For this month’s blog, I wanted to focus on something that teachers come across frequently: a perception from their pupils that they already know something when, in fact, they don’t. Often these misconceptions are innocuous and not in any meaningful way detrimental to the pupil’s understanding of the world or their development. However, sometimes they can be. An example of such a common, but harmless, misconception relates to the chameleon. Perhaps what the chameleon is best known for is its ability to change colour to match its environment. Indeed, we may refer to people who can fit in well in a variety of settings as “social chameleons”. However, this phenomenon is a total myth. Any change of colour in a chameleon that is aligned to the colour of its habitat is coincidental. Chameleons change colour primarily in response to their changing emotions: when they are frightened, when they have triumphed in a fight, when seeking a mate etc. In addition, they have minor changes in colour based on regulation of their body temperature.
So, how did we develop this belief in the chameleon’s ability to camouflage? According to scientific sources, the first time this idea was recorded was in around 240BC inn a series of Greek biographies called Antigonus of Carystus. Aristotle, far more widely-read and writing a century earlier, had correctly attributed the change of colour to an emotional response – specifically fear. By the Renaissance, almost no one believed chameleons changed colour to blend into their background – but somehow the myth has returned to us.
There are some myths and misconceptions that are positively destructive in our world, and particularly for our children. We know that there have been numerous medical opinions – sometimes published in esteemed journals – that have been subsequently disproven, and yet the misconception has persisted. Whilst it is common knowledge that Dr Andrew Wakefield’s publication in The Lancet in 1998, linking autism in children to the MMR vaccine was subsequently found to be based on flawed and falsified findings and Wakefield was ‘struck off’, MMR take-up rates remain a concern two decades later. Perhaps a more common misconception is that the best way to prepare for exercise is to undertake a series of stretches. Sports scientists certainly recommend stretching for those athletes suffering with a specific injury, but it is now believed to be much more effective, and safer, to prepare for vigorous exercise through undertaking a gentle form of similar movements as a “warm up” – for example a gentle jog before a longer run.
Naturally, our Trust values prioritise the importance of learning. One part of learning is to understand, and have challenged, misconceptions. The teacher who inspired me to join the profession was the Maths teacher who taught me during my examination years. His gift was to recognise the misconceptions myself and others in the class held and correct them in a way that made sense to us. Even now, one of the activities we will ask of candidates at interview for Maths roles is to present to us a solution to a mathematical problem, showing us where the pupils are likely to make errors in their calculations or approaches. By appraising this, the interview panel get a keen sense of the depth of expertise of the applicant and their understanding of how children learn.
In an age where “YouTubers”, “trolls” and “influencers” can command the attention of millions with precious little or no authority underpinning their content, teachers remain important. So too does our schools instilling the virtue of scepticism for all the times those teachers are not, and cannot be, there to correct the errors. We cannot do this too much. As always, thanks for reading my blogs. Like “Heinz Varieties”, this is my 57th. I hope you’ll continue reading them into the new academic year.