among Students in Science
ERIC Identifier: ED482723
Publication Date: 2003-05-00
Author: Suping, Shanah M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
"Blue, clear, I mean clear, it's clear but when you look at the ocean it's blue. But water is
always clear." Thato
Thato, a 13 year old, responded with the words above when asked about the color of
water. Her response indicates that there are some ideas about water that she has not
yet reconciled. She is convinced that her ideas are correct and will do all she can to
defend them. Her constructed knowledge, not scientifically accepted, is called "naive
knowledge" or "prior conceptions." Vosniadou (2002) asserts that children begin the
knowledge acquisition process by organizing their sensory experiences under the
influence of everyday culture and language into narrow, but coherent, explanatory
frameworks that may not be the same as currently accepted science.
Students' constructed knowledge typically has two properties: it can be incorrect, and it
can often impede the learning of conventionally accepted knowledge (Chi & Roscoe,
2002). Chi and Roscoe differentiate two forms of naive knowledge: preconceptions that
can be easily and readily revised through instruction, and misconceptions that is robust
and highly resistant to change, even when not supported by observations.
Constructivism in its many forms has become a familiar view of learning among science
educators. From Piaget's work, assimilation has become identified with constructivism
and denotes the fitting of new experiences into existing mental schemes.
Accommodation, a related term, describes the changing of mental schemes that are
unable to explain one's new experiences (Geelan, 2000). Building on these fundamental
concepts, other theorists have articulated a theory that explains and describes the
"substantive dimensions of the process by which people's central, organizing concepts
change from one set of concepts to another set, incompatible with the first" (Posner,
Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982, p. 211), a "conceptual change" learning model. The
central commitment of the conceptual change learning model is that learning is a
rational activity that can be defined as coming to comprehend and accept ideas
because they are seen as intelligible and rational; the "ahaa" experience is of utmost
importance in learning.
Posner et al. used Thomas Kuhn's idea of paradigms and Irme Lakatos's notion of
theoretical hard core ideas to formulate their model of learning. Paradigms and
theoretical hard core ideas are characterized as the "background of central
commitments which organize research" (p. 212). For students, concoctions of
experiences-physical, mental, and cultural-and beliefs constitute highly personal
conceptual ecologies that increase in complexity with age.
WHAT EXACTLY IS CONCEPTUAL CHANGE?
Posner et al. (1982), provided no formal definition of conceptual change, but examples
of what it entails were given. A student's conceptual ecology is key to the conceptual
change model because "without such concepts it is impossible for the learner to ask a
question about the phenomenon, to know what would count as an answer to the
question, or to distinguish relevant from irrelevant features of the phenomenon" (p. 212).
In an attempt to clarify the concept of conceptual change, various theorists have offered
competing views of the central process.
How should science educators respond to these four competing views of conceptual
- To Vosniadou (2002), conceptual change is a process that enables students to
synthesize models in their minds, beginning with their existing explanatory frameworks.
This is conceived to be a gradual process that can result in a progression of mental
models. Mortimer (1995) argues for what he calls a conceptual profile change because
"it is possible to use different ways of thinking in different domains" and "the process of
construction of meaning does not always happen through an accommodation of
previous conceptual frameworks in the face of new events or objects, but may
sometimes happen independently of previous conceptions" (p. 268). Though their
arguments differ, the views of Mortimer and Vosniadou are related and acknowledge
the importance of prior knowledge to learning.
- Chi and Roscoe (2002) conceive of conceptual change as repair of misconceptions.
Starting with naive conceptions, students must identify their faulty conceptions and
repair them. In this view, misconceptions are miscategorizations of concepts, so
conceptual change is the reassignment of concepts to correct categories.
- Conceptual change to diSessa (2002) is the reorganization of diverse kinds of
knowledge into complex systems in students' minds. In this view, conceptual change is
really about cognitively organizing fragmented naive knowledge.
- Ivarsson, Schoultz, and Saljo (2002) take a more radical stance in that they think naive
conceptions do not serve a purpose in conceptual change because conceptual change
is the appropriation of intellectual tools. In this view, conceptual change results from
changes in the way that students use the tools in various contexts, and the change
actually occurs at the societal level.
Mayer (2002) advises that there is need to specify testable theories about the
mechanisms of conceptual change and find ways to test them empirically. Geeland
(2000) contends that these views of conceptual change treat learning as mere
accommodation. White (2002) points out that advocates of conceptual change have
narrowly focused on mathematics and science, but that a closer look at other subject
areas such as history indicate that conceptual change might be discipline, or even topic,
specific. While the diverging views of conceptual change illustrate the ongoing
interaction of epistemology and the psychology of learning, the challenges serve as
cautions to curriculum developers and teachers that open questions remain.
