- Top of page
- DESIGN OF THE STUDY
- CONCLUDING DISCUSSION
Conceptual change is often described as a causal process in which changes in an embraced system of beliefs result in a new system of beliefs. Here, it is argued that conceptual change is better understood as an intentional activity with regard to the learner, that is, what the learner is doing when trying to understand something. Children were interviewed every year during a period of 3 years from their ages of 4–6 years of age. In the study, there were 37 children participating, of which 29 were followed during all 3 years. They were asked to tell about their beliefs about the earth, and their developing understanding is described. The results show that in the conceptual changes the children's main concern was to restructure the often vast amount of knowledge they possessed. This reconstruction is described as a simultaneous reconstruction of conceptual contexts as well as contexts for their application. This also directs the focus of conceptual change from specific conceptions to structural changes. © 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed94:640–664, 2010
- Top of page
- DESIGN OF THE STUDY
- CONCLUDING DISCUSSION
Conceptual change is often described as some sort of causal process in which changes in, or manipulations of, an embraced system of beliefs result in a new system of beliefs. Here, we will argue that the process of conceptual change is better understood as an intentional activity on the part of the learner. This means that the learner is trying to understand something (Marton & Säljö, 1976a, 1976b), and by understanding what the learner is trying to do, we can get at a better grasp of the process of, and what constitutes, conceptual change.
Since the late 1970s, research on learning has had a growing focus on questions about conceptual change (White & Gunstone, 2008). By conceptual change is meant the substantial revision of beliefs that sometimes is required from a learner to understand a scientific explanation, concept, or theory—for example, changing from a commonsense understanding of movement and force into an understanding within the realm of Newtonian dynamics. Carey (1985) characterized conceptual change, or strong restructuring, as changes in the understanding of the domain of phenomena to be accounted for by a theory, changes of explanatory pattern, and changes in individual concepts (p. 187).
One common model for describing conceptual change is as a replacement of one conception, A, with another conception, B (e.g., Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982). In this linear model of conceptual change, conception B is defined as a conception accepted in our culture or in science. Conception A is viewed as a more primitive conception that, during the process of change, will be replaced by the more potent conception B. Obstacles that might prevent this process from occurring have been described in different ways in the research. For example, Chi (2008) distinguished between three different types of conceptual change. The most difficult change is when the change requires a categorical shift in beliefs. A categorical shift is described as a change between ontological categories (Chi, Slotta, & de Leeuw, 1994). The learner makes categorical mistakes between different ontological trees or between different lateral branches. For example, the learner can misconceive the concept of heat as a kind of entity, whereas scientists view heat as a process, an ontological category distinct from entities.
Conceptions have been described as embedded within larger frameworks (Vosniadou, 1994). For example, initial conceptions coming from experiences in the physical world have been described as a naïve framework theory of physics that constrains the process of conceptual change. A naïve framework consists of certain ontological and epistemological presuppositions and specific theories. Conceptions are embedded within these specific theories. “The process of conceptual change appears to be slow and to proceed through the gradual suspension and revision of the presuppositions of the framework theory and their replacement with a different explanatory framework” (p. 56).
So far we have talked about beliefs as hindrances for conceptual change to occur; there are characteristics in the embraced conceptual framework that hinder a change to the target conception, that is, the concept addressed in instruction. Quite another way of looking at the difficulties inherent in understanding a topic in a radical new way is to identify what is lacking, as opposed to what obstructs. Recently, it has been proposed that there are specific concepts that “open up” a space for new understanding—the so-called threshold concepts. Thus, there are concepts that have the effect of organizing knowledge and permitting interpretations in the new way intended in instruction, once they are understood by the learner (Meyer, Land, & Davies, 2008). Such concepts are related to different disciplinary knowledge areas, as for example, opportunity cost in economics or limit in mathematics. Here, there are not beliefs in the embraced conceptual framework that constitute the obstacles, but rather, a missing piece.
