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Misconceptions

Tuesday 1st January 2013

Misconceptions

Christmas Day has now passed, my celebratory hat and used wrapping paper have been put in the correct bin according to council regulations and I have definitely eaten far more than was good for me.  So, I have dragged myself out of my overly comfortable chair, put down my copy of “Lions of Moremi” by Dr. Pieter Kat, and decided that it is time that I write a new So What? blog entry before I indulge myself in more chocolates and therefore, clock up more time needed at my local gym trying to work it off!

Over the Christmas period, I was delighted to finally complete the new age 7-11 great white shark So What? teaching pack, which is now available to download from the So What? website.  I am particularly thrilled about this because, along with felids, I am a stark, raving mad great white shark fan.  As I mentioned in my first ever blog entry, I spent many hours as a child creating my own fact files about various different animals, and in particular, many of these hours were spent copying facts about great white sharks into small paper booklets.  Years later, I am delighted to be able to share my shark infested enthusiasm with others, and I hope to one day inspire at least one youngster to purse a worthwhile career in trying to protect the magnificent great white shark. 

Further to this, I also hope that the new teaching pack may help eradicate some of the glaring misconceptions some young people have about the great white and other species of sharks.  During my PGCE in 2007, when I was training to be a primary school teacher, misconceptions were definitely “in-vogue,” particularly in the teaching of mathematics.  I was warned to always point out to my pupils the misconceptions of the subject area I was teaching them – and no other subject area in mathematics received more attention than that of the dreaded decimal point!  It was used as a model for “what not to do!” during a mathematics lesson.  Trainee teachers would joke nervously among themselves about the thought of teaching decimal points in front of a menacing, merciless Ofsted inspector!  Up and down the country, educational training centres used the decimal point to warn prospective teachers, such as myself that you always teach your children about this misconception correctly!  My tutors would bark, “always address the misconception, yet what ever you do, never teach it incorrectly!”  I was trained to ignore everything that my very own primary school teachers had taught me about the decimal point!  I was even told not to believe what my very own mother had told me about the decimal point – in the words of my tutor “It was all lies!”  The decimal point almost became the 2007 PGCE trainee teachers’ official anthem!  It felt as if every morning, we should have marched into university chanting:

“You never move the decimal point – you always move the number!”  
“You never move the decimal point – you always move the number!”  
“You never move the decimal point – you always move the number!”  


And so on and so on…

However, despite the passionate efforts of my university tutors, education is very much like the fashion world.  Trends are changing constantly and they can be difficult to keep up with.  (Educational trends, as you can imagine, are linked heavily to which political party are in government – and if you are sat wondering what the current trend is, I believe it is the teaching of grammar, spelling, handwriting and punctuation)  As the years passed by, it seemed that the poor decimal point was being left out in the rain, forgotten about and replaced by fresher, newer trends.  As the student mentor at the primary school where I work, it is my responsibility to mentor trainee teachers who come into school on placement and to observe their progress.  However, more recently I have found myself listening in horror during such observations as more and more trainee teachers are uttering the unforgiveable words “it’s easy, you just move the decimal point!!”  When I ask for an explanation as to why they are teaching children this misconception incorrectly, assuming to myself that they did not listen during this part of their training, or perhaps that they were absent on that crucial day, imagine my disbelief when they reply “oh, we were never taught that at university!” Their punishment I hear you wonder for such a crime? Marching up and down the playground whilst chanting:

“You never move the decimal point – you always move the number!”  
“You never move the decimal point – you always move the number!”  
“You never move the decimal point – you always move the number!”  

Despite the ever-changing trends in education, I believe the teaching of misconceptions to be vitally important and whilst it is not always possible for educators to prevent them from coming to fruition, it is our duty to ensure they are eradicated as soon as possible.  From my experience, no other group of animals is riddled with more misconceptions than the shark and this is what I hope to change as a result of So What?

A classic example of this is the threat posed by sharks.  Some young people (and some adults) still believe that sharks are deadly predators that spend all their time searching the oceans, looking for surfers or swimmers to attack.  Whilst the “Jaws” effect is reportedly lessening as people are becoming more educated about sharks, I have found that it still might be a very real misconception amongst some children today.

In fact, only two weeks ago, when I attended a writing course being held at a local school, I was faced with an entire wall display based around the children’s novel “Shark in the Park” by Nick Sharratt, littered with poems written by the pupils about how dangerous the shark in the park was before it mysteriously disappeared.  Whilst “Shark in the Park” is a harmless children’s book, designed in particular to teach the “ar” phoneme to Year 1 and 2 pupils, it is interesting to consider what possible impact such texts, and the subsequent work they motivate, have upon the image of animals such as sharks.  Moreover, it is interesting to consider the impact such work would have upon the perceptions children form of sharks in later life as well. 

