Magnets Have Nothing To Do With It

When I was an Explainer I always carried magnets around in my pocket, but oddly enough the main thing I did with them was demonstrate their ineffectiveness. When kids were asked “why do you think that’s happening,” one of the number one answers I heard was “magnets,” even at exhibits that had nothing what-so-ever to do with magnets. I would then pull out my magnets and let the kids test their idea.

it didn’t occur to me at the time, but looking back I realize that listening to common misconceptions like this one can reveal a lot about children’s deep understanding of phenomenon. As a thought experiment I decided to revisit the number one exhibit that attracted misplaced magnet theories and see if I could make some hypotheses about what those children were thinking. Here’s what I noticed:

1) This table is made of metal, a material that can be easily magnetized. Perhaps the children are aware of this phenomenon and associate metals with magnetism.

2) The rolling objects are round and black, just like some of the most common magnets found in science kits and on refrigerators. Perhaps the children associate round black objects, particularly ones with holes in them, with magnets.

3) The rolling objects tilt at an angle that appears to defy gravity. Perhaps the children suspect magnets when they encounter materials that seem to cause gravity defiance, because they know a magnet can be used to suspend objects that would otherwise fall.

I now plan on spending some time lurking near Turn table to see if I can find any magnet-confused subjects to test my theories on. This thought experiment has reminded me that underneath an incorrect answer there is often a correct idea worth digging for.

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