Scientific Misconceptions and Wonder in the Everyday

Veritasium is a YouTube channel of science videos, focused mainly on physics, created by the charismatic Dr. Derek Muller. As of this review, there are 199 incredibly engaging and visual videos, with more being added all the time. One of the things I really like about the Veritasium videos is the way they focus on drawing out and breaking down common misconceptions about science and how the physical world works. This focus comes from the work Derek did for his PhD on the effectiveness of science videos.[1]

Basically, he gave a science test to first year college students. Then he had them watch expository videos, explaining the concepts on the test. Then he post-tested the students, and interviewed them about what they thought of the videos. After watching the videos, students were more confident that they understood the subject matter. They said the videos were, “concise”, “clear” and “easy to understand”… but there was no change in the results between the pre-test and the post-test.

So why did students feel they had learned the material but show no improvement? And why did they feel like they understood more than they actually did? Derek’s thesis begins with the idea that none of us know “nothing” about science – we all know a lot of things through our interactions with the world. Unfortunately, much of what we think we know is actually not scientifically correct. He found that when the information is simply told, no matter how clearly the explanation, two things happen in the other person. One, if you present something they think they already know, they do not pay the utmost attention. Two, they don’t realize when something presented is different from what they already “know”, and they get more confident in what they thought before – even if it is the opposite of what is explained.

To play this out, he created another set of videos, this time designed to draw out or present common misconceptions. In these videos a misconception is stated by a participant in the video and then there is a discussion, and they work out the actual answer through social interaction. They basically pose a question that seems simple, have someone present the wrong answer and work from there. As you might imagine, students in his study often found the misconception videos “confusing”. But they nearly doubled their scores on the assessment.

This inspired him to create a series of science videos that require mental effort, and create cognitive dissonance. By changing how we present, we can change how our audience listens and therefore how they learn. And Veritasium was born.

I think the Veritasium videos are great though there are a few challenges, that we need to be mindful of when planning lessons around these videos. (1) Some of the videos use a lot of vocabulary that our students likely won’t know (2) Derek’s explanations at the end of some of the videos can be quick and we’d want to stop and explore them further, incorporating other materials and experiments. (3) The videos are also not really organized in a way that presents any kind of coherent structure for understanding how the different concepts fit together. It can sometimes feel like you are just watching a string of really interesting videos starring a guy who sees miracles in everyday things.

One strategy to address the first challenge, is for teachers to prepare a list of certain vocabulary words that you’d like students to focus on. Prior to watching the videos, students could brainstorm if, when and where they’ve heard the words and what they think the word means. It’s nice to talk through in this way because different words mean different things in different contexts. Then after watching the video you could revisit these pre-watching vocabulary discussions, and see which, if any, match the way the word was used.

To address the third challenge, Derek has created Playlists, where he pulls together videos that build off of each other. The “Slinky Drop” playlist is good place to start. It starts with a 60 second video that asks what would happen if you dropped a stretched out slinky.

You could show this to students and let them debate their ideas. It is really engaging for students to hear different ideas and realize, “Wait, your common sense/intuition is not the same as mine?” Then there is an “Answer” video, followed by a few extension videos. One of the things I like about the Slinky Drop is the discussion about physics in general, how it can be counter intuitive. It is a nice entry into the premise underlying the Veritasium videos in general.

My other favorite Playlist is the 8 videos on Inertia. If you’d asked me to say something about inertia before I watched the videos, I would have said something about my body moving to the right when I turn left in a car. Now I see inertia everywhere I go[2]. The 8 videos are:

  1. Why Does the Earth Spin? (2:51)
  2. How Does the Earth Spin? (4:41)
  3. Is There Gravity in Space? (2:21)
  4. Three Incorrect Laws of Motion (2:28)
  5. Which Hits the Ground First? (3:03)
  6. Misconceptions about Falling Objects (3:22)

  1. The Difference Between Mass and Weight (3:14)
  2. The Egg Experiment to Demonstrate Inertia (1:10)

So many misconceptions uncovered! And in less than 25 minutes!

  • Why do astronauts float around in space shuttles? (Hint/Spoiler Alert: It’s not because there is no gravity in space!)
  • Why is it difficult to push my car? (Hint: It’s not because it is heavy).
  • Think you know why a medicine ball and a basketball dropped from the same height hit the ground at the same time?

In general, the Veritasium videos are great for pointing out misconceptions about fundamental science concepts, commonly held by both teachers and in our students. They also pose really good questions that get you thinking about things you won’t be able to believe you never thought about before (like, What do you mean the cake is the same temperature as the pan when I take it out of the oven?!?[3])

Some Veritasium videos have require some background knowledge and multiple viewings to unpack, so payoff is limited if we just have students watch them on their own. But the videos are great ways to get students hooked and engaged in debate. They are also great ways to build assessments of concepts you have been teaching through other readings, activities and in-class experiments. For example, when watching the video Three Incorrect Laws of Motion (mentioned above), you could break students into groups and ask,  “Suppose you were talking to a friend who thought the first incorrect law of motion was correct. How would you convince her otherwise?”

 

[1] To hear Derek talking about his research, watch this: “Khan Academy & the Effectiveness of Science Videos” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVtCO84MDj8&x-yt-ts=1422411861&x-yt-cl=84924572. One of his conclusions is that Khan Academy videos (pure exposition) can be great as a refresher for someone who already knows the material. On the other hand, for students who are learning something for the first time, Khan may have the same effect as the expository videos had on the students in his study.

[2] Compare Veritasium’s Inertia Playlist to a Khan Academy video on Mass and Inertia (viewable here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFFgWl6t-6c), considered from the perspective of someone new to these concepts.

[3]“Misconceptions About Heat” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNGJ0WHXMyE

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About Mark Trushkowsky

Mark enjoys doing math problems that take weeks, family sing-a-longs and reading late into the night. At 16, he believed the next revolution would be waged through poetry. Now he believes it is adult basic education. But he still likes poetry. Mark has worked in adult literacy and HSE since 2001. He is a founding member of the NYC Community of Adult Math Instructors (CAMI). He was born and raised in Brooklyn where he lives happily ever after with his partner Sarah and their daughter Liv.

One thought on “Scientific Misconceptions and Wonder in the Everyday

  1. This is one of my favorite science web sites. I love Derek’s technique of interviewing people on the street to find out some of the common conceptions and misconceptions about phenomena in the world. It illustrates the importance of finding out what are students know and think before presenting them with new information.

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