Approximately a month prior to this incident, I had decided to test the beliefs held by the Year 5 and 6 pupils in my class about the threats posed to people by sharks.   Consequently, I set them a 15 minute challenge.  Before the timer started, I gave each pupil in my class a list of thirty different worldwide causes of mortality.  These included causes such as obesity, hurricanes, vending machines, falling out of bed and of course shark attacks.  In 15 minutes, the pupils were asked to rank each cause of mortality, starting with the most common form worldwide down to the least common form.  I was interested to see how much of a threat the pupils in my class believed sharks to be to people around the world, despite the fact that as far as I knew, none of my pupils had ever been involved in, or had ever witnessed, a shark attack themselves.  Once the challenge had finished and I analysed the results, I was surprised to find out that every pupil in my class ranked sharks in the top 5 most common causes of mortality worldwide; over half the class put them in the top 3, and 5 had ranked them in first position.  Imagine their surprise when, afterwards, I told them that vending machines posed more of a threat to their well being than sharks!  Whilst this was only a single exercise with a single class of 30, I do feel that it illustrates that some children may still be developing the misconception that sharks are viscous man eaters, spending their entire lives roaming the ocean in search of people.  Obviously, more extensive investigation is needed to fully analyse the true perception young people in United Kingdom have of sharks, but I think my exercise proves that the results would make interesting reading. 

It is difficult to decipher exactly where the misconceptions held by my Year 5 and 6 pupils’ of the threat posed by sharks have come from, particularly considering the fact that there has never been a true “shark attack” in Britain, but rather a series of “shark encounters.”   A classic example of this being the “attack” on Hamish Currie in Ayrshire late August 2012, where a porbeagle bit through his shoe and apparently attacked his boat.  In reality, Mr Currie, who labelled the shark afterwards as a “bad, bad fish,” had hauled the porbeagle out of the water in order to tag it, and the shark, unsurprisingly, wasn’t too keen on this and bit his foot.  Are misconceptions about the threat posed by sharks still being derived from “encounters” such as this? Could misconceptions about sharks develop as a result of these stories being passed down from parents or carers to their children?  Do parents and carer unknowingly pass on their own beliefs about sharks to their children?  Alternatively, do young people themselves develop an over-exaggerated belief that sharks pose them a threat from reading books, watching films such as “Jaws” and “Deep Blue Sea,” or possibly by interpreting information incorrectly from the internet?  Whilst in most circumstances, the development of such a misconception is not something that as educators we always can control or prevent, we can ensure that through education programmes such as So What? after school clubs, that we eradicate such misconceptions and teach children about the true nature of animals, particularly predators such as the great white shark. 

Interestingly, the challenge I set my Year 5 and 6 pupils also raised a further misconception which I had not been expecting.  As the children were packing up their pens and tidying their tables, I over heard one pupil saying to another that, “wouldn’t it be cool if you got sharks here.”  Giving the pupil the benefit of the doubt, I assumed that they did not mean that it would be good to have sharks in the school building and that they might be referring to British waters. 


“Yeah it would!” the other pupil replied.  Before rectifying the situation, I decided to see whether this was another common misconception among the children in my class, or whether it was a misunderstanding simply isolated to two individual children.  To begin with, rather than asking the pupils in my class whether sharks are found in British waters, I decided to repeat the initial comment made - “Wouldn’t it be cool if you got sharks here.”  I did this because in my experience, I have found that if you give children a simple “yes” or “no” option, your results are not always a true reflection of what they really know or what they really believe.  In some circumstances, the pupil will choose an option based on what their peers are doing.  Further to this, the pupils in my class, after years of schooling, are suspicious of such questions, thinking more about what the right answer might be more than what they believe or what they know.  After I repeated the pupil’s comment, I simply orchestrated a debate based around the statement.  I was shocked to see that no one questioned the fact that we might have sharks in British waters.  In addition to this, my Year 5 and 6 class also contains a few pupils who have attended my previous So What? clubs, and are from my perspective, relatively knowledgeable about animals for their age.  Still no one questioned the statement.  Again, whilst this is simply a single exercise and no general conclusions can be derived from it, I would be interested to see how aware that young people actually are about the 30 different species of shark found in British waters.  In fact, I intend to develop an educational resource, made in the near future by pupils from my So What? club at the school where I work, to educate other young people about the 30 species of shark which can be found in British waters.

As you may have experienced yourself, the misconceptions some children have about animals are not just isolated to sharks.  A misconception that many of the pupils at the school where I work have, one that literally drives me up the wall is that tigers are from Africa!  I have lost count the amount of times I have heard children, and adults as well, come out with this statement and it is a developing misconception which I am always overly eager to rectify given the opportunity!  Whilst, there will always be misconceptions about animals, I think it is vital that So What? and other educational initiatives work tirelessly to try and eradicate these as soon as we are given the chance. 

Call me old fashioned, but the decimal point is still important to me.  It represents the importance of educating children to the highest standards possible.  Whilst fashionable trends in education will always come and go, I will continue to fight for the correct use of the decimal point, and fight to eradicate the misconceptions surrounding predators such as the great white shark.  I believe there is nothing wrong in trying to educate children about wildlife conservation to highest possible standard.  I believe species like the great white shark, tiger, rhino and lion deserve such high expectations and dedication.

Matthew Payne

Picture credit: http://bit.ly/VtCUAe

Posted by Chris Macsween at 15:07

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