However, a similarity in the different approaches is the focus on specific concepts, on their ontological status, presuppositions that make the new concept untenable, or a missing piece in the desired new conceptual structure, respectively. Also, these approaches conform to a linear process of conceptual change in that by changing one or a few beliefs embraced by the learner, a process of conceptual change is supposed to be brought about. Furthermore, a common trait is that conceptions are looked upon as embedded in more all-embracing conceptual structures. However, it is not this embeddedness that is dealt with as a question as such, but rather specific conceptions within this web of conceptions. Here, we will argue that there are no specific conceptions that are of primary importance for a conceptual change to occur, but rather that attention should be given to the contexts in which conceptions are embedded.
On the Concept of Context
In their introduction to Rethinking Context, Goodwin and Duranti (1992) established that, at that time, the term context meant quite different things and was defined by use rather than by formal definition. This probably has not changed much. However, they also recognized that this is “not a situation that necessarily requires a remedy” (p. 2). Nevertheless, without giving a formal definition of context, they discuss the meaning of the concept. In discussing the use of language, they say that context involves “a fundamental juxtaposition of two entities: (1) a focal event; and (2) a field of action within which that event is embedded” (p. 3). They then discuss different dimensions of context. They introduce setting, behavioral environment, and language as different contexts, as well as the extrasituational context. Their focus was on language as an interactive phenomenon. Here, we will only be dealing with language when it comes to the method for the investigation presented, that is, interviewing, and the interpretation of interview data. The focus of the study, however, is on conceptual development and thus we also have to talk about context with regard to this. This means that we also have to delineate dimensions other than those pointed out by Goodwin and Duranti.
In an interview, one dimension is the actual situation as context. This involves the four dimensions identified by Goodwin and Duranti, but also other dimensions related to language and culture. This dimension relates to the interview as an event “inextricably and unavoidably historically, politically, and contextually bound” (Fontana & Frey, 2005, p. 695), and is best described as a “negotiated text” (p. 716), that is, “active interactions between two (or more) people leading to negotiated, contextually based results” (p. 698). However, if an interview is looked upon as a negotiation, the negotiators bring something into the negotiation. With regard to an interviewee, we also claim that that person brings in utterances stemming from a conceptual understanding of what is being talked about. Thus, there is the idiosyncratic or semantic meaning of what that person utters. It is then a question of method of analysis making it possible to elicit the nature of these meanings or this understanding.
Thus, there are also other dimensions of contexts related to what is talked about in an interview. If natural phenomena are talked about in an interview, as in the study presented here, there is the context of the scientific framing of these phenomena. Thus, there is the scientific or culturally established meaning of a phenomenon. Concepts in science gain their meaning from the theoretical context of which they form a part and out of which they simultaneously classify what counts as empirical data in our experiences of the outside world (Wistedt, 1994a, 1994b). The structure of such a context has been pointed out by Tiberghien (1994), who discussed the level of theory, model, and experimental field of reference, respectively. Caravita and Halldén (1994) differentiated between a theoretical context, theoretical concepts, and an empirical context. In understanding a scientific concept, there is a question of coherence between these different levels. Also, they argued that there is a similar three-level organization in commonsense knowledge just as there is in scientific knowledge, that is, a level of worldview and ideology, a level of conceptions and norms for action, and, finally, a level of practical context constituted by perceptions, experiences, and acting. At the core in conceptual change, then, is to relate the context of commonsense conceptions to the concepts in scientific theories. This actualizes a fourth dimension of context of relevance for our study: the question of applicability.
Questions asked in common sense are often different from questions asked in science (Halldén, 1993; Österlind, 2005). When scientists look for causal explanations as, for example, in regard to the Darwinian theory of evolution, the layperson is often confined within teleological explanations (cf. Halldén, 1988); when the historian looks for structural explanations, the layperson is confined within explanations referring to individuals (Halldén, 1998); when the statistician is most interested in the stochastic results, the layperson is interested in heuristics (Halldén, 1999; Scheja, 2006), etc. Thus, we also have the context of the applicability of a specific conceptualization (cf. Halldén, Scheja, & Haglund, 2008; Taber, 2000). This is also implied in Carey's description above, as well as in the models by Tiberghien (1994) and Caravita and Halldén (1994). Commonsense frameworks are developed by the individual's project to manage her or his practical world in a pragmatic or ethical way (Driver & Easley, 1978). Contrary to this, scientific frameworks are developed, first and foremost, with the purpose of understanding and explaining the world, and then, if productive, of making it possible to manipulate the world in desirable ways based upon sound knowledge. Also, these two different kinds of descriptive and explanatory fields have to be related to each other to make way for conceptual change; thus, there are also contexts of descriptions and explanation.
