Kids perceptions on how the world works... you'd be amazed how they think! : Fizzics Education


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Kids perceptions on how the world works… you’d be amazed how they think!

Kids perceptions on how the world works… you’d be amazed how they think!

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Kids perceptions of how things work

Knowing how kids think matters.

Ever wondered what kids are thinking?
Just how do students perceive their world when their background to measure their experiences is limited? If you know their misconceptions, you can create lessons that make an impact!


As many teachers and psychologists know, it’s the lens of your past experiences through which you understand the world. There is a whole bunch of literature around ‘children’s science’, whereby in the absence of scientific guidance from adults, kids will formulate their own interpretations of how the world works. To be honest, who could blame them? If no-one is there to guide them, kids are forced to create reasons for how things work themselves. In many cases, even what adults might see as basic concepts can be completely missed by kids and often produces some amusing results. Of course whilst adults can get a smile from an innocent explanation that’s off the mark, it does highlight the point that students will naturally formulate their own conclusions from any science lesson… this means that even pointing ‘the obvious’ is still a critical process. Why? Well, here’s a few examples:

  • You can’t assume that the children in the room actually know what you’re talking about.
  • Kids might have a completely different idea of a scientific process before the lesson. Remember, it’s not that long ago that people thought the world was flat, that atoms didn’t exist and that the Universe revolved around the Earth. There are still parts of the world that still cling to these notions…
  • Any prior learning could have produced a series of ‘half-truths’, in that the kids get only part of the previous lesson and bring this into the next. This might mean that critical information from your previous science lesson is missing and this brings in the potential for the student’s to get lost very quickly with the new content.

The best way to pick up on these issues is to simply keep questioning kids understanding of a concept. Ask ‘why?’ as many times as possible so that students can tell you what they know. It may be worth going over old content before explaining new ideas to students, a practice tried and tested in many a classroom across the world.

‘I can find in my undergraduate classes, bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star.’ Carl Sagan

Anyway, with all this in mind, it might be interesting to outline some of the student misconceptions that we’ve heard whilst running touring school science shows & workshops. Some of these misconceptions are well known, others very much came from left field… but all showed both the attending teachers and ourselves that you can never assume that the students in front of you are formulating their ideas in exactly the way you expect! In no ways is this a definitive list, some of this is directly from our science shows and some of this has been adapted from the references at the bottom of this post. If you want to add some more place them into the comments section 🙂

Atmosphere misconceptions
  1. Rain comes from holes in clouds.
  2. Rain occurs when clouds are shaken.
  3. Empty clouds are filled by the sea.
  4. Clouds are made of cotton, wool, or smoke.
  5. Gas makes things lighter.
  6. One degree of temperature is smaller on the Celsius scale than on the Fahrenheit scale.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Flight or Weather
Evolution misconceptions
  1. Dinosaurs and cavemen lived at the same time.
  2. Acquired characteristics can be inherited
  3. A Giraffe’s neck got longer because it kept stretching to reach the trees.
  4. Humans are responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
  5. Some human races have not evolved as much as others.
  6. Evolution is goal-directed…. i.e. it has a purpose.
  7. Humans are the end point and pinnacle of evolution
Astronomy misconceptions
  1. Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night.
  2. We experience seasons because of the earth’s changing distance from the sun (closer in the summer, farther in the winter).
  3. The Moon can only be seen during the night.
  4. The Moon does not rotate on its axis as it revolves around the earth.
  5. The solar system contains only the sun, planets and the moon. This might be due to the classic solar system models that are shown in class.
  6. Meteors are falling stars.
  7. All the stars in a constellation are near each other.
  8. All the stars are the same distance from the earth.
  9. All stars are the same size.
  10. The brightness of a star depends only on its distance from the earth.
  11. The Earth is sitting on something.
  12. The Earth is larger than the sun and disappears at night.
  13. There is a definite up and down in space.
  14. Different countries see different phases of the Moon on the same day.
  15. Planets cannot be seen without a telescope.
  16. Planets appear in the sky in the same place every night.
  17. The sun will never burn out.- School workshop that that looks at these and more: Stars & Planets plus Earth, Sun & Moon
  1. Atoms can be seen with a microscope.
  2. Atoms are like cells with a membrane and nucleus
  3. Atoms have electrons circling them like planets around a star
  4. An electron shell is like an eggshell
  5. Molecules of solids are hard, molecules of gases are soft
  6. Molecules of solids are biggest, molecules of gases are smallest
  7. Molecules of solids are cubes, molecules of gases are round
  8. Vapor molecules weigh less than solid molecules (e.g. water vapor vs. ice)
  9. Molecules expand when heated
  10. The chemical bond is a physical thing made of matter
  11. Freezing and boiling are examples of chemical reactions
  12. Physical changes are reversible while chemical changes are not
  13. The original substance vanishes “completely and forever” in a chemical reaction.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Chemistry Show & Chemical capers workshop

