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Keywords:

  • Conceptual change;
  • Coherence;
  • Naïve physics

Abstract

This article aims to contribute to the literature on conceptual change by engaging in direct theoretical and empirical comparison of contrasting views. We take up the question of whether naïve physical ideas are coherent or fragmented, building specifically on recent work supporting claims of coherence with respect to the concept of force by Ioannides and Vosniadou [Ioannides, C., & Vosniadou, C. (2002). The changing meanings of force. Cognitive Science Quarterly 2, 5–61]. We first engage in a theoretical inquiry on the nature of coherence and fragmentation, concluding that these terms are not well-defined, and proposing a set of issues that may be better specified. The issues have to do with contextuality, which concerns the range of contexts in which a concept (meaning, model, theory) applies, and relational structure, which is how elements of a concept (meaning, model, or theory) relate to one another. We further propose an enhanced theoretical and empirical accountability for what and how much one needs to say in order to have specified a concept. Vague specification of the meaning of a concept can lead to many kinds of difficulties.

Empirically, we conducted two studies. A study patterned closely on Ioannides and Vosniadou's work (which we call a quasi-replication) failed to confirm their operationalizations of “coherent.” An extension study, based on a more encompassing specification of the concept of force, showed three kinds of results: (1) Subjects attend to more features than mentioned by Ioannides and Vosniadou, and they changed answers systematically based on these features; (2)We found substantial differences in the way subjects thought about the new contexts we asked about, which undermined claims for homogeneity within even the category of subjects (having one particular meaning associated with “force”) that best survived our quasi-replication; (3) We found much reasoning of subjects about forces that cannot be accounted for by the meanings specified by Ioannides and Vosniadou. All in all, we argue that, with a greater attention to contextuality and with an appropriately broad specification of the meaning of a concept like force, Ioannides and Vosniadou's claims to have demonstrated coherence seem strongly undermined. Students' ideas are not random and chaotic; but neither are they simply described and strongly systematic.