The concepts of energy and heat are challenging for elementary students. Because young students are not ready to delve into kinetic theory and molecular motion, much of the explanation of heat and energy transfer is inaccessible to them. In addition, the use of the word "energy" in popular culture may interfere with the development of scientific understanding. Nevertheless, elementary students are capable of exploring heat through observations and qualitative, developmentally appropriate explanations. In fact, the idea that heat is transferred from one object to another via conduction is a grade-level expectation according to the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996). During these initial explorations, teachers will encounter a variety of student misconceptions. Formative assessment and purposeful teaching will help prepare students to tackle more advanced concepts in the middle grades and beyond.
In this article, we've highlighted some common misconceptions about heat and insulation. Rather than provide an exhaustive list of all possible student ideas, we hope to give insight into ones that might be held by your elementary students. We've also provided tools for formative assessment and resources for teaching correct scientific concepts.