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A Private Universe - Misconceptions in Science & Mathematics

  • This article provides background information to the longest K-12 study ever undertaken on the development of scientific thinking in students. It has been copied (with minor updates and additional references) below. 1)
  • Some recent Australian research (University of Sydney) is included. 2)
  • The 'Private Universe in Mathematics' workshops, adapted for primary school use are available here

A Private Universe depicts a very familiar situation for teachers worldwide, namely that students do not let go of their misconceptions as easily as might be expected after a detailed and thorough learning process.

This research and video series started with an award-winning short documentary feature in 1987. It was a collaboration between work done by Rutgers UNJ, MIT, Cornell, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Annenberg Media and many others.

Project source: Annenberg, Harvard-Smithsonian, MIT, Rutgers State UNJ & Cornell University


  • 'It is not what you cover, it is what you uncover that is most important.'

Video Introduction - Teaching For Scientific Understanding (6min)

  • The full-length video (one hour long) is available on Youtube This (advanced) experiment is extremely amenable to manipulations, making it possible for students to design authentic investigations to quantify the effects of different variables on the rate of photosynthesis.

Even 30 years after its production, it has not lost its relevance. This first part focuses on the astronomical topic of the seasons, particularly on the fact that despite years of education in physical sciences and astronomy, even Harvard graduates still think that it is hotter in summer because the Sun is nearer to the Earth than in winter. The film also mentions another aspect in which misconceptions prevail over formal teaching: including topics such as photosynthesis, electrical circuits, the seasons and the phases of the moon.

What Does Rigorous, Recent Australian Research Show?

Video 2: Dr Derek Muller The key to effective educational science videos (6min)


What Does Rigorous, Long-term, International Research Show?

Playlist (6 sequential videos): Misconceptions in science from K-12 and beyond 3)


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'This situation [sic] is indeed quite widespread, and it is not uncommon to hear complaints by teachers and professors about it. It becomes even more alarming when it is the teachers themselves who pass on these misconceptions to their students. This is often the case in countries where primary-school teachers are not taught any content related to the topics they will be teaching at school. Instead, the focus lies on educational issues, assuming the candidates still know the topics they will teach well enough from their own days at school. The reality is quite different, as is clearly seen in the first minutes of A Private Universe.

But A Private Universe does not stop at detecting the problem. In order to diagnose its scope and possible causes, the documentary closely follows the learning process of a particular high-school student, considered to be one of the brightest of her class. Her teacher makes quite an effort to explain how Earth orbits around the Sun, and how the seasons are produced by a combination of this and the 23.5 degree tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation. Viewers will be as surprised as the teacher herself when the student, after having shown clear signs of understanding, still tries to save and include her previous misconceptions into her new and even elaborate view on the matter.

Particular misconceptions can be traced back to confusing or ambiguous graphics in a school book, but to lay the blame solely on these accessory aspects would be to completely miss the point, and is definitely not sufficient to explain the widespread endurance of these misconceptions throughout the educational system.

A Private Universe does not come up with a magical solution. It is however a valuable resource to help teachers become aware of the power of the misconceptions that students bring with them into the classroom. The documentary can be watched freely onlinew3 and is the start of a series of videos and resources produced by this collaboration, which can all be accessed freely online. DVDs and VHS cassettes of the videos are also available for purchase, but only within the USA.

The follow-up series, entitled Minds Of Our Own, explores further misconceptions and strategies to avoid them. In the A Private Universe teacher’s lab, a web resource built around the misconceptions on astronomy facts that are highlighted in the first documentary, you can test your own knowledge and misconceptions, comparing them with the most popular answers given so far, or print out a survey for your students. It contains a discussion forum on how misconceptions arise, and a small collection of teaching activities to avoid the most misconceptions about the Sun, Moon and Earth.

The A Private Universe project in science is a collection of nine workshop videos, of 90 minutes each, focusing on one theme and content area of science – from biology, chemistry or physics – and using specific examples to show how students’ preconceived ideas can create critical barriers to learning. Education experts also review classroom strategies and results and recommend new ways to involve students and approach difficult topics. Short summaries are available online as support materialsw7.

A similar workshop series (A Private Universe project in mathematics) with an accompanying on-line teacher’s lab is available for mathematics.

These resources are an invaluable tool not only for primary- and secondary-school teachers of science or mathematics, but also for anyone involved in teacher preparation.'

Video: Dr Derek Muller - Why do you make people look stupid? (3min)

Bonus Video: Does Youtube make people look stupid? 4)

How Hubris & Willful Blindness Defeats Progress

Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but good disagreement is central to progress. In a recent TED talk a former high profile CEO, illustrates (sometimes counterintuitively) how the best partners aren’t echo chambers – and how great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree. In this video, she explores the all-too-human thought patterns – such as hubris, conflict avoidance and selective blindness – that most often lead managers and organizations astray.

Leaders at a recent Cambridge University conference were told research has shown that they must overcome hubristic tendencies in themselves and avoid acquiring Hubris Syndrome (HS) - a personality disorder resulting in disastrous decision-making.

Hubris is characterised by extreme pride or arrogance. It often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

Aristotle mentions Hubris in his book “Rhetoric”: “Hubris consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim… simply for the pleasure of it. Retaliation is not hubris but revenge… Young men and the rich are hubristic because they think they are better than other people.”

In a talk that’s part history lesson, part call-to-action, Margaret Heffernan demonstrates the danger of “willful blindness” and praises ordinary people who are willing to speak up. 5) 6)


  1. Learn more about Annenberg Media and browse the resources and workshops.
  2. View A Private Universe on-line videos here
  3. Access the A Private Universe on-line teacher’s lab
  4. The support materials for the A Private Universe project in science can be found here
  5. The 'A Private Universe project in mathematics' videos are available here
  6. The 'Patterns in Mathematics' teacher’s lab can be found here
  7. Proof versus non-proof Joe Lycett (humorous 3min video)
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