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The case for dynamic ontologies

September 14, 2012

The Case for dynamic models of learners’ ontologies in physics, A. Gupta, D. Hammer, and E. F. Redish, J. Learn. Sci. 19, 285 (2010).

Ontological categories refer to the basic categories of existence, what kind of ‘things’ are there? Chi and Slotta have written several papers looking at the ontological categories that students apply to different concepts in physics. For example, do novice students think of electric current as a being member of the MATTER or PROCESS category? Which ontological category an entity belongs to can influence what attributes you assign to that entity (matter can take up space but a process cannot, a process can have a temporal duration but matter cannot). Chi and Slotta have argued that novices place many physics concepts into the category of MATTER when they should more appropriately be thought of as PROCESSES. They argue that ontological categorizations are stable over time and context and that conceptual change often involves moving a concept into a new ontological category with more appropriate attributes. Attempting to apply an attribute from one category to an entity in another category leads to a nonsensical expression such as ‘The dog is an hour long.’

Gupta et al. give several examples of metaphors from everyday life (drawing on Metaphors We Live By) as well as written and verbal statements by experts and novices that appear to correspond to shifting ontological categorizations. In fact, Gupta et al. argue that the ability to shift a concept between different ontological categories is a necessary characteristic for developing expertise. They thus argue for a dynamic, context dependent (i.e. resources) view of ontology rather than a stable and mutually exclusive view of ontology (Chi and Slotta believe that a single entity can only belong to a single ontological category).

After this article was published, Slotta wrote a response article arguing that Gupta et al. misinterpreted some of Chi’s claims about ontology. Unfortunately, I can’t access this article online so I have to go find the physical journal at the library.

The idea that ontological categories play a role in what attributes a person believes are applicable to a given entity is interesting to me as is the idea of category clashes (attempts to apply attributes across categories). In particular, I’m thinking about how (temporary) category clashes can cause a breakdown of conversation and a break down of effective group (or individual) interactions. I need to read some of Chi’s earlier papers to get a better feel for the verbal predicates that Chi and Gupta have used to determine people’s ontological categorizations. They reference a 2002 paper by Wittman about category clashes in student learning of waves and a 1997 paper by Tyson looking at (the interplay of??) epistemological, social/affective, and ontological aspects of conceptual change. Both of these are also near the top of my reading list.


From → Ontology

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