Errors in science learning (errors in expression of organized, purposeful thought within the domain of science) provide a window through which glimpses of mental functioning can be obtained. Errors are valuable and normal occurrences in the process of learning science. A student can use his/her errors to develop a deeper understanding of a concept as long as the error can be recognized and appropriate, informative feedback can be obtained. A safe, non-threatening, and nonpunitive environment which encourages dialogue helps students to express their conceptions and to risk making errors. Pedagogical methods that systematically address common student errors produce significant gains in student learning. Just as the nature-nurture interaction is integral to the development of living things, so the individual-environment interaction is basic to thought processes. At a minimum, four systems interact: (1) the individual problem solver (who has a worldview, relatively stable cognitive characteristics, relatively malleable mental states and conditions, and aims or intentions), (2) task to be performed (including relative importance and nature of the task), (3) knowledge domain in which task is contained, and (4) the environment (including orienting conditions and the social and physical context).
Several basic assumptions underlie research on errors and alternative conceptions. Among these are: Knowledge and thought involve active, constructive processes; there are many ways to acquire, organize, store, retrieve, and think about a given concept or event; and understanding is achieved by successive approximations. Application of these ideas will require a fundamental change in how science is taught.