To this can be added a historical context—all of the dimensions of context that have been discussed here are also in flux. This means that they all have a history, that is, they have a diachronic dimension in that they have a past, a present, and a future (Mercer, 2008). The different dimensions of context relevant to this study are summarized in Figure 1.
The distinction between a conceptual context and a conceptional one in Figure 1 is intended primarily to follow the distinction between scientific frameworks and alternative frameworks, in the manner pointed out by Driver and Easley (1978). Since then, this has been the traditional way of talking about conceptual change, as a transition from commonsense knowledge to scientific knowledge of a concept within the “alternative framework movement” (Gilbert & Watts, 1983; cf. Vosniadou, Vamvakoussi, & Skopeliti, 2008). This introduces the question of the possibility and fruitfulness of making a distinction between concept and conception.
The Concept of Conception
In this study, we will dwell on the emergence of the conception of earth. In relation to this, a word is needed about the concept of concept. For example, diSessa and Sherin (1998) argued that the concept of concept is too vague to work as a scientific formulation in explaining conceptual change; it does not identify which mental entities are included and which are excluded. Following Entwistle (2007), we want to make a distinction between concept, which “is most frequently used to describe a grouping of objects or behaviours with the same defining features that has become recognised through research or widespread usage” (p. 2), and conception, which “indicates individuals' different ways of thinking about a particular grouping” (p. 2; cf. White & Gunstone, 2008). Gilbert and Watts (1983) proposed a similar conceptualization by suggesting “that ‘conception’ be used to focus on the personalized theorizing and hypothesizing of individuals” (p. 69). This is not to make a distinction between different research paradigms, such as the sociocultural and constructivist paradigms for research. Rather, it is a distinction within a constructivist approach, making it possible to talk about “all the knowledge that a person has, and associates with, the concept's name” (White, 1994, p. 118) on the one hand, and the culturally accepted meaning of this concept on the other.
What we are studying in conceptual research, then, is conceptions and the change of conceptions. This means that when we are studying the learning of a scientific concept, we are still studying conceptions. Usually, we are studying the learner's conception of the same entity, or similar entities, as the scientific concept denotes. We will not go on further to discuss the problems with “the same” or “similar” entities. This would take us too far into philosophy. The claim we want to make, however, is that, in accepting this distinction, we always make comparisons between conceptions and concepts when evaluating a learner's knowledge. Thus, we decide on what in a conception is adequate and relevant in accounting for an understanding of what is understood by the concept.
A reasonable question, then, is how to find the concept. If, by asking people, we always find conceptions and, as a matter of course, the researcher also has a conception of the concept, where can the concept be found that should be the norm for the evaluation? Again, we have to constrain the discussion here in order not to get caught up in philosophy. We restrict ourselves to the claim that the meaning of a concept is what is to be found in scientific textbooks, in scientific debates, or in a thesaurus of a language, thus, in authoritative texts regarding the concept in question. However, by making the distinction between conception and concept, we depart from the often-implicit idea that the learner either understands or does not understand a concept. The understanding of a concept is always an individual understanding, that is, a conception, and the quality of this understanding is decided upon by the extent to which the individual can communicate with experts in the field. Saying this implies that it appears inappropriate to talk about the understanding of a concept; an appropriate use of language should be “to understand the same that is understood by a concept.” However, for the sake of simplicity, we will in the following still use the expression of understanding a concept.
This does not meet the critique raised by diSessa and Sherin (1998). We have almost exchanged the concept they are criticizing with another word, and thus gained little or no more precision. However, making the distinction above relieves the burden of the definition of conception; what counts as a conception is decided upon in the analysis and based on what seems to be of relevance for the learner or for an interviewee. The conception so described, then, can be compared to what is adequate and of relevance for the scientific concept or the culturally accepted view. In this way, we have tried to capture which meanings children give to the word earth, from the age of 4 through 6. The word earth has meaning for such young children, and it is reasonable to assume that it is out of these meanings that a conception is formed.