IMPLICATIONS FOR CLASSROOM PRACTICE
On a practical level, Posner et al. (1982) listed four conditions that foster
accommodation in student thinking:
Teachers who accept these four conditions as necessary for conceptual change to
occur are encouraged to take deliberate steps to create classroom interactions that
produce these conditions. Students organize their lives around views that they hold
about phenomena, so some conceptual changes that teachers consider desirable may
be highly resistant to change, and potentially threatening to students. To become more
effective in nurturing conceptual change, teachers should seek to understand students'
naive conceptions so they can be addressed directly by instruction. There is a large
volume of professional literature documenting specific student misconceptions,
particularly in the area of physics. Over 700 documents in the ERIC database report
research or practices relating to the combined ERIC Descriptors "misconceptions" and
- There must be dissatisfaction with existing conceptions
- A new conception must be intelligible
- A new conception must appear initially plausible
- A new concept should suggest the possibility of a fruitful research program.
Though there remains a range of views on the process of conceptual change, progress
has been made in identifying instructional methods that promote conceptual change
through critically examining and defending ideas. Wiser and Amin (2002) suggest the
use of computer models coupled with verbal interactions, with the teacher promoting the
scaffolding of ideas in accordance with Vygotsky's theory of learning. Niaz, Aguilera,
Maza, & Liendo (2002, p. 523) have also concluded that if students are given the
opportunity to argue and discuss their ideas, their "understanding can go beyond the
simple regurgitation of experimental detail." It was further suggested that teachers
include more attention to the history and philosophy of science during instruction.
Mikkila-Erdmann (2002) suggested the use of written questions and statements or text
that guide students to accepted conceptions.
These suggestions imply that teacher preparation courses and professional
development opportunities for experienced teachers should include attention to both the
theoretical background of conceptual change, and instructional methods that nurture
The conceptual change model is widely accepted among science educators. Though
there are competing views of how conceptual change occurs, there seems to be no
argument about whether conceptual change occurs; it is central to learning in science.
While theorists continue to debate the process of conceptual change, teachers can
nurture conceptual change by creating the conditions that promote conceptual change.
This task can be guided by attending to the quickly growing professional literature that
documents the various misconceptions common among students.
This digest was funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S.
Department of Education, under contract no. ED-99-CO 0024. Opinions expressed in
this digest do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the U.S.
Department of Education. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
RESOURCES ON THE WEB
SciEd Resource Assistant (ERIC)
Teaching for Conceptual Change: Confronting Children's Thinking
Phi Delta Kappan
Teaching for Conceptual Change
Enhancing Learning Through Conceptual Change Teaching
National Association for Research in Science Teaching
Chi, M. T. H., & Roscoe, R. D. (2002). The process and challenges of conceptual
change. In M. Limon & L. Mason (Eds.), "Reconsidering conceptual change: Issues in theory and practice" (pp. 3-27). Dordrecht: Kluwer.
DiSessa, A. A. (2002). Why conceptual ecology is a good idea. In M. Limon & L. Mason
(Eds.), "Reconsidering conceptual change: Issues in theory and practice" (pp. 29-60).
Geelan, D. R. (2000). Sketching some postmodern alternatives: Beyond paradigms and
research programs as referents for science education. "Electronic Journal of Science
Education," 5 (2). Retrieved November 9, 2001 from
Ivarsson, J., Schoultz, J., & Saljo, R. (2002). Map reading versus mind reading:
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101-111). Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Mikkila-Erdmann, M. (2002). Science learning through text: The effect of text design and
text comprehension skills on conceptual change. In M. Limon & L. Mason (Eds.),
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Mortimer, E. F. (1995). Conceptual change or conceptual profile change? "Science and
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Niaz, M., Aguilera, D., Maza, A., & Liendo, G. (2002). Arguments, contradictions,
resistances, and conceptual change in students' understanding of atomic structure.
"Science Education," 86, 505-525.
Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of
a scientific conception: Towards a theory of conceptual change. "Science Education,"
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Vosniadou, S. (2002). On the nature of naive physics. In M. Limon & L. Mason (Eds.),
"Reconsidering conceptual change: Issues in theory and practice" (pp. 61-76).
White, R. (2002). Content and conceptual change: A commentary. In M. Limon & L.
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theory and practice" (pp. 357-387). Dordrecht: Kluwer.
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