4. Helping pupils master important concepts, knowledge and skills – Part 1

This session will take approximately 45 minutes to complete.

Session overview

This session will focus on:

  • Anticipating common misconceptions
  • Identifying subject knowledge gaps
  • Tackling common misconceptions


So far in this module we have focused on ‘the what’ and ‘the why’ of curriculum planning and you have produced a draft sequence of the learning objectives and associated content of your scheme of work. In this and the following session we will look at how, through careful curriculum design, you can help your pupils to master these important concepts, knowledge and skills. We will be drawing upon and applying knowledge from modules 3 and 4 to help you to do this.

Secure subject knowledge helps teachers to motivate pupils and teach effectively. This is because it is through an understanding of how to teach a subject (often referred to as pedagogical content knowledge) that teachers develop:

‘The most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations—in a word, the most useful ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others.’

(Ball and others, 2008)

This type of subject knowledge also includes an understanding of what makes a topic easy or difficult and the likely misconceptions pupils will bring to the learning of a topic.

In this section we are going to think about how you can use your subject knowledge, and the experience of other colleagues, to increase the likelihood that your scheme will lead to successful learning for your pupils. We will focus on common misconceptions and the most useful ways to represent and develop understanding of the concepts, knowledge and skills in your scheme of work.

Anticipating common misconceptions

In module 3 you learnt how process questions are more likely to reveal pupil misconceptions, and in module 4, how to monitor pupil work for misconceptions. In this module we are going to focus on how you can work to anticipate and tackle common misconceptions as part of careful curriculum design.

A misconception is a wrong or inaccurate idea based on faulty thinking or understanding. A common misconception is a wrong idea that many people have. For pupils, the most important common misconceptions to anticipate are the ones which relate to foundational concepts. This is because misconceptions can be difficult to shift but doing so can lead to big gains in learning, particularly for threshold concepts (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018).

Therefore, anticipating common misconceptions within subject areas is also an important aspect of curriculum knowledge and working closely with colleagues to develop an understanding of likely misconceptions is valuable.

Here are some examples of common pupil misconceptions:

Science (Biology)

Misconception: all cells are the same size and shape.

Correct idea: different cells can have different sizes and shapes.

Geography (Plate tectonics)

Misconception: The earth’s plates are made of solid rock that can never be seen because the plates are always deep within the earth.

Correct idea: Earth’s plates are made of solid rock, and they can be seen where they are not covered by soil, loose rocks, or water.

[The above examples were taken from: AAAS Project 2061]

Modern Foreign Languages (French)

Misconception:  J’ai is translated as ‘I am’

Correct idea: J’ai is translated as ‘I have’.

This misunderstanding stems from pupils learning that ‘J’ai onze ans’ is translated as ‘I am 11 years old’; j’ai is used in this context leading pupils to think that ‘j’ai’ means ‘I am’.


Misconception: thinking capitalism is synonymous with democracy.

Correct idea: capitalism is an economic system, and so capitalist economies can operate in dictatorships & other non-democratic regimes, as well as in democracies.

So good curriculum design includes being aware of common misconceptions and this requires secure subject knowledge:

“The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach… As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods and identify students’ common misconceptions.” 

(Coe and others, 2014, page 2)

Consequently, when embarking on a new topic with pupils, it is good practice to first consider your own subject knowledge and any potential knowledge gaps you may need to close, particularly those concerning foundational concepts and knowledge. It might sound obvious but making sure your subject knowledge is secure is one of the best ways to enable you to teach the content well and help pupils to master the critical components of the subject.

Identifying subject knowledge gaps

Review the content of your sequence of work and record any potential knowledge gaps or areas you want to strengthen.

If you have identified a need for subject knowledge development, be prepared to share this with you mentor and discuss the best steps you can take to address it.


Reflect on the following questions and then record your response:

  • Can you recall any misconceptions that you have held in the past?
  • What helped to change your thinking?

Tackling common misconceptions

It is important to remember that adults hold misconceptions as well as children. Pupils needs to feel comfortable to share their ideas with you, so that you can support the development of their thinking over time. So, an important way in which you can help pupils to master foundational concepts and knowledge is to foster a classroom climate where the sharing and discussing of ideas is encouraged.

In terms of your teaching practice, here are some other ways you can respond to common misconceptions:

  • Explicitly address misconceptions through explanation
  • Provide evidence that might conflict with their thinking
  • Provide activities to support them to restructure their thinking
  • Use formative assessment to check that pupils’ thinking is changing
  • Revisit misconceptions to remind pupils of what they thought in the beginning and acknowledge how their thinking has changed

Below you will see an example of a misconception that is common for Primary pupils when learning about partitioning to add. This is followed by a part-whole model which can be used to help pupils to master the concept.

In Key Stage 1, it is common for pupils to misunderstand the place value of digits within numbers. This is problematic when solving calculations because it means they are highly likely to make errors.

For example, when teaching pupils to partition two-digit numbers to add or subtract, they will sometimes partition like this:

28 can be partitioned into 2 and 8.

…instead of this:

28 can be partitioned into 20 and 8.

This occurs because pupils do not have a secure understanding of the value that the digits represent.

In order to prevent this misconception from developing, it’s important to support and develop pupils’ understanding of number using concrete objects or representation when first introducing pupils to the strategy of partitioning to add. There are several ways you could do this, but one way is to use a part-whole model:

Example of the part-whole model using the number 28. The number 20 has already been added to the lower left field, the lower right field is blank ready to be filled in.
Figure 1: Part-whole model. Cited in WhiteRose, Year 2, Autumn Scheme of Learning.

The ‘whole’ – 28 – is represented at the top and the ‘parts’ are represented in the circles attached to the whole. Pupils could be provided with blank models to fill out or partially completed ones like the one above. They can be given Dienes blocks or place value counters to explore partitioning the numbers and identifying relationships between them.

As you can see this teaching strategy has been carefully thought about and planned into the scheme of work because the misconception is a common one for pupils. Discussing with experienced colleagues how to help pupils to master important concepts will support you to identify the most effective teaching methods.


Reflect on the following questions and then record your response.

Review the concepts in your sequence of work.

  • What common misconceptions are pupils likely to have?
  • What would help pupils to develop their thinking and to master the concepts?
  • Can you identify any analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations or demonstrations that could help?

Prepare to share your reflections, along with any ways of representing those concepts, with your mentor.

Related ECF strands

Subject and curriculum

3.2 Secure subject knowledge helps teachers to motivate pupils and teach effectively.

3.4 Anticipating common misconceptions within particular subjects is also an important aspect of curricular knowledge; working closely with colleagues to develop an understanding of likely misconceptions is valuable.

3e. Being aware of common misconceptions and discussing with experienced colleagues how to help pupils master important concepts.

3i. Providing tasks that support pupils to learn key ideas securely (e.g. quizzing pupils so they develop fluency with times tables).