Children's Understanding of the Shape of the Earth
There is now a rather long tradition of studies on children's conceptions of cosmologies, and especially of the shape of the earth. A series of studies have shown that children have difficulties in understanding that the earth is a huge sphere, surrounded by space (see, e.g., Mali & Hove, 1979; Nussbaum, 1979; Nussbaum & Novak, 1976; Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992; for a review, see Brewer, 2008). These studies describe the development from naïve conceptions of the earth into the conception accepted in culture, thus conforming to the scheme A B.
Sometimes, intermediate conceptions are described that are formed during the transition from A to B. For example, Nussbaum and Novak (1976) discovered five alternative notions, of which the first notion indicated the earth as being flat and the fifth notion was the culturally accepted view of a spherical earth. One conception of the first notion was described as a flat earth on which we live and a spherical earth representing some other planet in the sky. This was discussed as a failure to comprehend the correct meaning of the information presented. Furthermore, the notions intermediate between one and five were described by what was lacking in the children's ideas, for example, ideas of gravity and unlimited space.
In a frequently cited study, Vosniadou and Brewer (1992) found different mental models of the earth in children between the ages of 7 and 12. Their scheme of different models produced by the children during interviews can be regarded as a classic. The authors described an evolving complexity, from an initial conception of the earth as a flat rectangle or a flat disk into synthetic models. Three synthetic models of the earth were described: the dual earth model (two earths, a flat one on which we live and a spherical one, which is a planet up in the sky), the hollow sphere model (a sphere within which we live on flat ground deep inside), and the flattened sphere model. These synthetic models function as intermediate steps in the change from the initial model of the earth as flat to the normative model.
Vosniadou and Brewer (1992) have argued that children's alternative mental models are constrained by presuppositions within a naïve framework theory of physics as, for example, the presupposition that unsupported things fall in a downward direction. The children's cognitive process is described as a gradual revision of presuppositions. For example, the children with a hollow sphere model of the earth “operate under the constraints of the up/ down gravity presupposition when they consider the physical objects located on the earth” (Vosniadou, 1994, pp. 55–56).
The change from a conception of the earth as flat into the accepted conception of the earth as a sphere surrounded by space has been proposed as a radical conceptual change, requiring a categorical shift (Vosniadou & Skopeliti, 2005; Vosniadou et al., 2008; cf. Chi, 2008). According to this view, children place the earth in the ontological category of “physical object,” rather than in the category of “astronomical object.” For conceptual change to occur, the children have to recategorize the earth from one category to the other.
In a few small-scale studies of children's conceptions of the earth, the question of conceptual change as a problem of contextualizing became apparent (Halldén et al., 2002; cf. also Halldén, 1999). From these studies, it was concluded that contextualization and coherence within different explanatory frameworks seem to be of utmost importance for understanding the process of conceptual change. Out of these findings, a longitudinal study was conducted to further explore contextualization as a crucial factor in conceptual change. The study reported here is about children's understanding of the earth, and how their understanding continuously grows out of rather vague ideas about the earth into increasingly more complex views.
- Top of page
- DESIGN OF THE STUDY
- CONCLUDING DISCUSSION
This study is about conceptual change, that is, a radical or strong restructuring of conceptions held by an individual, as was pointed out in the Introduction. A reasonable question, then, is what should qualify as being a conception. It can be argued that when the youngest children in our study stated that the earth is something up in the sky, this should not be regarded as a conception; such an idea is too vague and fragmented. On the other hand, the idea of a hollow sphere intuitively qualifies for being regarded as a conception. That is because the idea is complex in that it puts several characteristics of the earth in relation to each other into some sort of coherent whole. Thus, it is more than an ostensive designation. Also, it makes it possible for the children to explain that we live on an apparently flat ground that at the same time is spherical in shape. Thus, the hollow sphere does not only qualify as a conception but perhaps also as a rudimentary theory or model. Here, we have decided to call it a model.
