After over thirty years of conceptual change studies in science and engineering education, researchers have yet to reach consensus on what conceptual change is, how it happens, and what concepts actually are. One of the more intriguing debates is between proponents of knowledge acquisition and participatory learning frameworks of conceptual change.
Within the knowledge acquisition framework, students transform their naïve or unformed conceptions of scientific phenomena into those conceptions held by experts (Gorodetsky & Keina, 2002). Many well established theories of conceptual change hold to the knowledge acquisition framework. Chi (2008), for example, discusses conceptual change as ontological category shifts such as reclassifying concepts like current as processes rather than materials. Instructors also seem to favor knowledge acquisition over participatory learning (Duit, Treagust, & Widodo, 2008). This is based on the view that scientific knowledge is “authoritative in nature” and the teacher is best positioned to determine what knowledge is correct and valuable (Leach & Scott, 2008, p. 658).
Participatory learning favors understanding the process of science by placing students in a community of practice (Gorodetsky & Keina, 2002). Knowledge, in such settings, is socially constructed rather than determined by some external body. Thus, students are able to determine what is important to know, and develop a better understanding of the process of constructing knowledge. Duit and colleagues (2008) favor the participatory view of conceptual change and suggest that treating conceptual change as knowledge acquisition view neglects considerations of individual motivation and social structure.
While these two perspectives on conceptual change seem diametrically opposed, some suggest that they may simply be points on a continuum (Sinatra, 2002). Individual learning environments may contain elements of both and differ only in how much knowledge or process are favored and the amount of control students have over their own learning. For example, an instructor might teach science through inquiry-based lab assignments but provide some guidelines or scaffolds, or even model appropriate processes.
As an engineering educator, I lean towards participatory learning. I do not deny that engineers must have certain knowledge. Power engineers should not have robust misconceptions related to electric circuits. Hydraulic engineers should understand fluid dynamics. But, relevant engineering knowledge is rapidly changing and expanding. It would be impossible to teach our students everything they will ever need to know during their careers. Thus, we want our engineering graduates to be lifelong learners, to be able to develop new knowledge and determine for themselves what knowledge is important.
In other words, it is more important that students learn to be engineers rather than simply acquiring a body of engineering knowledge. Treating conceptual change as participatory learning places the emphasis on process rather than content, and thus places students in a better place for such ontological development.