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Misconceptions reconceived

September 7, 2012

Misconceptions reconceived: A constructivist analysis of knowledge in transition, J. P. Smith III, A. A. diSessa, J. Roschelle, J. of Learning Sciences 3(2) 115 (1993).

This paper outlines the ‘knowledge in pieces’ theoretical framework and contrasts this with the misconceptions theoretical framework. In order to achieve this goal, the authors spend consider space discussing both misconceptions and knowledge in pieces.

Misconceptions Framework

The authors identify the following general characteristics of learning associated with the misconceptions framework:

  • Students posses misconceptions that differ from experts’ conceptions. Each misconception represents a complete ‘idea’ (ex. motion implies force) and produces a systematic pattern of errors in student responses.
  • Misconceptions originate in prior learning (in and out of school).
  • Misconceptions can be strongly held and resistant to change. Instruction can present the ‘correct conception’ which can co-exist and compete with the misconception.
    • Can/Will students articulate misconceptions? I think p-prims are thought to be too low level to be articulated by students. Page 9 talks about getting students to articulate their unconscious misconceptions.
  • Misconceptions interfere with learning and the goal of instruction is to replace misconceptions with correct conceptions. It is assumed that removing a misconception has no negative consequences because misconceptions do not play a productive role in learning.
  • Instruction should confront misconceptions and draw students’ attention to differences between their misconceptions and expert conceptions and/or experimental results.
    • p. 9 “Confrontation begins as an external interaction in the classroom, but for confrontation to succeed, the competition between misconceptions and expert concepts must be internalized by students.” — this idea of learning starting externally and moving internal is very interesting to me. I’m intrigued by the social side of learning and the idea of cognition shifting between internal and external, individual and group.
  • Research should identify and catalog common misconceptions.


Conflicts with Constructivism

Constructivism is the idea that all learning involves building new ideas up from pre-existing ideas. Having outlined what they see as the essence of the misconceptions framework, the authors then identify a number of conflicts between misconceptions and constructivism.

  • Any constructivist theory of learning must identify useful resources for future learning. Misconceptions focuses on conceptions that are seen as purely unproductive.
    • p. 11 defines ‘resources’ as any features of a learner’s present cognitive state that can serve as a significant input to the process of conceptual growth. In this definition a ‘resource’ could be learned idea that exists at a higher level than a p-prim. A resource could also be attitudinal or epistemological. It could be a transient resource that is only available ‘presently’. This definition does suggest that a resource must be internal and possessed by an individual.
    • p. 12 talks about the relationship between ‘conceptions’ and ‘cognitive structures that embed them’. What is a cognitive structure? See the references in this section.
  • Misconceptions views learning as replacing prior knowledge where constructivism views learning as adapting prior knowledge.
  • Confronting misconceptions to compel replacement requires criteria for judging conceptions. These criteria must be constructed by the learner. Deciding how to judge different conceptions is part of conceptual development (see references).
    • How are these criteria developed in the resources framework? Is this an epistemological thing? (See note in next section)

The authors describe an activity of having non-science students reason about how a bicycle stays upright. Through this example they argue that intuitive physics knowledge can be as abstract as expert physics knowledge. In particular, they argue that novices’ thinking about how situations are causally related could appropriately be considered abstract. This potential relationship between thinking about causality and thinking abstractly is interesting to me.

The authors claim that prior knowledge plays three essential roles in the development of expertise:

  • Providing ‘raw material’ for building new theories
    • Theories often begin with intuitions that are refined and made more specific as they are crafted into scientific theories.
  • Supporting qualitative reasoning
    • An example from an expert-novice study is used to illustrate how experts and novices both transform new and complicated problems into familiar, intuitive problems. The authors argue that the intuitive problem and qualitative reasoning about the intuitive problem (balancing schema) is the same for both experts and novices. The difference lies in the method and rigor with which the expert and novice transform the problem into the intuitive problem.
  • Mapping everyday situations onto theoretical representations
    • Prior knowledge and everyday intuitions play important roles in problem formulation in which a physical scenario is mapped onto a theoretical model. Various intuitive ideas about gripping, springing, sliding, etc. are used to construct models of different objects interacting with rubber bands in different scenarios.


Knowledge in Pieces (KIP)

  • KIP assumes that knowledge is built from cognitive elements that are smaller and more numerous than the elements in the misconceptions framework. Misconceptions sees ‘force follows motion’ as a single cognitive element with no smaller scale structure. KIP sees ‘force follows motion’ as being built up (in the moment) from a network of simpler, more basic elements (in physics, diSessa calls these basic cognitive elements p-prims).
  • Studies showing students switching between correct and incorrect solution strategies within a single problem are interpreted as evidence in favor of a network of basic elements rather than unitary conceptions. Also various references on p. 32.
  • These basic elements are neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’. They are more accurately described as productive in some contexts and unproductive in others. Learning is seen as refining our cuing so that an expanding variety of contexts cue productive networks of cognitive elements.
  • Theories of learning based on KIP must describe how expertise is built or acquired from the resources initially available to the learner. They must also map out the gradual transformation of that knowledge into more advanced knowledge.
  • Networks of basic elements must be judged and evaluated for productivity in the same sense that confronting misconceptions requires judgement. Internal, social, and physical feedback about efforts to act, control, and understand the world must be evaluated and used to judge the productivity of networks.
    • Interesting that they say internal, social, and physical **feedback**. The criteria for judgement comes internally from the learner. The various sources of feedback influence the criteria the learner uses to judge her knowledge networks.
  • What people think of as misconceptions should be thought of as networks of cognitive elements that are consistently cued together. Misconceptions that are particularly stable and prevalent in students likely correspond to networks that are productive in many other contexts and thus those resources are strongly coupled in the learner’s mind.
  • Studies of knowledge (ex. expert-novice comparisons) need to focus at the systems level. Knowledge resides in the system or network on cognitive elements not in the individual elements themselves. The cognitive elements in the system could take a variety of forms including justifications, strategies, control mechanisms, aesthetics.
  • In research, a variety of tasks, each appearing to deal with the same concept, will be needed in order to identify the range of relevant prior knowledge. The details and context of each task might cue different resources in the learner even if each task is considered equivalent by experts.
  • In instruction, the idea of confrontation should be replaced with refinement. Rather than contrasting students’ current views with experts’ view, instructors should help students reflect on their background knowledge and assumption that go into forming their current views. Once these ‘input resources’ are identified, instructors can help students identify more and less productive contexts for those resources.
    • This sounds much more metacognitive than many common approaches to learning.


In journal club we talked some about whether KIP is a theory or a philosophy. I’m still working to understand what makes something a theoretical framework and what role that framework plays in your research and your teaching. It would probably be a good exercise for us to think about what it would mean for something to be a philosophy vs. an explanatory theory vs. a predictive theory. Along these lines, it’s probably good for us to ask ourselves what would we consider as evidence in favor or against different theoretical frameworks.

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