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An evolving view of misconceptions

June 20, 2013

I finally got around to reading a pair of papers that have been on my “To Read” list for too long.

Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual changeG. J. Posner, K. A. Strike, P. W. Hewson, and W. A. Gertzog, Sci. Ed. 66, 211 (1982).

The authors seek to develop a theory of how students’ existing ideas interact with, and may eventually be replaced by new, alternative scientific ideas. Their theory is based on an analysis of philosophy and history of science – looking at how ideas central to scientific revolutions found acceptance in the broader scientific community. The authors seek to use ideas about scientific revolutions to understanding the conditions required for central, organizing conceptions to be replaced by other conceptions. That is, the requirements necessary to replace a robust, stable misconception with a more scientifically accurate conception.

Authors note that a student’s current knowledge necessarily forms the basis for what questions they ask and what aspects of phenomena they deem important. This is to say that any sort of cognitive conflict that might prompt conceptual change must be based around students’ current knowledge. They also note that not all concepts are replaced when students undergo conceptual change and that the concepts that are retained will guide the process of conceptual change. The authors speak of a student’s “conceptual ecology” that includes a wealth scientific concepts and practices as well as the student’s epistemological beliefs relating to science.

Central concepts rarely say anything directly about experience. Rather, central concepts produce strategies for solving problems. Thus, a central concept will not be found unsuitable by failing to make an accurate prediction. Central concepts are deemed unsuitable when they fail to generate solutions to a class of problems. Central concepts are also part of how we interpret the world and as such they influence our interpretation of experiences and our images and mental models. This can often cause a competing concept to be virtually unintelligible as it does not fit into our current models and interpretations of experiences.

Accommodation (conceptual change) requires:

  1. The current concept be found unsatisfying. We do not adopt a major new conception unless we are convinced that a less radical change will not suffice. This likely requires the student to recognize a collection of problems which cannot be solved by the current conception.
  2. The new conception must be intelligible. We must be able to see how experiences and questions can be structured by the new conception in order to play out the implications of this conception. This often involves the use of analogies and metaphors.
  3. The new conception must appear initially plausible. The conception must appear to have the capacity to solve the existing problems. It must also appear consistent with other existing knowledge.
  4. A new concept should open up new questions and new areas of inquiry.

The authors emphasize that presenting students with anomalies (or what appear to instructors as obvious anomalies) will not automatically lead students to find their current concept unsatisfying. In order for the anomalies to serve their desired purpose, students must truly understand what makes the result an anomaly. The student must understand the experiment itself and understanding what their current conception predicts as a result. Students must also ascribe to some of the epistemological beliefs held by scientists. Necessary epistemological beliefs might include believing that various conceptions be mutually consistent or that a desired goal is to understand the world with as few conceptions as possible. Another epistemological requirement is an agreement as to what sorts of observations count as valid evidence and what sorts of explanations count as valid explanations.

Consider how these criteria might factor into attempts to get students to shift from a “force causes velocity” conception towards a “force causes acceleration” conception.

  1. If students do not fully understand the experiment and do not fully understand what their conception predicts then they might attribute experimental anomalies to an overly emphasized role of friction. Students could also fail to distinguish between the applied force and the net force when trying to apply their conception to make predictions.
  2. If students do not require consistency between their conceptions and applications of their conceptions then they might be content with different rules for scenarios with friction and scenarios without friction. They could also come up with different rules for “experiments in lab” and the “real world” outside of class.
  3. If students do not strive to understand the world using as few conceptions as possible then instructor’s arguments about “beauty and elegance” such as how F=ma applies equally to objects at rest as well as objects in motion, objects on earth and objects in space, and objects viewed from different reference frames in uniform relative motion will fall on deaf ears.
  4. In the context of F=ma, I think students generally find this to be a “valid” type of explanation and to involve “valid” types of evidence. However, students are much more accustomed to noticing and thinking about velocity than they are changes in velocity. In this case students might find the instructor’s observations valid but these might not be the observations that students naturally make on their own.
The second paper is by two of the same authors (10 years later) and presents a revision of their previous theory of conceptual change.
A revisionist theory of conceptual changeK. A. Strike and G. J. Posner, Philosophy of science, cognitive psychology, and educational theory and practice (Eds. Duschl & Hamilton, 1992).

In the previous paper, Strike and Posner defined a “conceptual ecology” in which conceptual change (as well as understanding of existing concepts) takes place. They defined the ecology to consist of analogies and metaphors, epistemological beliefs, metaphysical beliefs, and knowledge of other areas of inquiry as well as knowledge of competing conceptions. In their revision, Strike and Posner extend their concept of conceptual ecology to include motivations and social factors. They also attempt to build a developmental or constructivist view of conceptual ecology and a view that allows for different aspects of an ecology and of conceptual change to be context dependent so that conceptions may change from problem to problem or from one representation to another.

The authors make explicit some implicit aspects of their previous theory that they feel require modification. Most significant amongst these assumptions is the picture of a misconception as a “entity” that can be articulated and represented in various ways. The authors widen their view of misconceptions such that a misconception may not be a “entity” but rather a conceptual ecology that leads a student towards certain answers.

As an example, the misconception might not be that “forces are transferred” but rather that the language the student is accustomed to regarding forces seems to imply that forces are a “substance”. The analogies or everyday experiences that the student thinks about when pondering force questions might be situations in which the role of friction is not recognized and in which ‘something’ appears to transfer and eventually run out. It could thus be that while the student would not articulate the phrase “force is transferred” the student will nevertheless choose answers to questions (possibly constructing these answers on the spot by drawing on resources in her conceptual ecology) that align with this sort of misconception. An instructional implication of this fact is that anomalies may not be seen as anomalies if the student does not recognize that she “has” a misconception that is competing with the scientist’s conception. Rather than generating dissatisfaction with the student’s current conception (which assumes that the student recognizes the existence of her conception and that she can  monitor the success or failure of this conception in solving problems), instruction might seek to identify the analogies, language, or experiences that the student is drawing on to answer questions and to present the student with alternative language and analogies and to help the student to differentiate between applicable and inapplicable experiences.

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