A man with a glove above a liquid nitrogen vapour cloud

Colour and Vision misconceptions
  1. The pupil of the eye is a black object or spot on the surface of the eye.
  2. The lens is the only part of the eye responsible for focusing light.
  3. The lens forms and image (picture) on the retina. The brain then “looks” at this image and that is how we see.
  4. A white light source, such as an incandescent or fluorescent bulb, produces light made up of only one colour.
  5. Sunlight is different from other sources of light because it contains no colour.
  6. The rules for mixing colour paints and crayons are the same as the rules for mixing coloured lights.
  7. The primary colours for mixing coloured lights are red, blue and yellow.
  8. A coloured light striking an object produces a shadow behind it that is the same colour as the light. For example, when red light strikes an object, a red shadow is formed.
  9. When white light passes through a coloured filter, the filter adds colour to the light.
  10. Colour is a property of an object, and is independent of both the illuminating light and the receiver (eye).- School workshop that looks at these and more: Light & colour
Electricity misconceptions
  1. Positively charged objects have gained protons, rather than being deficient in electrons.
  2. Electrons which are lost by an object are really lost (no conservation of charge).
  3. A circuit ‘uses up’ electricity.
  4. The electrostatic force between two charged objects is independent of the distance between them.
  5. Gravitational forces are stronger than electrostatic forces.
  6. Batteries have electricity inside them.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Create a Buzz
Energy misconceptions
  1. The terms “energy” and “force” are interchangeable.
  2. An object at rest has no energy.
  3. The only type of potential energy is gravitational.
  4. Doubling the speed of a moving object doubles the kinetic energy.
  5. Things “use up” energy.
  6. There is no relationship between matter and energy.
  7. If energy is conserved, why are we running out of it?- School workshop that looks at these and more: Exploring Energy
Forces and Motion misconceptions
  1. If an object is at rest, no forces are acting on the object.
  2. A rigid solid cannot be compressed or stretched.
  3. Force is a property of an object. An object has force and when it runs out of force it stops moving.
  4. A force is needed to keep an object moving with a constant speed.
  5. Friction always hinders motion. Thus, you always want to eliminate friction.
  6. Acceleration is confused with speed.
  7. Acceleration always means that an object is speeding up.
  8. Acceleration is always in a straight line.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Forces, Friction & Movement
Forces and Fluids misconceptions
  1. Objects float in water because they are lighter than water.
  2. Objects sink in water because they are heavier than water.
  3. Wood floats and metal sinks.
  4. All objects containing air float.
  5. Heating air only makes it hotter.
  6. Pressure and force are synonymous.
  7. Moving fluids contain higher pressure.
  8. Liquids rise in a straw because of “suction”.
  9. Fluid pressure only acts downward.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Flight or Weather & Working with Water
Heat and Temperature misconceptions
  1. Heat is a substance.
  2. Temperature is a property of a particular material or object eg. metal is naturally cooler than plastic.
  3. The temperature of an object depends on its size.
  4. Heat and cold are different, rather than being opposite ends of a continuum.
  5. Boiling is the maximum temperature a substance can reach.
  6. Ice cannot change temperature.
  7. Heat only travels upward.
  8. Objects that readily become warm (conductors of heat) do not readily become cold.- School workshop that that looks at these and more: Hot & Cold
Lithosphere misconceptions
  1. Rocks must be heavy.
  2. Soil must have always been in its present form.
  3. Mountains are created rapidly.
  4. Earth is molten, except for its crust.
  5. Earth’s gravitational attraction is drastically reduced on mountaintops.
  6. Continents do not move.
  7. Boiling or burning radioactive material can reduce radiation.
  8. All radio-activity is man-made.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Geology Rocks
Magnets and Magnetism misconceptions
  1. All metals are attracted to a magnet.
  2. All silver coloured items are attracted to a magnet.
  3. All magnets are made of iron.
  4. Larger magnets are stronger than smaller magnets.
  5. The magnetic and geographic poles of the earth are located at the same place.
  6. The magnetic pole of the earth in the northern hemisphere is a north pole, and the pole in the southern hemisphere is a south pole.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Create a Buzz
Properties of Matter misconceptions
  1. Gases are not matter because most are invisible.
  2. Gases do not have mass.
  3. Air and oxygen are the same gas.
  4. Helium and hot air are the same gas.
  5. Particles of solids have no motion.
  6. Materials can only exhibit properties of one state of matter.
  7. Particles possess the same properties as the materials they compose. For example, atoms of copper are “orange and shiny”, gas molecules are transparent, and solid molecules are hard.
  8. Melting/freezing and boiling/condensation are often understood only in terms of water.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Liquid Nitrogen Show and Chemistry Show
Measurement misconceptions
  1. Any quantity can be measured as accurately as you want.
  2. Children who have used measuring devices at home already know how to measure.
  3. The metric system is more accurate than the other measurement systems.
  4. You can only measure to the smallest unit shown on the measuring device.
  5. You should start at the end of the measuring device when measuring distance.
  6. The five senses are infallible.
  7. An object must be “touched” to measure it.
  8. Mass and weight are the same and they are equal at all times.
  9. Mass and volume are the same.
  10. Heat and temperature are the same.
  11. Heat is a substance.
  12. Only the area of rectangular shapes can be measured in square units.
  13. Surface area can be found only for two-dimensional objects.
  14. Surface area is a concept used only in mathematics classes.
  15. You cannot measure the volume of some objects because they do not have “regular” lengths, widths, or heights.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Working mathematically
Sound misconceptions
  1. Loudness and pitch of sounds are confused with each other.
  2. You can see and hear a distant event at the same moment.
  3. In a telephone, actual sounds are carried through the wire rather than electrical pulses.
  4. Human voice sounds are produced by a large number of vocal chords.
  5. In wind instruments, the instrument itself vibrates not the internal air column.
  6. The pitch of whistles or sirens on moving vehicles is changed by the driver as the vehicle passes.- School workshop that looks at these and more: Science of Sound

As you can see there are a large number of student misconceptions that can be behind students eyes when they’re in your science lesson. You’d be surprised just how many of these misconceptions are carried on to adulthood too! What have you experienced? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Happy teaching,


Ben Newsome

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