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Conceptual Change

March 21, 2010

Students enter instruction with tightly held misconceptions.  If we ignore students’ prior ideas we make dangerous assumptions about how students learn.  Instead, we must first encourage students to be dissatisfied with their current ideas.  Only once students see the flaw in their current thinking will they be willing to deeply entertain new ideas (rather than simply memorizing what teachers want to hear).

Once students are dissatisfied with their naive ideas, the new ideas must be or appear to be: 1) understandable/intelligible, 2) possible/plausible, and 3) fruitful/useful.  If students cannot understand the new idea, they will not be able to accept the idea faithfully.  If students do not find the new conception to be possible, they will not even entertain the idea.  If the idea does not address the issues their original idea could not, they will likely not find the idea to be of value.

An example might be with moon phases.  Many students believe clouds cause moon phases.  To create dissatisfaction we might have students observe a crescent moon on a clear night.  Then to help students understand the new idea, we might have them model the accurate motion using a light bulb and a ball of some sort.  Then to demonstrate plausibility and utility students could be asked to demonstrate each of the moon phases using the new model.  Of course, what this looks like in the classroom would be much more involved.

Reference: Posner, G.J.; Strike, K.A.; Hewson, P.W. & Gertzog, W.A. (1982).  Accommodation of a Scientific Conception: Toward a Theory of Conceptual Change, Science Education 66(2), 211-227.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 5:29 pm

    While I am a huge supporter of addressing student’s alternative conceptions, I would like to hazard a warning in how we approach this. Trying to correct ‘naive ideas’ and ‘mis’-conceptions may alienate our students. I prefer to focus on them as alternative conceptions and ideas formed from observation. Many of their ideas were the ideas held by respected scientists and philosophers at some point in time.

    However, the importance of updating students’ conceptions is vital. Research indicates that students can not hold more than one idea relating to a topic in their head. If an alternative conception is presented without adequately addressing the prior conception, the prior conception is held as true in ‘the real world’ and the new conception is utilized in ‘academia’.

    I would recommend the book Five Easy Lessons: Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching
    by Randall D. Knight. Although his focus is physics, I think his ideas could easily be applied to other sciences and other disciplines entirely.

    • March 23, 2010 8:17 am

      Thanks Matthew! I agree, the language we use with students is important. I often tell students that I love teaching because I am so impressed with the ideas they are able to come up with to explain nature. Then, I also note that my goal is to help them understand the ideas currently accepted by scientists.

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