Finding a clear demarcation between knowing the name of something on the one hand, and complex of interrelated ideas on the other to define the meaning of conception does not seem to be a very fruitful enterprise; this, at least as long as we are interested in learning and conceptual change. The learner always enters the learning setting with some ideas about the learning target, or ideas that can be related to the learning target. If not, communication within the instructional setting is made impossible. Whether these more or less vague ideas should be regarded as conceptions or not did not seem to influence our understanding of the learning process. Thus, we have talked about conceptions regardless of whether they indicate the name of an object up in the sky or knowing that we live within a hollow sphere situated in space. Furthermore, ostensive designations are made within a frame of reference that allows for specific propositions but not for others; in our study, for example, that we live on earth (cf. Halldén, 1990, and the metalevel in conceptual structures).
Looking at conception in this way has made it possible to describe a general pattern for conceptual change. It seems reasonable to conclude that children begin with two distinct and different conceptions of the earth. In the model presented in Figure 6, this is indicated by A and B, respectively, meaning one conception of the earth as a cosmic body up in space without human beings, and another conception of the nearby environment or the ground where we live. The cosmic body earth up in space and the ground where we live had no common features in the children's descriptions, and they never used the same word for the two places. However, these two models can be regarded as coherent descriptions within different contexts, that is, the context of living and an astronomical context, respectively.
Several children in our study managed to integrate the two earlier distinct conceptions of the earth into one single conception, the AB in our model (Figure 6). Several of these children constructed a model of the earth as a hollow sphere inside of which we live. Out of the hollow sphere, the children were able to give explanations of the nearby flat ground with the sky above us, and explanations of the spherical planet surrounded by space in one and the same model. This also makes a coherent model in that it embraces the astronomical context as well as the flat ground. Hence, the hollow sphere can be looked upon as a compounded model. In short, the hollow sphere model solves a lot of the problems that stand out for the children in everyday life and, inter alia, allows them to make sense of a lot of the “scientific” information presented at school and in other settings (an elaborated discussion of problem solving as a key factor in conceptual change is to be found in Larsson et al., in preparation). Thus, the hollow sphere model makes it possible for the children to remain within the context of a commonsense framework of conceptions. Nevertheless, with the help of this model they also managed to incorporate a substantial amount of information belonging to a normative view of the earth.
By way of a differentiation within the compounded conception or model, it then became possible for some children to express the normative conception of the earth as a sphere surrounded by space with people living all around the surface of the earth. These children distinguished the astronomical context from the context of the nearby ground in a new way and also found innovative ways to relate both contexts to each other, as indicated by the lowercased letters in our model (Figure 6). They expressed a differentiated, culturally accepted conception of the earth, using different models depending on context.
Thus, during the years in which we followed the children in this study, two conceptual changes were occurring. These two observed conceptual changes are best described as radical reconstructions of already embraced ideas. The first conceptual change was the integration of two different conceptions into one. For the children, bringing these conceptions together involved taking into account a lot of information that they already possessed as, for example, questions of up and down directions, oxygen at hand, weightlessness in space, and so on. However, it seems not to have been misconceptions about these single beliefs per se that caused them to construct a hollow sphere model rather than the normative one. In fact, there were children who did adhere to the normative meaning of these ideas as, for example, a relational view of up and down gravity directions, yet still got stuck at the idea of a hollow sphere. Thus, it does not appear that any single, specific belief, or lack of such belief, was preventing conceptual change from occurring.
The second conceptual change was about differentiation. In order to conform to the normative model, or models, of the earth, two different contexts for the same object, that is, the earth, were created. One set of models is related to the terrestrial context and the other set is related to the astronomical context. The children's idea of one all-embracing model for different aspects of the earth was now differentiated into different models for different aspects, but also these different models were set in relationship to each other. This is a radical reconstruction of their already embraced information. This means that the reconstruction of already embraced ideas is of decisive importance for conceptual change to occur, rather than it being an abundance of already embraced ideas or the acquisition of certain beliefs that is lacking. The reconstruction is made within conceptual contexts as well as between different contexts, that is, conceptual contexts on the one hand and contexts for description and explanation on the other.
