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Demonstration of Illinois Professional Teaching Standards

2. Human Development and Learning:
The teacher understands how individuals grow, develop and learn and provides learning opportunities that support the intellectual, social, and personal development of all students.

I have two different papers in this section. 


 How Do Seventh Graders Decide Whether Something is Alive or Not?

(Understanding Students' Misconceptions)

C&I 301 S

Introduction to Teaching Science in a Diverse Society

Stacy Valla & Jen Conroy

Fouad Abd-El-Khalick

5 November 2001



This study investigated children’s conceptions of what makes something living or not living.   It is important as educators, especially in the biology classroom, to understand students’ misconceptions and previous notions about life.   We expected them to be able to identify living things, but not necessarily able to explain why the object was living or not living. 



In this study, we interviewed 4 students.   Two students were male, and two were female.   All of the students were in the seventh grade, but were not asked their age.  Students will be referred to in this report by the order in which they were interviewed.   Student #1 was female.  Student #2 was male.  Student #3 was female.  Student # 4 was male.  A teacher in their school referred the students to us.   On a side note, we feel that the teacher may have gone out of his/her way to select students s/he felt would give the “right” answers. 



Below is a condensed version of the data sheet used during interviews.   Each interview took approximately twenty minutes.   All of the interviews were conducted in the teacher’s lounge of the school.   We were generally undisturbed, but occasionally teachers would walk through the lounge.   Each student was interviewed in a similar environment. Stacy interviewed students #1 and #3 while Jen recorded their answers.   Jen interviewed students #2 and #4 while Stacy recorded their responses.  There was a general question at the beginning and the end of the interview.   The bulk of the interview consisted of showing students pictures of objects, having them classify the object as alive or not alive, and then giving reasons for their answer.  

Interview questions:

How do you decide whether or not something is alive?

Look at each of the pictures and decide if thing you see there is alive or not alive.

Click here to see the actual pictures that we showed the students.


Name of thing

Alive or not alive

How did you decide that this is alive/ not alive?
Herbaceous plants    


What do you mean when you say something is “alive”?


Below is a modified version of the data collection sheet to summarize the data collected.  Attached in the appendix are the original interview notes.  Student answers will be summarized in this section.   General ideas will be documented, along with deviations from these general ideas. 

  How do you decide whether or not something is alive?

In general, students thought that if something is breathing and/or growing it is alive.  Students generally said that they just know whether or not something is alive.   They do not have to think about it, they just know.  


Look at each of the pictures and decide if thing you see there is alive or not alive.


Name of thing

Students who thought the thing was alive

Students who thought the thing was not alive Generalized responses of why students thought what they did. 
Television   #1, #2, #3, #4 Does not breathe, manmade, made by humans.
Cat #1, #2, #3, #4   Moves, breathes, not man made, grows, can think and react, eats, can move without batteries
Herbaceous plants #1, #2, #3, #4   Grows, make its own food, it is natural, “it just is”
Wind   #1, #2, #3, #4 It does not breathe, does not require nutrition, “it is just O2” (student had no clue what O2 was), it is just a current of air, will go away after a while
Eggs #1, #2, #3, #4   There was a general trend of hesitation before they answered the question.  Common answers include:

        Something is growing inside

        Outside is not alive

        Once it hatches it is more alive

        Something is living if it comes from something alive

        #4 thought that it is organic (which he said means that it “has biological components”) 

        #2 said that they were sentient, and that there is debate over whether they are truly alive or not, but personally he thinks that they are alive, no one is for sure though.

Fire   #1, #2, #3, #4 Does not breathe, does not think, it is a chemical reaction, not part of the food chain, it just is not alive because it is just not alive, it does not fit the rules of being alive. 
Butterfly #1, #2, #3, #4   It can move, it can think, it eats, it drinks, it is an insect and insects are alive
Air We chose not to replicate this question in our study.   It was difficult to find a picture representing air, and we thought that it was too closely related to wind. 
Seeds #1 and #3 #2 and #4 There was a general trend of hesitation among all students before they would decide whether it was alive or not.


Common responses from students #1 and #3

        It is just a little tree inside and trees are alive

        It needs water and food

        It grows into a plant or a tree


Common responses from students #2 and #4

        #2it is the product of something alive (“like hair” and hair is not alive)

        #4 it was alive when attached to the tree, but it fell off of the tree and is no longer green so it is no longer alive

Clouds   #1, #2, #3, #4 They don’t need food or water, they are just water floating in the air, they are just water and water is not alive, they are not produced by something in particular
River   #1, #2, #3, #4 Made of water and water is not alive, it cannot think, does not need “nutrition,” living things live in it but it itself is not alive
Fish #1, #2, #3, #4   Needs food and water, part of the food chain, can breathe and move and think, it can be a pet and pets are alive (except for rocks)
Train   #1, #2, #3, #4 Manmade, does not need food or water, cannot breathe, cannot think for itself
Tree #1, #2, #3, #4   Needs food and water, it can grow, naturally made, needs things that other living things need, part of the food chain, self sufficient, #4 said, “It is a plant and plants are alive, because I said so.”
Sun   #1, #2, #3, #4         Does not need food, water or air

        Not in the food chain

        #2 said that it, “had a birth and will have a death but is not alive”

        Cannot grow

        It is just burning gas and that is not alive

        It is in space and things cannot live in space

        It is a star

Mushroom #1, #2, #3, #4   It can eat and grow, it can defend itself, part of food chain, breathes, does what other living things do, it is the same as a tree and trees are alive, it can reproduce



What do you mean when you say something is “alive”?

