View of Conceptual Change Through a Concept Map

Conceptual change is complex. This is probably the only relational statement about conceptual change that everyone interested in the field will agree upon. While recognizing other people’s thinking exist, from this point on in individuals have preferences they prefer to explain how conceptual occurs and guide their thinking about how to best attain conceptual change. The concept map provides a way of illustrating the various possibilities; however, even a concept map is skewed by the maker’s preferences for what should be illustrated and the relationships identified. Personally, I like cleaner illustrations, so many relationship lines are not connected on this concept map for that reason, although I recognize, and understand, that many additional relationships could be drawn. This map is a representation of conceptual change to demonstrate my referencing in thinking about conceptual change and is arranged in a somewhat logical form that coincides with how I think.

The concept map I have constructed can be parsed in three ways. First, on the top and right side of conceptual change are simple statement relationships about conceptual change situating some aspect of what contributes its existence or how handle. Beyond being complex, conceptual change is trying to change misconceptions to accept conceptual understandings all while being influenced by prior knowledge and the strategies learners use to develop knowledge. One relationship of importance to me in this section is about conceptual change being comprised of two components. There is a concept and a conception. I believe there are some interesting conversations to be had over concepts (i.e. force) and the conceptions (explanation of force) as to what needs to change. By this I am asking what constitutes conceptual understanding since a learner may be able to use a concept appropriately to solve a problem, but unable to contextually describe what it is they have done. Is this a concept problem or a conceptualization problem? And does it matter?

The second area emphasized in this concept map is the existence of several theories that have been developed relative to addressing conceptual change. Each of these theories has some research that backs up its claim to being appropriate to addressing conceptual change. Given the evidence of some support that each of these theories can play a successful role in designing activities to address conceptual change, I wonder if there isn’t a larger grand theory that encompasses both the theoretical knowledge-in-pieces vs. knowledge-in-theory component with the affective domain and sociocultural components. Regardless, these theories act as guides driving the research into conceptual change today.

The final part of the concept map identifies that research on conceptual change is significant, despite its limitations. As mentioned earlier, numerous successful interventions to develop conceptual understanding have been developed using the various theoretical perspectives. In the end, there are some unanswered questions regarding the transferability, durability, and timing associated with the development of new conceptual understanding. The most significant, in my opinion, is the timing factor. Many studies seem to rely on simply demonstrating a new conceptual understanding post an intervention experience and claiming conceptual change has occurred. I question that timing as “true” conceptual change. To me, a time discrepancy between intervention and testing (and possibly multiple testing times –such as 6 months or year later) is necessary to demonstrate “true” conceptual change. I do not want to minimize the accomplishment of the intervention, but “true” conceptual change would be resistant to decay over time. Whereas I suspect the conceptualization that was accepted as evidence of conceptual change post-intervention assessment for many individuals has decayed to a conceptualization that would not register as complete conceptual understanding now. Harkening back to earlier, the question then becomes whether the learner’s ability to use the concept, describe the concept, or both has decayed.

This concept map is a construct of how I organize my thinking around conceptual change and I hope provides a means for someone else to look at conceptual change in a unique light.

Your body is a SYSTEM – conceptual change theory meets your health!

Famed conceptual change researcher, Michelene Chi has proposed that we tend to think of systems as if they acted in a linear cause-and-effect way. And this gets us into conceptual trouble, because systems don’t act in this simple way. Rather than one thing causing the next thing, causing the next thing, systems work through the simultaneous action of all the pieces interacting with each other at the same time. Chi calls the cause-and-effect thinking “sequential” and the systems thinking “emergent”.  When we think about systems as if they were sequential, misconceptions can arise.

First, a familiar example and then I’ll move to how this applies to our health. In the world of misconception research this sequential thinking translates as someone seeing a drop of dye diffusing in a cup of water and explaining what happened as dye molecules wanting to go to areas of lesser concentration.  At a molecular level, what is actually happening is that all the molecules are bouncing around and this random juggling results in, on average, the dye and water molecules mixing so that it seems the dye is spreading out.

So, you may ask, how does this related to health? Your body is a system – a very complex system composed of zillions of biochemical reactions, and the a myriad of impact of mechanical forces on our joints and skeleton. Our body is also host to untold numbers of microorganisms at live on and in our bodies. For example, the organisms in your gut – called your gut microbiome – has a huge effect on how you digest your food (or don’t). Using a zoological example – termites can’t really “eat wood” – the organisms in their gut eat the wood. Without them, termites would starve.

When we think about our health, we often only concentrate on two parts of the system – what we put into our bodies as food [and we obsess about one small characteristic of that food, namely how many calories it has] and how we ‘burn off’ those calories through something we call exercise.  So when we want to change our health we focus on food and exercise and think that is the whole story. But researchers are discovering many other aspects of our health that are at play – for example, the amount of stress in our lives and the amount and type of sleep we get can have a significant impact on our health. And the make up and functioning of our microbiome is also crucial in how we process food. For example,  jet lag has been shown to result in weight gain because the time change upsets the processing cycle of our microbiome.

