Misinterpretations and intuitive ideas about evolutionary trees
Research shows that many students, teachers, and members of the general public misinterpret trees in predictable ways. Such misinterpretations are commonly known as 'misconceptions'; however, many of these "wrong" ideas are actually perfectly sound ways of reasoning that learners simply apply in the wrong situation or in the wrong way. In other words, common explanations (such as change resulting from intentional choices) work perfectly well for many everyday situations, but these explanations are not helpful for thinking about evolutionary change. While the term 'misconception' is a familiar way to describe such ideas, they are more accurately thought of as "intuitive" or "everyday" interpretations.
Reviewing the intuitive conceptions, gleaned from the research literature, can help you anticipate ways that learners are likely to misinterpret evolutionary trees. Though it might be tempting to try to root out such conceptions and "replace" them with correct ones, this approach is unlikely to be effective and fails to recognize the useful roles that these ways of reasoning may play in other contexts. Instead, here are a few general tips for designing instructional experiences to help students build on their intuitive conceptions:
For suggestions on how to design phylogenies that discourage misinterpretations, visit Tips for tree design.
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