Conceptual Change as Knowledge Acquisition or Participatory Learning

This semester, during our coursework with Dr. Streveler, we have been working towards socially constructing knowledge about conceptual change.  Coming into this class, I had read next to no literature in this area, and I am just beginning to grasp a bit about the landscape of research on conceptual change.  Two key questions motivate our investigation of this literature:  What is conceptual change?  How can we help conceptual change happen?  One main distinction in literature that has been developed during this course so far relates to conceptual change as either a process of knowledge acquisition or one of participatory learning.  Leach and Scott (2008) suggest that these are two fundamentally different views on conceptual change; they do not represent ends of a continuum.  For this initial blog, I will outline the main ideas that have struck me within each side of this divide and then conclude with some questions that have arisen out of the reading and discussion we’ve done so far as a group.

The initial readings of the semester centered around the idea of conceptual change as an individual’s approach to an accepted, “correct” model.  This view of conceptual change as a process of knowledge acquisition posits that the concept resides within the individual.  Concepts are “units of mental representation roughly equivalent to a single word, such as object, animal, alive, heat, weight, and matter” (Carey, 2000, p. 14).  Researchers have varying ideas about the way in which individuals organize concepts.  Vosniadou (2008) argues that concepts exist as coherent frameworks, which may or may not be aligned with the correct model.  This is in contrast to diSessa (2008),  who argues that concepts are pieces of knowledge within the learner that must be rearranged and recontextualized for conceptual change to occur.

Also within the view of conceptual change as the acquisition of knowledge, Chinn and Brewer (1993) claim that major changes in beliefs occur over long periods of time as students acquire more knowledge.  They look at conceptual change as something that can be spurred by the presentation of anomalous data, which is often dismissed by the learner.  This dismissal is based on the individual’s prior knowledge and expectations.  Four characteristics of prior beliefs can influence a response that may or may not motivate conceptual change:  a) entrenchment of the individual’s current theory, b) the individual’s ontological beliefs, c) the individual’s epistemological commitments, and d) the individuals background knowledge (Chinn & Brewer, 1993, p. 14).  Chi (2008) also discusses the role of prior knowledge and its effect on conceptual change.  Her work frames conceptual change in three different ways as a function of prior knowledge:  a) students have no prior knowledge, so conceptual change doesn’t occur b) students have some prior knowledge, but it is incomplete and the gaps need filling (still no conceptual change), or c) students have a misconception, which requires conceptual change.

Beyond these main claims in the conceptual change literature, other researchers favor looking at conceptual change in a way that includes not just the learner, but also the social and contextual influences on learning.  This leads us to the alternative view of conceptual change, which situates conceptual change as something that occurs through participatory learning.

Learning certainly does not occur in isolation, so it seems logical to describe conceptual change as a function of social interactions.  Sinatra (2002) uses the idea that conceptual change occurs within a broader individual and social context as an argument that research in this area should measure the process, not just the outcome.  Additional researchers build upon social constructivist theory and describe teaching and learning science as “involving an introduction of the social language of school science against a backdrop of everyday reasoning” (Leach & Scott, 2008, p. 664).  Säljö (1999) provides a very interesting way of looking at conceptual change as discursive and a function of language.   He views conceptual as wholly a process of participatory learning since language is collective and socially constructed (Säljö, 1999).   As we continue on with the semester, we are developing this idea of conceptual change as participatory learning.

The readings so far have intrigued my interest in conceptual change.  As the semester continues, I am left with the following questions, especially as they relate to the different classifications of conceptual change discussed above:  Who is responsible for initiating and promoting conceptual change?  Does conceptual change come to an end, or is it a never-ending evolution?  What type of prompt is required for conceptual change to occur?  Does conceptual change occur immediately, or is it a slow, gradual process?  Do individuals hold one cohesive conceptualization or is their knowledge organized in multiple conceptions simultaneously?  With the additional readings and discussions remaining in the semester, I hope to gain more insight into these questions.


Carey, S. (2000). Science education as conceptual change. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 21(1), 13-19.

Chi, M. T. H. (2008). Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. International handbook of research on conceptual change, 61-82.

Chinn, C. A., & Brewer, W. F. (1993). The role of anomalous data in knowledge acquisition: A theoretical framework and implications for science instruction. Review of educational research, 63(1), 1-49.

DiSessa, A. A. (2008). A bird’s-eye view of the “pieces” vs.“coherence” controversy (from the “pieces” side of the fence). International handbook of research on conceptual change, 35-60.

Leach, J. T., & Scott, P. H. (2008). Teaching for conceptual understanding: An approach drawing on individual and sociocultural perspectives. International handbook of research on conceptual change, 647-675.

Sinatra, G. (2002). Motivational, social, and contextual aspects of conceptual change: A commentary. Reconsidering conceptual change: Issues in theory and practice, 187-197.

Säljö, R. (1999). Concepts, cognition and discourse: From mental structures to discursive tools. New perspectives on conceptual change, 81-90.

Vosniadou, S. (2008). International handbook of research on conceptual change: Routledge.


One thought on “Conceptual Change as Knowledge Acquisition or Participatory Learning

  1. Your question about “who is responsible for conceptual change” is an excellent one! I think the answer to this questions changes depending on how one views conceptual change. If conceptual change is knowledge acquisition by an individual learning perhaps the learner is ultimately responsible. But what if the community is deeply involved in conceptual change? Then who is “responsible”? Though provoking question!

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