Preconceptions and What to do about them.

I’ve been reading Robin Conway’s article about the impact of pupil preconceptions on their understanding of historical significance in Teaching History no.125 (Dec 2006). I know Robin, but only very vaguely – we met three or four times at Open University Tutorials for AA820. His article is a brilliant one. The reason I like it so much is that it brings up something I’ve puzzled about since doing my PGCE. Preconceptions rather passed me by. I remember reading about them – there’s an excellent chapter in Issues in History teaching – and I think I did a survey to “capture” some preconceptions. I even wrote an essay about what I’ve found out – which was mostly that students didn’t know very much about Henry VIII, other than he was fat and greedy. I dearly wish I’d had Robin’s article to read at the time, because I missed something along the way. Robin describes three levels of preconception that he found in his students (p.14). His first level is “Universal Preconceptions” – ideas that “pupils have about the world and the way it works which they bring with them to the history classroom. He gives the example of a preconception that “people are basically nice”. Robin’s second level of preconceptions is that of “history preconceptions”, including such ideas as the perennially popular – ‘people in the past were stupid’. I remember earnestly discussing the moral development of people through time with a year 7 student at Lord Williams’ School, where I did my main school practice. She had a nice theory in which people got nicer and less stupid over time, because they were evolving. Robin also discusses at length the idea that history can be “converted into numbers”. His final level of preconceptions is one of topic preconceptions and, importantly, acknowledges that “these can be misconceptions or half truths as well as accurate knowledge”. As examples, he cites errors such as “the Romans had an airforce”. I don’t think this model is perfect – it suggests as hierarchy of preconceptions, which could be misconstrued in itself I’m not sure whether this was the author’s intention – it may just be the way this has been turned into a ‘pyramid’ diagram in the journal. There may also be some misconceptions that don’t easily fit into one category and should instead bridge several (or all three). For instance, I remember reading (I think it was in Issues in History TeachingAmazon Link)) about preconceptions in empathy, in which children were asked to put themselves in the place of Elizabeth I, in deciding “what to do about Mary Queen of Scots”. One child decided not to execute Mary because she (the pupil) would never kill her own cousin. In Issues in History Teaching, this example is used to show how such “empathy” exercises are misconceived in themselves, but one can see many types of misconception in the child’s response – span topic, history and universal preconceptions. What this article does do really well is get me thinking about preconceptions again, and offers a good skeleton or scaffold around which to build. It also illustrates how discovering preconceptions can be easily worked into schemes of work, how the process of “capturing” such preconceptions could in itself start to address them, and finally how preconceptions can affect the planning of lessons. It’s this last point that I am still most hazy about though – how to deal with preconceptions, once they have been “discovered”. Robin touches briefly on how he addressed the “universal preconception” that “important means good” and his aim “was to deal with [his] pupil’ preconceptions by opening them up to questions” and how he “devised a six unit module” to address the misconceptions about democracy in Britain that he discovered. It seems that the answer to “what to do about misconceptions” lies in answering several connecting questions what misconceptions do they have, what resources do you have, in terms of time (both personal planning and curriculum) and what goals are realistic in using or correcting such preconceptions. Which brings me back to mentors, and learning goals….

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