Key Research Paper: Bradamante and Viennot, 2007

This study explores primary school students' initial understanding of magnetic and gravitational fields. Before formal learning, students can describe attraction but often have a one-sided view, allowing an explanation of attraction but not repulsion.

Learners’ ideas

  • Young children are familiar with what happens near a magnet, or near the Earth but they tend to confuse these two phenomena (magnetic and gravitational fields).
  • The majority of the children spontaneously mentioned the specificity of metals and the fact that magnets do not attract non-metallic objects.
  • A small majority of students can identify the shapes of magnetic fields around bar magnets as not being spherical.
  • Students may picture both types of fields as monopolar, with a magnetic pole in the geometric centre of the magnet and a gravitational one at the centre of the Earth.
  • Students are much more able to describe the attractive nature of magnetic forces, with far less understanding of repulsion.


  • Teachers need to place additional emphasis on magnetic repulsion to clearly differentiate the presence of two types of poles in magnetism.
  • Experimentation is recommended to show magnetic effects, and this should also cover repulsion.

Study Structure


The aim of this work is to determine to what extent it is possible to provide pupils with an introductory view of gravitational and magnetic fields that are linked with the concept of “field lines” in accepted physics.

Evidence collection

Evidence was collected from 17 audio-taped “teaching–learning interviews”, of 45 min each, conducted with pairs of pupils in the two last years of primary school. These were discussions orientated towards conceptual acquisition, strongly structured and guided, and allowed pupils to evidence their initial thoughts and their reactions to diverse questions and requests. The approach was developed for this study and the results of interviews were analysed qualitatively. Response types were also grouped.

Details of the sample

The sample consisted of 33 students from two different classes (ages 9-11 years) who had not been taught about gravitational or magnetic fields prior to the interviews.

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