Conceptual Change and Three Metaphors for Knowledge

Why is it important that everyone know “the truth?” Notice I use little “t” for truth because I believe that truth is something that is socially negotiated, not absolute. In most cases it is not necessary that everyone agrees on a “truth,” but there are occasions such as conceptual underpinnings of domain areas that require individuals to learn and understand key conceptual knowledge as a “truth.” The questions that are raised anew is what is the knowledge I need to know and how do I learn the knowledge? I am not going to address the first question as each domain identifies that for itself, but I will try to talk about a part of the second question of how individuals ascertain and manage knowledge.

Conceptual change and knowledge are inextricably linked. Conceptual change attempts to shift an individual’s current state of knowledge or knowing that is incorrect into alignment with the current scientifically or socially recognized meaning of a concept. This shift is achieved by altering the individual’s knowledge or knowing through the process of learning. Three metaphors – acquisition, participation, and knowledge-creation – have emerged as prominent ways to discuss how people learn and assimilate knowledge and consequently conceptual changes.

The acquisition metaphor situates learning and knowledge in the individual. Individuals serve as storage units for knowledge that can add and be replaced through cognitive processes of learning. Although not stated in quite this way, it is almost as if people believe that if they are provided the “correct” knowledge, they can erase the old knowledge and input the information similar to a computer’s hard drive. This is not to say that some core knowledge must exist in the individual, but are individuals really responsible for understanding concepts completely on their own?
The participation metaphor diffuses knowledge from the individual to groups of individuals who collectively ascribe meaning and definition to concepts. These groups range from simple membership, as in our society, to more engaged membership such as situated learning communities where all member have higher interest and use of specific concepts. The key aspect of participative community of knowing is that the individual participates in learning and negotiating the group understanding of concepts so that the individual can contribute and work accordingly. A concern I have about the participation metaphor is the construct of social loafing and its impact on the knowledge we ascribe to individuals in the group, but which they do not have. I am thinking of my own engineering education process and how I did not truly understand and know certain concepts of fluid flow and surface chemistry until I was a graduate student although my degree would have people believe otherwise. The participation metaphor is very useful to quickly change knowledge and combat misconceptions because of the availability of a collective committed to an idea of what a concept “should be.” The problem appears to be motivational about whether the individual wants to be a part of the group and therefore values having the “correct” knowledge of the group (Sfard, 1998).

Finally, a new metaphor, knowledge-creation, has been constructed to recognize the space in which “new ideas, tools, and practices to support intelligent action are created” (Hakkarainen & Paavola, 2009, p.66). This metaphor attempts to fill the gap in knowledge by discussing an intersection between the individual and the group occurring at higher levels of thinking where people are pushing boundaries as part of their learning, not just trying to learn what others know. It is constructed from people of expertise and experience who are pushing forward in creative and innovative ways forming new conceptual meanings in areas. A key component of this metaphor, however, is the generation of concrete objects and artifacts within the group’s cultural setting. I must admit that this metaphor is new to me and I found it only in my own search to see if there were other metaphors beyond the acquisition and participation metaphors. I am not sure what, if any role this metaphor will play relative to conceptual change other than creating new concepts for new domains and more conceptional nuances for known concepts.

The three metaphors offer different insights to knowledge and subsequently conceptual understanding that plays a role in any consideration for addressing conceptual change. It appears that many people try to situate the issue of knowledge in one or other of these metaphors rather than a continuum of knowledge that an individual has a access to and the real challenge of conceptual change resides in recognizing which metaphor applies. In my mind, I see knowledge that is obtained and maintained through all three metaphors – acquisition, participation, and knowledge-creation – dependent on how the individual assimilates knowledge best.

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), p. 4-13.
Hakkarainen, K. & Paavola, S. (2009). Toward a trialogical approach to learning. In B. Schwarz, T. Dreyfus, & R. Hershkowitz (Eds.) Transformation of knowledge through classroom interaction (pp. 65-80). London: Routledge.

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One thought on “Conceptual Change and Three Metaphors for Knowledge

  1. I will need to think more about “social loafing” might be a concern for the participatory learning view of conceptual change. A really good point I had not thought of before.

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