Looking at the children's developing conceptions of the earth, it seems fruitful to look upon this development as a process of how to relate different objects to one another, how to distinguish between them, and how to find adequate contexts to which they relate. Rather than regarding the process of conceptual change as a categorical shift from a naïve conception of the earth as a “physical object” to a conception of the earth as a “solar object” (Vosniadou & Skopeliti, 2005; cf. Chi, 2008, Chi et al., 1994), it can be looked upon as a search for adequate conceptions adapted to relevant contexts. Neither do there seem to be specific presuppositions (Vosniadou, 1994) that create obstacles, nor is the organization of particular p-prims (diSessa, 1988; diSessa & Sherin, 1998) at stake. Rather, the conceptual change was in bringing single beliefs into relationship to each other and thus bringing them together into a coherent conceptual structure, or forming an all embracing conceptual context. Thus, we argue that conceptual change is about the reorganization of the sum total of beliefs rather than a process primarily involving specific presuppositions or p-prims. This is not to deny the existence of presuppositions or p-prims just to question there function for conceptual change.
In sum, so far our results indicate that at the core of conceptual change is the reorganization of already acquired knowledge, rather than changing certain beliefs or acquiring specific new information. New information can often be assimilated into already established conceptual structures (for another example in the understanding of the Darwinian theory of evolution, see Pedersen & Halldén, 1994), and a revision of these structures does not necessarily result in the desired conceptual structure. Thus, it looks like we should be much more engaged in the reorganization processes of the conceptual structures than in the learner's understanding of specific concepts (cf. Scheja & Bonnevier, in press). In our studies of these reorganization processes, a great deal of emphasis must be placed on the contextuality of the learner's knowledge, or, as diSessa phrased it, “a smaller grain size and a greater number of elements means that contextuality—exactly when elements are used and how such context/knowledge links change in learning—becomes much more important theoretically and empirically” (diSessa, 2008, p. 55, emphasis in original; cf. also Halldén, 1999).
As has already been pointed out, there is also a context within which descriptions and explanations occur. When we state that scientific concepts are more powerful than are commonsense conceptions, we are referring to their greater inner consistency and their greater explanatory power. But this explanatory power only holds for the specific context for the explanations, as is delineated within the discipline. If the learner does not delineate the context of the explanation, as the scientist does, then the learner has no possibility of appreciating the increased explanatory power of the scientific concept (Halldén, 1993; cf. Österlind, 2005). Learners discover interpretations of new information and concepts presented in instruction, for example, which are applicable to the contexts for description and explanation that seem relevant for themselves (e.g., the hollow sphere as a functional context for the location of houses). In doing so, reinterpretations of the contexts for description and explanation are also actualized. Thus, for the learner, there are two contexts that have to be negotiated: one with regard to the conceptual structure, that is, coherence, and another with regard to the explanatory field. There are thus not only conceptual contexts but also contexts at an empirical or experiential level that have to be negotiated. It can be noted that these processes come quite close to Piaget's description of development as an assimilation of features in the world, that is, interpretations of new experiences, reinterpretations of earlier ones, and accommodation, that is, restructuring of conceptual schemes (Piaget, 1935/1970). So far, we are inclined to pretend that the pattern for conceptual change presented here is a general pattern. However, which specific beliefs that will be reorganized is dependent on the subject area under consideration and must be investigated by small grain size empirical studies.
The implication for teaching, then, seems to be to encourage our students to continuously meditate upon and attempt to reorganize the beliefs that they already rely on. Furthermore, in doing this also encourage them in doing their own reflections by our stimulating the formulation of different ways of looking at and describing reality. The presentation of more information, or the effort to eradicate inadequate beliefs, then, does not present itself as being among our main concerns in trying to bring about conceptual change. Conceptual change does not appear as a totally rational process relying first and foremost on causal chains. Conceptual change seems to be a process of tentative reorganizations within different conceptual structures and within different explanatory contexts and, when these tentative reorganizations within different contexts take the form of a new gestalt, a conceptual change is in the process of occurring.