Common Misconceptions About Fossils and the History of the Polar Regions

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 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 this issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, we’re examining how the fossil and archaeological record of the polar regions informs us about their past through geologic time. In keeping with our theme, we’ve highlighted some common misconceptions about the history of the polar regions and about fossils in general. We’ve also noted the difficulty of teaching concepts relating to geologic time to elementary-aged students.


Polar History Misconceptions

  • Polar regions have always been cold and isolated.
  • Polar regions are static, do not change, and are not vulnerable to change.

Fossil Misconceptions

  • Fossils are pieces of dead animals and plants.
  • Fossils of tropical plants cannot be found in cold or dry areas.
  • Fossils only represent bones and shells of extinct animals. Soft tissue can never be fossilized.

Geologic Time and the Elementary Student

Geologic time is not commonly taught at the elementary level. However, when teaching about dinosaurs, fossils, and basic history of the earth, it is not uncommon for elementary teachers to be asked how old an object is. While we encourage teachers to provide accurate information to their students, it is important to remember that students at this age are concrete thinkers. Despite the inclusion of numbers in the hundred thousands and millions in the third- and fourth-grade math curricula, most students simply do not have a real grasp of the magnitude of these numbers. In all likelihood, a student will accept the fact that a fossil is just “really old.”


Probing for Student Understanding

Formative assessment can help you uncover your students’ misconceptions about the polar regions. Three books from the National Science Teachers Association, Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 (NSTA Press), explain the use of formative assessment in the classroom. Each volume contains 25 ready-made probes for teacher use across many grade levels.

With permission from NSTA Press, we’ve followed the model used by Page Keeley and coauthors in these books and created our own probe to assess your students’ ideas about fossils.

Is It a Fossil? Probe and Teacher Notes
This probe assesses student ideas about fossils and how fossils can be interpreted to provide information about past environments.

Interactive Fossil Sort
The first part of our formative assessment probe asks students to classify a variety of objects as fossils or nonfossils. This interactive sort, created by Content Clips, allows students to examine photographs of these objects. Students then sort the objects by dragging the images into one of two columns (Fossil and Not a Fossil). Teachers can print student work and use an answer key to assess their students’ knowledge of fossils. This activity requires Adobe Flash, which can be downloaded for free from the Adobe web site. Teachers also need to turn off the pop-up blocker before using this activity.

Content Clips is an interactive web environment designed to help K-12 teachers supplement their curriculum with compelling online resources and activities. By creating a free account, you can save resources and activities (such as the fossil sort) to your own collection. You can also create your own interactive activities to use in your classroom. If you follow the links to the electronic books listed above, you will enter the site as a guest and will not be able to save them to your own collection. If you wish to save these stories in your own collection, create an account, login, and then search for “fossil.”


Teaching the Concepts

A post from our Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears Polar blog discusses targeting misconceptions and provides links to science and literacy lesson plans and activities.

Learning About Antarctica’s Past
This post discusses the misconception that Antarctica has always been cold and snowy and provides ideas for teaching, student reading, and literacy connections.

For more ideas on teaching about the fossils, please refer to Learning About Fossils Through Hands-On Science and Literacy in the Science and Literacy department of this issue.


National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards

Targeting student misconceptions about fossils and the history of the polar regions primarily meets Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.

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 April 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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