Does “The Matrix” Show Conceptual Change and Learning in the Future?

You’ve probably seen The Matrix before. When Neo and the others are plugged into the network they can learn things, mostly physical skills, in just minutes[1]. They upload the frameworks for martial arts, helicopter flying, and other skills as needed – no need to spend those 10,000 hours to become a master[2], just connect to the ship’s computers! If the knowledge for using complex systems like a helicopter can be uploaded, it stands to reason that knowledge can be uploaded as well. The knowledge is acquired by uploading the concepts and constructs directly into the mind; but is this really how the mind works? Can we treat our brains like computers and simply upload the relevant information as needed? One view of education is just that, the teacher is the expert who is giving the knowledge to the students, who are expected to sort and connect the new ideas correctly in the framework of their mind. Views of conceptual change as knowledge acquisition hinge on that idea. The “classical approach” to conceptual change, changing students misconceptions into accepted conceptions, recommended treating students like a scientist. Confronting students with the correct concept in opposition with their misconceptions was expected to cause an almost immediate change to the accepted correct conception [3]. The idea that conceptual change is knowledge acquisition, gaining the correct concepts and connecting them correctly, is considered the “knowledge acquisition” side of the debate. Debate, you ask? Why yes. There is another side to that coin, one that says that the methods used in The Matrix probably aren’t the solution to conceptual change.

When faced with anomalous data, Chinn and Brewer found that everyone they studied (from students to scientists) reacted in seven basic ways [4]. Only one of those seven is the desired outcome, conceptual change. The other six include ignoring the data, rejecting the data, loosely fitting it into your framework of misconceptions, and changing a small piece of your theory to match the data, among others. If we were simply able to take a new idea, realize that it is correct, and replace our old concepts with the new versions, this wouldn’t be such an interesting area to research. Chinn and Brewer reported that some of the factors leading to conceptual change (or not) included how deeply entrenched these beliefs are as well as their ontological and epistemological attitudes towards science and reality. The title of their paper is “The Role of Anomalous Data in Knowledge Acquisition…” suggesting that they too believe that conceptual change is knowledge acquisition. However, their findings and recommendations point towards a different path. They offer seven epistemological commitments that would help students to more easily accept conceptual change. Number seven points to the heart of the “participatory learning” view of conceptual change: “An understanding that science is a continuing process of debate about evolving theories rather than a static body of knowledge (cf. Easley, 1990)” (p. 33). Chinn and Brewer continue to discuss even more explicitly how conceptual change is, if not based on, assisted by a more participatory learning methodology, “In other words, in order to learn epistemological commitments appropriate to evaluating evidence and theories, students may need to participate in a community that regularly debates alternative theories, discusses responses to anomalous data, and evaluates evidence and theories. During this process of enculturation, students are like apprentices learning the craft of scientific reasoning…” (p. 33). This sentiment is echoed by Carey, “Children must be engaged in building explanations and in constructing explanatory understanding” (p. 18) [5]. If concepts are discursive tools[6], something that we use to communicate with each other the abstract ideas represented by the language we have, and the language we use is socially agreed upon, the participants construct the meanings of the concepts and relative importance of the topics. Participatory learning is just that: building your conceptual frameworks and understanding through social discourse[7]. Those who believe that participatory learning is the key to conceptual change, requiring students to engage with and discuss the topics they are learning, would like all learning experiences to look more like what you’d tend to see in a graduate-level humanities course. This classroom would include focused discussion engaging with the material to decide how to make sense of the topics presented and which aspects are important.

Traditionally, assessments are created more from a knowledge acquisition view of conceptual change and learning. Teachers might give a pre-test at the beginning of the year or unit and a similar one at the end to see how much knowledge you’ve acquired through instruction. The more recent focus on learner-centered instruction seems to come from a more participatory learning viewpoint, asking teachers to find novel ways to engage and assess their students. When talking about application of these two ideas, in the US there is more and more of a call to engage our students in active, learner-centered instruction, but also a call to improve our PISA rankings and even to judge our teachers on state- and federally-mandated exams. If we have a learner-centered, participatory teaching style, the students may through their social discourse choose to focus on concepts that do not appear on major exams or delve more deeply into fewer topic areas to gain a greater understanding of the concepts presented. Can we bridge this gap? Is there a dichotomy? Are students who learn deeply from learner-centered environments better educated as a whole? Will it be possible to just plug ourselves in and become educated someday? I’m not certain we’ll ever have these answers, but conceptual change research is one possible avenue that may shed some light on these and other questions.


1Return Wachowski, Andy, & Wachowski, Lana (Writers). (1999). The Matrix [Movie]. In J. Silver (Producer): Warner Brothers Pictures.
2Return Gladwell, Malcolm. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
3Return Vosniadou, Stella. (2008). Conceptual Change Research: An Introduction. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), International Handbook of Research on Conceptual Change (pp. xiii – xxviii). New York, New York: Routledge.
4Return Chinn, Clark A., & Brewer, William 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.
5Return Carey, Susan. (2000). Science Education as Conceptual Change. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 21(1), 13-19.
6Return Säljö, Roger. (1999). Concepts, Congnition and Discourse: From Mental Structures to Discursive Tools. In W. Schnotz, S. Vosniadou & M. Carretero (Eds.), New Perspectives on Conceptual Change (pp. 81 – 90). New York, NY: Pergamon.
7Return Gorodetsky, Malka, & Keiny, Shoshana. (2002). Participative learning and conceptual change. In M. Limon & L. Mason (Eds.), Reconsidering Conceptual Change: Issues in Theory and Practice (pp. 149-163). Spain: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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