The language of misconceptions – a provocation for inquiry?

We are constantly reassured that inquiry is a natural phenomenon, part of the way we learn as humans… the intuitive art of learning to question through wonderment  and curiosity. Yet what do we do when inquiry feels imposed? Does not flow? Is forced, teacher driven? When students resist challenge? Here it is interesting to consider the socio-cutural and emotional elements of the languages for learning.

Working in a learning environment with predominantly ESL students, I find it interesting to observe and note how the socio-cultural and emotional nuances of language impact the development of inquiry. For the most part inquiry relies heavily on the power of dialogue. According to Vygotsky all socio-cultural understanding is processed through language. To follow this line of thought further… we might merely speculate about the developmental learning of some students in the absense of language. So how do we fully understand the students who are reluctant communicators? The ones who you reserved judgement about? The ones who, when it comes to report writing you might do last? With our all our best intentions and expertise, this sometimes happens. Why?

I think it is possible (for a limited period of time and depending on the context) for some learners to mask their understanding. For example, as adults we rarely like to acknowledge the fact we don’t understand something if we think our response might risk ridicule; better to nod and approve and seek social acceptance, rather than risk the spot light being directed at oneself. This is not necessarily a bad thing, socially aware people often like to construct meaning from what they see happening around them, as they go along, at their own pace.  But language has significant leverage that creates shifts in the learning environment allowing us to use it to uncover understandings. The more we seek ways to make language transparent and differentiated the more we empower the learner.

I was reminded of this yesterday when browsing through an article about Davydov’s teaching experiments in 1970’s Russia. Davydov’s psychological analysis builds on Vygotsky’s account of the process of development and constructivist learning. Davydov’s central thesis talks about developing understanding in maths through conceptually rich teaching and learning experiences – as the IB – PYP advocates. He highlighted conditions necessary  to optimize learning. Each example clearly resonates what we know about inquiry:

  • Teaching strategies that encourage engagement and joint-regulation of the activity you are doing..
  • Nurturing students personal connections.
  • Using powerful open-ended (conceptual) questions.
  • Devolving the boundaries of teacher-student control (empowerment).
  • Constructing the language for learning (subject specific).
  • Allowing visual (multi modal) representations to illuminate the teaching of abstract concepts.
  • Encouraging discussion, self awareness and self regulation.
  • Using misconceptions and mistakes as a catalyst to devolve ownership of the learning.

The role of misconceptions within our teaching and learning frame, I think is an intriguing one.   Davidov found that using preconceived ideas and misconceptions as a living part of practice created space for the development of conjecture and appreciation of differing perspectives. It acted as a catalyst to promote dialogue and helped reveal students’ thinking. The balance of ownership was tilted when negotiation impacted the learning environment and shaped its direction- students were empowered.

In teaching, time is of the essence, we need to know who is “getting it” as soon as possible, because this allows us to formatively modify the learning and assessment. In this respect I am suggesting the role of misconceptions has a bigger part to play in how we come to understand learners and how we explore language and curriculum. Focusing more on understanding the learner and the learning process, shifts the product. How much can learners be co-constructors of curriculum?

What are your favourite misconceptions about teaching and learning? Here’s one of mine…

“Learning to do column addition and subtraction from an early age makes you better at maths.”


Peter D. Renshaw
Faculty of Education
The University of Queensland

About Gareth Jacobson

Head of Primary / PYP Co-ordinator, International School Moshi, Tanzania
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The language of misconceptions – a provocation for inquiry?

  1. whatedsaid says:

    Great post.. thanks! And welcome to Inquire Within!

    One of my favourite misconceptions is that focusing on better teaching will ensure better learning. I think focusing on better LEARNING is what’s required…


  2. Louise says:

    This idea is a really interesting one. Personally I think that misconceptions can be a valuable springboard for reflection, comparing and contrasting, challenging ideas, asking deep and searching questions, which in turn can lead to great inquiry. I don’t know that we actually make enough of the opportunities that can be trawled by unpacking conceptual understandings upfront, providing all kinds of ways to figure out where students are coming from (ie previous experiences, incoming knowledge/understanding, biases, cultural influences…). When we are armed with this knowledge, the inquiry can take on a whole new focus and move the student to new and exciting realms!
    This is a great site, congratulations. I have only just been alerted to it.


  3. Kirsten says:

    My favorite misconception is that learning (and therefore teaching) always needs to start from the most basic before moving to the more complex.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s