Readings about the unconscious mind and implicit learning

I am excited that we are discussing a topic I fell in love with on my sabbatical – the role of the unconscious mind in learning – in our new class on conceptual change. In order to begin to investigate this topic we are reading (1) the cover story from the January 2014 issue of Scientific American on the Unconscious Mind, (2) chapters 1 and 2 from Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, and (2) chapter 3 from Daniel Goleman’s 2013 book “Focus.”

To start our discussion I am interested in any questions the readings may prompt.

Sabbatical! Cool things I have been reading

I am spending my Fall semester on sabbatical and am using this time to reflect on, reexamine and reinvigorate my research agenda. The focus of my reflection is contemplating the question: “How do current findings from brain research align [or not align] with learning theories?” Another way to say this is, which learning theories are supported by brain research? Which are not (or not yet) supported by brain research?

My major take-away at this early point in my investigation, is that there is a GIGANTIC amount of learning/knowledge that is non-declarative.  We call this learning non-declarative because it  happen in parts of the brain that are not connected to verbal parts of the brain. So we can’t “declare” or speak about it directly. But this kind of learning or knowledge is often expressed through metaphor or analogy or through art, music, dance.

This kind of knowledge has many names: intuition, hunches, experience. We can’t easily talk about this learning, but we can feel it when we have a “gut reaction” or when our “heart speaks.”  It is critical to expertise. But, in my opinion, non-declarative knowledge has been largely forgotten in learning theories. Understandably, we privilege things we can verbalize.  But what are we ignoring by not trying to incorporate this kind of learning into learning theories?

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.

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.