reversed, or that if you break material into successively smaller pieces will make it disappear. While all of these views are obviously incorrect, they will generally self-correct without instruction as children go about their lives.
Some aspects of modern scientific understanding are so counterintuitive and “unnatural” that a child is highly unlikely to arrive at that understanding without explicit instruction. Understanding atomic-molecular theory, for example, calls for children to imagine matter at a scale far removed from their everyday experiences. Their view that the kinds of materials in the world are infinitely varied is not easily reconciled with the notion that there are only about 100 different kinds of atoms on earth.
While young children generally have many misconceptions about air, in the later years of elementary school they can begin to develop an initial macroscopic understanding of matter. They can begin to determine whether all material entities have some properties in common and what those properties are. In this way, they can start articulating a general concept of matter that was initially implicit in their notions of kinds of materials. They can develop the idea that objects of different materials are made of something that continues to exist, takes up space, and has weight across a broad range of transformations.