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Tackling Misconceptions - Why Knowing Why You Are Wrong Is So Important

As the saying goes, if you’re not making mistakes are you really making anything? Mistakes, as we know, are an integral and essential part of learning. Richard Dyson famously took 5 years and 5,127 prototypes to get a marketable bagless vacuum cleaner before going on to make Dyson a global technology enterprise, and although this is equally a story about perseverance, it’s also one about the importance of learning from your mistakes and moving learning forward in the sphere of greater understanding.

As educators, we reassure our classes constantly that it’s ok to make mistakes in their learning and we encourage them to experiment with ideas and take risks. But qualifying why their individual ideas are wrong in a way that not only moves learning on but also protects self-esteem and encourages them to keep on taking risks can be a time-consuming business when there is so much to get through within each lesson.

Why mistakes are a good thing

People tend to make more mistakes when they are working outside their comfort zone. This is obvious - when you are doing something for the first time, and assuming you don’t take the option to give up, the chances are that you will make several, if not many, errors as you experiment and think through the new challenge. Having someone who knows what they are doing on hand at this point is extremely helpful - they will talk you through your choices, support your thinking, and ultimately get you to the point you need to be much faster than if you were going it alone. 

The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky called this area of learning the proximal zone of development (ZPD), which he defined as the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what they can do with adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. He identified it as the place where the most effective learning happens. As learners work within their ZPD the support they are given by a more capable person allows them to explore their misconceptions effectively, and more rapidly pick up new skills and knowledge, which in turn leads to faster and more effective learning.

When you know you’re wrong but you don’t know why

It's obviously vital for students to know when they are correct or incorrect in their responses so that they can make corrections and explore new ideas knowing that one angle has been closed off. From a teacher’s point of view, identifying common misconceptions in classes allows these to be nipped in the bud across the whole group of students at the same time. For example, a common misconception among KS3 students might be that light travels from the eye to the object that is being viewed. Telling them this is incorrect is helpful in beginning to unpick this misconception, but for the students, not knowing why they are wrong, means the learning stops there. It’s also mentally unsatisfying - how many times have you wanted to ask, when told something you didn’t understand, or you thought differently about, ‘but why?’.

The power of ‘why?’

Imagine, however, if instead of leaving the lesson there, you turned the lights off and asked your students to read the words on a poster on the other side of the room with and without a torch. Now they can clearly see and understand why their thinking was incorrect. You have moved them into their ZPD because the guidance you are giving is extending their learning in a way that they could not do on their own. This gives the students the opportunity to develop a much deeper understanding of the information which they are then much more likely to retain. 

The whole class issue

Supporting an individual student as they move through the ZPD is a rewarding experience for a teacher, and resolving a common misconception that is shared by many students in one go, is a huge win. But, of course, when considering the realities in a standard classroom, things get a little trickier. It stands to reason that not every student will share the same misconceptions, or share these at the same time. So how is it possible for one teacher to respond to the unique needs of all students in a class throughout a lesson, and in every lesson throughout the day, to ensure that the maximum learning benefit that one student can experience as they work within their ZPD can be replicated 30 times over?

How can Propello help?

At Propello, we use expert teachers to create all our materials. They understand the issue of supporting and moving on the learning of whole classes of students as it is something that they have experienced themselves many times. So, when students are using the curriculum materials on the Propello platform (all of which follow the 2014 national curriculum and for GCSE, AQA exam board specifications), to ensure that they are all working within their ZPD, and having their own unique misconceptions addressed at every turn, we are working to build ‘distractor rationales’ into all our online questions in new UK content. (In case these are unfamiliar terms, a distractor is an incorrect answer which ‘distracts’ from the correct answer, and a rationale is information which qualifies why a certain answer is right or wrong). 

Here’s an example of an incorrect answer with its rationale:

An an example of a correct answer with its rationale:

When a student enters their responses, they receive feedback which gives additional information for their correct answers and an explanation of why their incorrect answers are wrong. The Propello platform is, in effect, acting as the adult guide, or capable peer, to keep them working in their ZPD. As each student undertakes their own learning journey (you can use the Learning Paths feature to set work for individual or whole groups of students), the platform is responding to each of their individual misconceptions and supplying the unique additional support information they need at exactly the moment they need it.

As a teacher then, you are not limited by your capacity. When students engage with the materials and quiz questions, you know that the distractor rationales will ensure that at any time each student is receiving the individualised support they need (and don’t forget we have a lower level reading text option plus a host of other accessibility features to support individual learning styles). Therefore, however many there are of them, and however many different misconceptions they hold, every minute of their learning time is being used to the maximum effect.

Sign up here for a free account to access the full curriculum, including assessment questions with distractor rationales, as well as our range of adaptable teaching and learning resources, individual learning paths and SEND accessibility features.