Common Misconceptions About the Polar Regions: Geography and Mapping

Misconceptions about scientific concepts have been documented in all fields of science, including polar science. The frequent use of polar images in advertisements and entertainment (see “Science and Literacy Points on The Golden Compass” in the Across the Curriculum department) means that students come to school with previously developed notions of penguins, polar bears, the Arctic, and Antarctica. Best practice in science teaching means uncovering misconceptions, probing for student ideas, and using this information to design lessons.

In March 2006, as part of the International Polar Year efforts, the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sponsored a workshop to create a framework for polar literacy and improve educational outreach. The final report of the Integrated Collaborative Education (ICE) Online Workshop listed a number of common misconceptions about the poles.

Based on that list, we’ve written a list of misconceptions about the geography of the poles that students might hold from their experiences with the popular depictions of the regions.

  • Students may confuse the Arctic and Antarctica. Which one is where?
  • Students may believe that Antarctica is very small because of map projections.
  • Students may believe that the polar regions are just two remote poles and don’t include parts of countries and continents.
  • Students may believe that the Arctic and Antarctica are the same in terms of geography and make-up.
  • Students may believe that these regions are vast, empty wastelands unfit for human habitation.
  • Students may believe that the polar regions are isolated from the rest of the world.

Probing for Student Understanding

Formative assessment can help you uncover your students’ misconceptions about the polar regions. Two books from the National Science Teachers Association, Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volumes 1 and 2, explain the use of formative assessment in the classroom. Each volume contains 25 ready-made probes for teacher use across many grade levels. Although these probes do not include polar concepts, the books provide general information about using formative assessment to uncover misconceptions and may help you design your own probes for use with a polar-themed lesson.

Can It Reflect Light?
This probe is found in Chapter 1 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volume 1. The chapter is free for download and includes the book’s preface, introduction, table of contents, and index. The preface and introduction provide a general overview of formative assessment.

What’s in the Bubbles?
This probe is found in Chapter 1 of Volume 2 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science. The chapter is free for download and includes the book’s preface, table of contents, and index as well as the probe.


Teaching the Concepts

Several posts of our Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears blog discuss targeting misconceptions and provide links to science and literacy lesson plans and activities.

Mapping the Polar Regions
This post discusses the distorted view of the polar regions due to common map projections and highlights introductory lessons on map skills, latitude and longitude, map projections, and magnetism.

Where Does the Arctic Begin? End?
This post does not correlate specifically with lesson plans, but is written to develop teacher content knowledge. It provides an overview of the wide variety of definitions used for the Arctic region.

For more ideas on teaching about the polar regions, please refer to Science and Literacy Lessons to Develop a Polar Sense of Place in the Science and Literacy department of this issue.


National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards

This issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears is aligned with the following content standards: Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science (K-4 and 5-8) and Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (K-4 and 5-8).

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org .

Copyright March 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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