The functioning of our microbiome is just one of the parts of our health system that we can’t directly control. But there are many others: brain-gut connections, brain wiring for food preferences and even food addictions to name a few.

What’s the harm of having this too-simple view of our health? Why does this misconception matter? Well it matters for two reasons. First, by focusing only on food and exercise we may well be ignoring a huge part of the system. Many of us are far too stressed and get much too little sleep and our health suffers – and for some of us the excess pounds accumulate – even if we are diligent (perhaps even fanatical) about our food and exercise. When we think about our health, we need to think about more of the system.

The second reason this misconception matters is that there are parts, important, even crucial parts, of the system we can’t directly control. And yet we think that all that matters is the food we put in our mouths and the ways we move our bodies through exercise. We think we have direct control. And so if something goes awry we beat ourselves up. What is wrong with me?! we shout to ourselves. This shouting gets louder if we put on weight and it becomes a scream if we put on – to our minds – a lot of weight. Now the shout becomes: “what the &#@* is wrong with me!” And we start doing crazy things with food – and sometimes with exercise – to get ourselves under control. And sometimes it works for – a while. And then the system called our body takes over again.

The punchline of this all is two-fold – (1) think of your body as system and (2) forgive yourself. Take the action you can take, and don’t endlessly beat yourself for the things you can’t control.

Paradigm shifts!

Had an absolutely marvelous time in the Conceptual Change class this semester. I had several important paradigm shifts resulting from class discussions. I am summarizing these below:

– Thinking about prior experience rather than only prior knowledge. As we often use the word, “knowledge” often refers to explicit learning only. Whereas “experience” often includes implicit learning as well.

– What we had previously considered “noise” in think aloud transcripts – descriptions about what students know intuitively or implicitly but cannot explicitly explain – may now be very important. Just as biologists are now finding what they thought was “junk” DNA is not junk at all, we might be the same kind of revolution in happening with regarding to analyzing think aloud transcripts. Perhaps all that “it’s just common sense” or ” I’m not sure how I know this” might be leading us to uncovering habits of mind. Maybe when students say this it’s not a cop out after all. Maybe there are trying to tell us something inexplicable.

– With regards to our ontological schema training project: might the lack of interlevel connections being made during heat transfer instruction help us explain our results?

– Using Schon’s idea of “transformative metaphors” to actually see conceptual change happening! Can we identify an “aha moment” by looking at analogies or metaphors people make when explaining certain phenomenon?

What question is upper most on my mind?

– How do we study this amazingly complex process we call “learning”? How best to strike a balance between simplifying and oversimplifying?

Co-constructed concept map of main ideas in our conceptual change class

ENE59500_Class_Concept_MapHere is the amazing concept map constructed today during the final class of ENE 50500-004: Conceptual Change in Engineering. We divided our thoughts into three main areas: pedagogical implications (the lime green bubble), is conceptual best seen as individual knowledge acquisition or is to more of a collaborative process of participatory learning? (pink bubble), and is conceptual change a coherent theory in students’ minds? or is it better described as knowledge in pieces (purple bubble). The nine graduate students in this class are responsible for the links that were made here. You can see their individual maps in earlier posts. So fortunate to work with this great group of people this semester!

Concept Map of Conceptual Change

Concept Map of Conceptual Change

I developed the following concept map for our reading and discussion on conceptual change this semester. The bottom half of the map (in blue) is targeted at the key idea of what is conceptual change. Above (in pink) is targeted at the other key idea of how can we facilitate change. A major theme was the importance of prior knowledge. Additional factors include the influence of development and the fact that this is situated as seeking progress in the learner’s conceptualization towards an accepted model.

ENE 595 Conceptual Change – First Post

Our class started out the semester with reading articles from Vosniadou, Posner et al., and Carey as an introduction to conceptual change (CC). Posner et al. states that no theory (of conceptual change) can function psychologically at all unless it is internally represented by the individual (pp. 216). Carey presents six educational implications as far as defining concepts as “units of metal representation” (pp. 17) and Vosniadou provides us with the “Mechanisms of Conceptual Change” as a mode of viewing the discussion of knowledge transfer in CC. In the following classes, we discussed barriers to CC and the roles they in the educational realm. Chi (2005) suggests that concepts are more difficult to learn when: 1) they are not directly observable, and 2) when a macroscopic pattern emerges from observable microscopic phenomena (direct vs. emergent concepts). The CHEER article gave the class a schema of how conceptual understanding may be categorized – in a “hierarchy of categories and sub-categories.” Therefore, context affects students’ conceptual understanding. By this time, the class had the idea that 1) conceptual change is a difficult, herculean task, 2) conceptual change is organized in such a way that in order to change, the sub-categories must be changed in order to change the over-arching category, and 3) the barriers to conceptual change outnumber the strategies to perform conceptual change properly. In addition, Vosniadou presents a constructivist view with a theory built on naïve conceptual frameworks. diSessa constructs concepts in a sub-conceptual way – coherence off concepts or just pieces of concepts. Chi furthers both ideas with coherence (like diSessa) and fragmentation and the structure of concepts. All three authors believe that prior knowledge effects CC.

