Thursday, 27 February 2020


Plato famously defined knowledge as 'justified true belief'. There have been critiques of this, but it seems like a good first approximation. The 'justified' part is important. If I roll two dice and say, 'It's going to be a seven!' and then a seven is rolled, because I have no reason for believing that a seven will be rolled, I did not know that it was going to be a seven.

Something similar happens with misconceptions. If someone has a misconception they have a reason to know correctly.

For instance, we might say there's a "public misconceptions about antibiotic use" - people perhaps think that antibiotics will help with a virus. But they have good reason to know this is not true - it is widely held by pretty well all reliable sources, and plenty of easily-available sources at that. They are adults and have had lots of opportunity for learning this.

But, I often see educators talking about children's misconceptions. Often it's children who have no reason to have had much experience of the matter they're supposedly misconceiving about. Many of their conceptions will not be our mature ones. But they are not mis-conceptions. They have no reason to have our more expert ideas yet.

Some things will just be 'Terra Incognita' - as yet unknown land. The way European explorers marked parts of Australia or America while only parts of their coast had been explored. Like Australia here:
It seems incorrect to call these misconceptions, as if those cartographers somehow had access to our modern knowledge but hadn't properly absorbed it. It's more just... not knowing yet. The map-maker gives the Terra Incognita a fairly random coast - perhaps they should have made it blurred or just drawn the parts of the coast they knew. But that's another skill again - to be able to judge and show the extent and character of your knowledge and certainty about something.

It's not just a question of semantics. 'Misconceptions' often seems to have a note of frustration in it: 'They had all the information they needed, but then they've gone and adopted this weird idea that will probably be difficult to correct.' Perhaps there's also a hint of satisfaction in there, that I am the one with the correct conception of things.

If however it's a question of territory that's still unfamiliar, where learners need more exploration of a familiar domain or an introduction to a new domain - then the onus is on us teachers to make that new exploration as achievable and instructive as possible.

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