Something that is alive needs water, food, and air to breathe.  It is part of the food chain.  Something that is alive can move and grow.  Something that is alive is not manmade, it is made naturally.  Student #2 said, “It fits certain guidelines about what is alive that have been given to me throughout my life.”

Summary of results:

We feel that the students did well in classifying the pictures as living or not living.  There was only one picture, of the seeds, where students had discrepant views of whether the object was alive or not alive.  Seeds are generally understood to be alive.  The students who thought the seeds were not alive contradicted general scientific consensus, but students gave reasonable evidence for their conclusions.  They knew that seeds come from a living thing, and were once alive, so they were on the right track.  The students could not necessarily put into words, why something was alive or not alive, but they knew what was alive and not alive.  They wanted to give answers like, “it just is,” or “that is what I was told,” rather than having knowledge, which could really give definite reasons for their answers.  Students #2 and #4 both used the word “sentient” during their interviews.   Neither boy understood what the word meant, but they had learned this word either in class, or had heard other adults use it.  They knew that it was related to living things, but could not give a solid definition for the word.  They had some general reasons that qualify something as living, such as:  eating, breathing, needing water and growing.  One good reason that some things were classified as not alive was that they were manmade.  Manmade things are not alive. 


            This topic was picked because students had learned about it the previous year.   From their responses it seems that they only learned what they needed for the test.  No students mentioned the life processes, which they had spent months learning about.  The students seemed to pick up buzzwords, like sentient, that they needed to know to impress the teacher, rather than understanding the concepts.   It was very interesting that our teacher went above and beyond to get us the students who would give the best answers.  This did not seem to be the case, students did not bring in anything that they had spent months learning about the previous year, they seemed to retain their previous notions that they had started with. 

            As educators, we need to teach concepts before we even touch on vocabulary.   Students seem to pick up on the words that they need to memorize to get a good grade, rather than understanding the concepts that are much more important to grasp.  We also cannot take for granted that students will bring correct previous knowledge with them into the classroom.  As educators, we need to assess what ideas students are bringing with them into the classroom, and address these ideas, in order to bring all students up to the same level, before we even begin to start teaching.   If half the class thinks that seeds are alive, and half of the class thinks that seeds are not alive, we may need to address that idea before we talk about how plants grow from seeds.  We also think that we cannot take for granted that students are going to be interested in what we are teaching, we have to make the content seem interesting, so that students will be motivated to learn.  If we can take these ideas with us into the classroom, hopefully we will become excellent educators.





Understanding How Students Learn

In order to teach a class something new, it is good to know what the students already know about the subject.  More than that, it is very important to understand what the students think they know about that topic.  Rosalind Driver brings up this idea and many others in her book Constructivist Approaches to Science Teaching.  Not every child learns and thinks in the same way, but there are some broad generalizations of how knowledge is acquired.  Children learn things individually, in groups of their peers, and from adults and teachers.  These ideas of how children learn do not come as a surprise to many people, yet they can be easily overlooked when teaching.  Understanding how children learn is an imperative part of teaching.  As an educator, one should try to put themselves into the child’s frame of mind while balancing their own mindset and teaching goals on the topic at hand. 

Children come into school with preconceived notions of how things in the world work.  Student’s conceptions, or as Driver defines them “knowledge schemes”, often spawn from curiosity.  Students of all ages have numerous sensory experiences, both in and outside of school, which help them build knowledge schemes.  One of Driver’s examples is that children have a scheme of physics simply from playing ball.  They may not know that math or logic behind it, but they understand how to move to catch the ball when it is thrown at different angles and speeds.  Educators should recognize this knowledge and build upon it in the classroom. 

Knowledge schemes can also come from things that kids have been told by their parents or other adults.  In my observation experience, a sixth grade student raised his hand and said:  “My mom told me that you can die from the hiccups.  Is that true?”  This is a seemingly logical idea based on something that the student’s mother had told him. 

This question did not cause a problem in the class discussion, yet it has the potential to do so.  It is important to be prepared to react to questions like this in the classroom.  Especially in science, parents can pass incorrect or biased knowledge on to their children. 

Anything from simply telling them an outdated explanation of biotechnology to telling them that the theory of evolution is completely false will affect a student’s schemes.  Educators need to be aware of, and sensitive to this.  It is important not to make the parent look incompetent, but at the same time, educate the students on the topic at hand.  Parents also pass on correct knowledge to their children.  This is a way that students may have some good previous knowledge to fall back on. 

Driver uses the understanding of how children learn to enhance classroom learning.  Students learning things for themselves through observation and investigation has been discussed, but there are some things that the students cannot learn for themselves.  There is also something that Driver calls:  “The Culture of Science”.  Individual and group learning is an effective way to teach.  Especially in the field of science, it is generally more interesting and effective for the student to investigate and learn things for him or herself or with peers.  Individual and group investigation and discussion are great teaching tools, but even with the best and brightest students, it cannot tell them everything that they need to know.  There is a lot of terminology and common conventions about science that are important for the students to know to be scientifically literate in society.  The terminology is a societal norm that allows everyone to be able to discuss science on the same terms.  This is information that the teacher will pass on to the student simply because the student would not be able to discover it on their own. 

It is imperative to understand how students learn and to implement those tactics in the classroom setting.  This sounds easy, but educators must realize that all students learn in different ways.  There are some general ideas on how knowledge is gained, such as individually, in groups of peers, and from authority figures.  An even balance of these approaches to leaning should be used in the classroom.  This will allow for all the students to become involved and for them to all learn through investigation and learn the culture of science.  The teacher must draw the line between letting the students find out for themselves and telling them all the information.  These two must be in balance for both the student and the teacher to get the most out of their experience together. 


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