Pine, Messer and St. John (2001)

This paper discusses the results of a survey carried out on a large number of primary school teachers analysing which topics they believe students find difficult. This includes some astronomical topics specifically involving sunlight and shadow. It notes some teacher misconceptions which were being taught to students. The research was carried out by university-based researchers in the UK.

Learners’ ideas

  • Four teachers highlighted the misconception that the Moon is a source of light.
  • There were 11 separate references to misunderstandings about the Sun, mainly concerning the belief that the Earth stays still and the Sun moves around it, some suggesting that the Sun turns around at night and becomes the Moon.
  • Some responses from teachers suggested that students’ understanding of daylight is natural light coming from the sky in general, rather than from the Sun.
Evidence-based suggestions
  • Children do hold many incorrect ideas about science topics in the primary curriculum. These ideas are of considerable importance and cannot be ignored in the learning process since they are the foundations upon which new knowledge is built.
  • Teachers need to place as much emphasis on children’s wrong ideas as on their right ones if they are to bring about conceptual change in science effectively.
  • If teachers are better informed about the types of false beliefs children are likely to hold, they will be quicker and better at identifying them, helping children call them to mind, making them explicit and incorporating them into the process of conceptual change.
  • The teachers surveyed felt it was important to find out what a child already knew about a topic before they taught it, the cornerstone of a constructivist approach to teaching.

Study Structure


This paper sets out to show that pre-existing knowledge, in the form of naïve theories, is a pervasive feature of children’s early understanding of science.

Evidence collection

A questionnaire was developed for the study and sent to over 200 schools. The responses to the questionnaire were analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively by the researchers. The questions covered a wide range of science topics and asked the teacher to explain how difficult they thought the topics were for students to understand.

Details of the sample

The questionnaire was completed by 122 teachers with an average of 15 years of teaching experience. Teachers taught Key Stage 1 pupils (years 1 and 2 in the UK).

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