Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

On Misconceptions

Misconception: a view or opinion that is incorrect because [it is] based on faulty thinking or understanding1; a wrong or inaccurate idea or conception2.

These two definitions for misconceptions vary slightly, but the gist of the definitions are the same — there are some ways of thinking which do not match the world as we know it.

When we examine children thinking closely, we find that thinking often differs from our own. But this makes sense given that children have different experiences of the world than we do and often have not experienced the parts of the world that we have.

What should a teacher do about misconceptions? Should teachers try to prevent kids from having misconceptions? Should teachers label children who have misconceptions as wrong? Is there any harm in labelling children’s ideas as misconceptions? 3

It’s clear that some ways we use language to talk about children cause harm. If I consistently use the words “low” and “high”4 to describe my students, then the odds are greater that I also associate low and high expectations for these groups of students, which is correlated with student learning5. Here the language is harmful because it over simplifies the relationship between children and their background knowledge and results in students learning less than they would otherwise be capable of learning.6

The most problematic nature of the idea of misconceptions is that it frames how we respond to children’s ideas.

  1. A child writes 2 × 3 = 5 when they meant to write 2 × 3 = 6. Why did the child do this? Maybe they were overwhelmed with the task or tasks they were working on and defaulted to a previous relationship they know. It’s not a misconception per se, it’s something the child could probably find for themselves if asked to look at their work again.
  2. A child looks at the two angles below and concludes that angle A is larger because the rays are longer. This definition of larger is likely to be entirely consistent with every other experience of smaller and larger for this child. This child is attending to different properties of the geometry than the one intended by the author of the question.
    Two angles, A and B, one with longer rays but smaller angle, one with smaller rays but a larger angle.
    Is this a misconception? Or is this an entirely consistent worldview based on a different world than their teacher? Do we say to the child, “No, that’s wrong,” or do we value the thinking this child did and consider how to increase the size of their world?

My preference when working with children is to avoid over-simplistic words and phrases to describe their thinking. By default, the word misconception assumes a deficit view of children’s thinking7 and ignores the great thinking children did to come up with their ideas. What I prefer to the word misconception is language that describes more precisely the varied ways of thinking that children have. While it is the role of teachers to expand the world view of children and we need language to talk to colleagues about our role, the language we adopt frames the conversations we have.


  1. Source: Oxford Dictionary
  2. Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  3. Michael Pershan asks this question here.
  4. Annie Forest has some great alternative language to use when describing children.
  5. Some evidence that expectations impact student learning.
  6. Here is a story that illustrates how low expectations can harm children.
  7. This article argues that what we consider misconceptions may be necessary ideas for children to consider and suggests strategies for supporting children in reconsidering their thinking.