An aside to structure, Slotta & Chi (2006) state that concepts are ontological in nature. Chi et al (2012) presents the element of emergent vs. sequential processes. This idea displays conceptual change as a process instead of a concept itself.
Furthering our understanding of conceptual change took a different route when we discussed why conceptual change DOESN’T WORK. Chinn & Brewer address the issue: How do students respond when they encounter scientific information that is different from their own theory about the world? And, offer seven responses as to why CC may not even work. Responses include: ignoring anomalous data, rejecting it, and incorrect interpretation. Then Reiner et al (2000) state that theoretical change may not happen because giving correct explanations to students may be too difficult and not comprehended; therefore, CC doesn’t happen.

A main topic up until now has to deal with participatory learning from Gorodetsky & Keiny (2002) as a means of conceptual change. They view learning as a process that involves a community of learners. But Sinatra (2002) focuses on knowledge acquisition on individual knowledge while ignoring social contexts. After class discussion, we believed that participatory learning was a solid means to conceptual change due to the fact that students are more likely to listen and learn from their peers rather than from a formal lecture from a professor or teacher. Touching on the idea of participatory learning (PL) as a tool for CC, Leach & Scott describe PL as a tool for knowledge acquisition; so combining the two ideas from Gorodetsky & Keiny (2002) and Sinatra (2002).

Lastly, Saljo proposes that concepts are linguistic or discursive phenomena that do concrete work in concrete settings. Also, cognition and conceptual knowledge are not construed over time and space, but rather as mental phenomena that cause behavior somehow.

The knowledge acquisition vs. participatory learning debate

The conceptual change as knowledge acquisition vs. participatory learning debate is one in which the lines between the two ideas are seemingly blurred. On the knowledge acquisition side the argument is tied to how people acquire knowledge by changing their underlying framework or overall approach to learning new material. Conceptual change as knowledge acquisition sits in the realm of paradigm shifts as discussed by Zirbel (2006). Theorists such as Piaget, Kuhn and Vygotsky have discussed that through the process of gaining new knowledge, whether through experimentation or having it being presented, one can either assimilate new information to the old ideas or completely reject their pre-conceptions in lieu of the new idea being presented (Vosniadou, Vamvakoussi, & Skopeliti, 2008) and (Vosniadou, Ioannides, Dimitrakopoulou, & Papademetriou, 2001). The approach to conceptual change in this domain is such that if the learning environment and instructional strategy by extension, appeals to the students’ own conceptual framework then they will experience dissatisfaction when presented with new information that challenges their existing beliefs.

On the other hand, Vosniadou (2007) discusses that mere systematic instruction by itself is inadequate to cause profound conceptual change. The approach to learning has to be one in which learners are engaged in activities that requires them to interact with peers and new information both within and outside of the classroom. According to Gorodetsky and Keiny (2002), conceptual change is not only a matter of presenting new information it is also dependent on the context in which it is presented. While the fruitfulness of the material being presented is important, the situation in which conceptual change is expected to happen must also be given a considerate amount of attention. Participatory learning is based on the idea that the act of taking an active role in one’s learning in and of itself is conceptual change. This approach to conceptual change suggests that as one interacts with the material and by extension their peers they are forced to undergo changes to their pre-existing concepts if, there is a disjoint between what they are interacting with and what they have previously believed.

On a personal note, I am not sure if I agree that the two are mutually exclusive of each other. I think that in the process of engaging in the context, taking an active role in one’s own learning and interacting with one’s peers not only is conceptual change effected by the act of knowledge acquisition is also included. In addition, there still remains the question of is it really conceptual change when the learner interacts with his/her peers or is it just accepting the group consensus just because everyone else did? Also, what if the member with the most authoritative approach to the group has a misconception? Does the possibility exist that the others might accept this as not only true but that their existing framework was wrong and as such undergo a conceptual based on faulty information?


Gorodestksy, M., & Keiny, S. (2002). Participative learning and conceptual change. In M. Limon & L. Mason (Eds.), Reconsidering conceptual change. Issues in theory and practice (pp. 149–163). Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Vosniadou, S. (2007). Conceptual change and education. Human Development, 50, 47–54. doi:10.1159/000097684

Vosniadou, S., Ioannides, C., Dimitrakopoulou, A., & Papademetriou, E. (2001). Designing learning environments to promote conceptual change in science. Learning and Instruction, 11, 381–419.

Vosniadou, S., Vamvakoussi, X., & Skopeliti, I. (2008). The framework theory approach to the problem of conceptual change. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 3–34).

Zirbel, E. L. (2006). Teaching to promote deep understanding and instigate conceptual change. Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society (pp. 1–25).

Doing vs. Knowing Engineering

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.

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.