Inquiry Strategies
for the Journey North Teacher

Making Sense of Data
Responding to Misconceptions (and "Wrong" Answers)

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Students often come to the classroom with firm theories and explanations for how things work, some of which conflict with widely accepted science ideas. These ideas, which may be reasonable in a limited context, often arise from curious imaginations, partial observations, or interpretation of language (e.g., plants "eat" since we give them plant food). To shift their thinking, students need multiple opportunities for investigative experiences in which they confront phenomena or data that are inconsistent with their "native" theories.

In general, if students offer theories, explanations, or conclusions that are "incorrect," try to find alternatives to simply correcting them. Here are some strategies that show respect for students' ideas and encourage critical thinking. Employing them can offer you a glimpse of youngsters' thought processes.

  • Ask, Can you clarify or elaborate on your thinking?
  • Ask, What past experiences, observations, measurement data, or other source of information inspired your ideas?
  • Ask, What evidence do you have to support your idea or theory?
  • Give students a chance to revisit data and check what they think against what they see.
  • Facilitate a group discussion in which classmates explore, challenge, and build on one another's ideas.
  • Invite students to conduct hands-on research to explore and test their theories and explanations.


Once students have followed a scientist's study, tracked migration data, or launched their own investigation, they can try to make sense of observations and other data.

1.) Start by posting a large sheet of butcher paper in front of the class and list these categories:

  • What did we (or the scientists) observe?
  • How could we summarize the data?
  • What do we know from previous experience?
  • What information did we get from Journey North or other sources?

2.) Have students review and discuss the information on the chart and do the following:

  • Suggest one or more generalizations or explanations* related to the research question.
  • Put a check by items on the list (evidence) that most strongly support their conclusions. (You can also have them cross out items that are irrelevant or not useful in answering their question.)

    Note: Students, like professional scientists, may discover that they have to do more research to explain what happened or answer the question.

3. If you have information on scientists' conclusions or explanations of the same event or phenomena, share them with the class. Ask, How do these ideas compare with yours? What new questions does it raise?

* A generalization applies to a large number of cases (e.g., Robins fly south in the winter). An explanation describes a relationship between two or more variables (e.g., Changes in wind direction affected the eagles' flight patterns).