Baxter (1989)

This paper serves as a good resource for understanding the simple models of the Earth, Moon and Sun students construct before their formal education and how these change over time. Insights into typical beliefs are clearly shown and discussed. The paper also shows the importance of constructing ways for students to express their understanding beyond simple testing.

The study examined children’s concepts of the shape and size of the Earth, Moon and Sun, through longitudinal research based on one-to-one interviews and, for students aged 13-18, a preliminary written questionnaire. Students’ ideas about the relative and absolute sizes were probed using interviews, written questionnaires, drawings and photos of play-dough models. The research also checked for any apparent cultural differences in students’ ideas. The research was carried out by university researchers in the UK based on data collected in China and New Zealand.

Learners’ ideas

  • Earth is shaped more like a saucer.
  • Earth is sphere-shaped but the idea of (absolute) up and down still persists. People only live on the upper half.
  • People live all over the surface of the sphere but the idea of (absolute) up and down still persists.
  • The causes of nighttime include clouds covering the Sun, the Moon covering the Sun, or the Sun going behind a hill.
  • The Sun goes around the Earth once a day.
  • The Earth goes around the Sun once a day.
  • The phases of the Moon are caused by cloud cover.
  • The phases of the Moon are caused by planets casting a shadow on the Moon.
  • The phases of the Moon are caused by the shadow of the Sun falling on the Moon.
  • The phases of the Moon are caused by the shadow of the Earth falling on the Moon.
  • The seasons are caused by cold planets taking heat from the Sun.
  • Heavy winter clouds stop heat from the Sun.
  • The Sun is further away from the Earth in the winter.
  • The Sun moves to the other side of the Earth to give them their summer.
  • Changes in plants cause the seasons.


Many young pupils use near and familiar objects to explain astronomical events.

While younger children may be encouraged to observe as many astronomical events as possible, it is recognized that the construction of a heliocentric view involves a number of complex factors, and it may not be appropriate to expect an understanding of such a notion before early adolescence. Indeed, it may be important to recognize that pupils may construct intermediate notions before moving to a heliocentric view.

Study Structure


Children's theories about four astronomical domains were investigated:

  1. Planet Earth in space and the gravitational field.
  2. Day and night.
  3. Phases of the Moon.
  4. The seasons.
Evidence collection

A two-stage process of data collection was used. First, 20 sampled pupils aged between 9 and 16 were interviewed individually about their theories concerning the four domains. The interviews were audio taped and transcribed, and records of pupils' drawings were kept. This was used to develop the main research instrument, a conceptual survey.

The astronomy conceptual survey was administered to a representative sample of 48 boys and 52 girls from the same age groups as the interviews.

Details of the sample

The total research sample consisted of 120 pupils (20 pilot and 100 main) aged between 9 and 16 years, taken from pupils attending a comprehensive school in a semi-rural area of south-west England and its four feeder junior schools.

Astronomy did not feature in the curriculum of these schools at the time of the study and so notions pupils held represent personal constructs or are the product of informal education.

Limit Less Campaign

Support our manifesto for change

The IOP wants to support young people to fulfil their potential by doing physics. Please sign the manifesto today so that we can show our politicians there is widespread support for improving equity and inclusion across the education sector.

Sign today