Primary colors as a source of possible misconceptions: an insight into teaching and learning about color

  • Berta Martini Department of Humanistic Studies, University of Urbino ‘Carlo Bo’, Italy
  • Monica Tombolato Department of Humanistic Studies, University of Urbino ‘Carlo Bo’, Italy
  • Rossella D’Ugo Department of Humanistic Studies, University of Urbino ‘Carlo Bo’, Italy
Keywords: Misconceptions, Primary colors, Additive and subtractive color mixing, Teaching and learning process, Constructive theory of learning, Newton’s prism


In the field of science education, color can provide an interdisciplinary learning content, potentially suitable for overcoming disciplinary fragmentation and promoting in students a general attitude towards dealing with problems. However, because of its polysemic nature, it is very difficult to make students able to interpret, within the theoretical paradigm of modern science, a concept that they first learn to know through perceptual experience. As a pervasive phenomenon of our daily life, color vision gives rise, indeed, to a variety of naïve conceptions – similar to the pre-Newtonian ones – that act as a filter to the new learning contents. In this context we identified, through a historical-epistemological analysis, the ancient contrast between simple and compound colors as a source of potential misconceptions to be investigated empirically. We hypothesized we could detect some misconceptions due to the lack of awareness of the different contexts – physics, physiology of vision, painters’ practice – in which the distinction between primary and secondary colors can be introduced, assuming different meanings in each one. We also believed that these misconceptions were relatively independent of the subjects’ level of education (children/teachers). Then an empirical research was conducted by administering two different self-completed questionnaires to a non-probabilistic sampling of convenience made up of primary school teachers and fifth-grade pupils, respectively. The results of research on both teachers’ and children’s misconceptions seem to confirm what hypothesized.

Author Biographies

Berta Martini, Department of Humanistic Studies, University of Urbino ‘Carlo Bo’, Italy

Berta Martini - Full Professor at University of Urbino – Dept. of Humanistic Studies – where she teaches General Didactic and Pedagogy of Knowledge. She is co-director of the online scientific journal Pedagogia più didattica, and she is a member of the scientific boards of peer review journals and publishing series. Her main fields of research are the processes of transmission of knowledge and in curriculum studies.

Monica Tombolato, Department of Humanistic Studies, University of Urbino ‘Carlo Bo’, Italy

Monica Tombolato - PhD in Epistemology and in Education (University of Urbino). She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and a contract professor for the Pedagogy of Knowledge Lab and Physics Education Lab at University of Urbino – Department of Humanistic Studies. She is the author of essays and articles concerning the philosophy and pedagogy of knowledge.

Rossella D’Ugo, Department of Humanistic Studies, University of Urbino ‘Carlo Bo’, Italy

Rossella D’Ugo - Researcher in Experimental Pedagogy at University of Urbino – Dept. of Humanistic Studies – where she teaches Docimology and Experimental Pedagogy. Her research is mainly oriented to the study of evaluation and self-evaluation tools and methods to ensure the quality of educational contexts as well as of the teaching practices of educators and teachers.


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How to Cite
Martini, B., Tombolato, M. and D’Ugo, R. (2019) “Primary colors as a source of possible misconceptions: an insight into teaching and learning about color”, Cultura e Scienza del Colore - Color Culture and Science, 11(02), pp. 25-33. doi: 10.23738/CCSJ.110203.