Misconceptions Concerning Animism, or, the Atom is Alive?

Eva Hejnová


volume: 29
year: 2020
issue: 3
fulltext: PDF

online publishing date: 1/10/2020
DOI: 10.14712/25337556.2020.3.3
ISSN (Online): 2533-7556

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The “atom” is a concept that students encounter in both physics and chemistry. The difficulty of the explication of this concept is that it is a highly abstract construct. Teachers use different models, analogies and metaphors during the explanation of this concept as well as various anthropomorphic formulations. However, pupils often create their own models in their minds and their ideas may differ considerably from the idea of the atom that their teachers have. The aim of this paper is to present one of the most common misconceptions, “animism”, i.e., the idea that an atom is alive (that it has the characteristics of a living organism). The frequency of the occurrence of misconceptions associated with animism is illustrated with the example of research into ideas about atoms that we carried out in the Czech Republic on a set of pupils from one fourth class of an eight-year secondary grammar school and from six classes of the ninth grade from lower secondary schools as well as on a set of pre-service primary student teachers and bachelor’s students of natural sciences from several Czech universities. All participants of this study were quizzed on their understanding of the concept of an atom using a one-tier diagnostic test which included some of the most common misconceptions about atoms that have been identified in international education research. In this paper, we comment in detail on the results obtained from the respondents’ answers to two test items that were related to animism. Our research has shown that especially pupils from lower secondary schools and also pre-service primary student teachers have many misconceptions about the atom associated with animism. Many of them are most likely related to the fact that pupils and students confuse atoms and cells and often atoms and molecules too. The most widespread misconceptions include the idea that when an animate being dies, the atoms cleave to simpler parts and those then create new atoms, and the idea that atoms cease to exist once an animate being decomposes.


lower secondary school, university, misconception, atom, animism

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