Conceptual change

An inventory

Ben Wilbrink

My intention in creating the 'education pages' is to assemble materials from several disciplines to investigate how they are handling common sense ideas, folk ideas, naive ideas, whatever they might get called, that are inconsistent with the scientific ideas in that particular discipline. The prime example is the folk physics of pupils that is frustrating their learning the classical mechanics of Newton, while most programs or teachers do not explicitly handle this problem, or even are aware of it. While this kind of problem evidently is frustrating the efficiency of education, it also touches on what is valid assessment of knowledge of physics. Designing physics tests should touch on this issue.

There is a flipside to this kind of issue: there are also intuitions etcetera that are consistent or might be regarded as consistent with scientific ideas. They could be of great significance in education, because they might make it possible to introduce complex ideas much earlier, much simpler. Among others Andrea DiSessa is running some projects along this line, in matheducation. For a more general approach to research on intuitions see for example the work of Gerd Gigerenzer (site).

This Meno page is dedicated to the general issue of conceptual change, how it is to be effected (see Vosniadou 2007 for a thorough review of relevant research as well as theory), and how achievement tests adequately can test for it. It gathers the insights from the distinct fields of math education etcetera, as well as research in cognitive psychology and paradigm shifts as studied in the philosophy and history of science.

Physics education
Mathematics education
Life sciences education
Humanitieses education
Language education
Conceptual change

The inventory will contain studies, web pages etc. that in one way or another might touch on the topic of designing items testing for and/or facilitaing conceptual change.

While the physics education etc. pages touch on the phenomena of folk sciences frustrating education, my intention being there to get a good description of the resulting educational problems, the Meno page is dedicated to possible solutions, being mechanisms and methods to effectuate conceptual change. The hypothesis is that conceptual change mechanisms - surely there will be a number of them - in general will not be domain-dependent.

Conceptual change is not always adequate or even possible. See the physics education page, research by Slotta and Chi. The key idea here is that many scientific concepts are emergent process concepts - heat, force, natural selection, supply and demand - while naive conceptualizations are characterized ontologically as material substance. According to the Slotta and Chi research, it is not a good idea to try to change naive substance conceptualizations into the scientific emergent process ones. Part of the difficulty is that these processes are not observable in themselves, they are emergent processes, the macro results of the processes are observable.

Before starting a preliminary inventory, it might be a good idea to first sketch my own naive views on conceptual change, in line with a general didactic approach that might be the most important change mechanism available to teachers.

I suspect the best approach to changing folk science concepts of students will be to get them to express these ideas in a suitable context, and assist them to test the validity of their ideas logically as well as empirically. Showing a particular idea, for example about the divisibility of matter, to be at fault, students will undoubtedly come up with 'better' ideas, or will be prepared to test the alternative idea presented to them by the teacher.

I will have to describe the famous paradox posed by the old Greek philosopher Meno. For the time being, let it suffice to say that the paradox is that the search for wisdom is doomed to failure because one does not know what wisdom is, and therefore one will not recognize wisdom if one might stumble upon it. The search for new knowledge is doomed to failure. All of this sounds somewhat mysterious, but psychological experiment will readily show the truth of the paradox. In the philosophy of science the paradox is present in the phenomenon of paradigm shifts, and the difficulties in communication between scientists identifying themselves with one or the other paradigm. And in the physics classroom, of course, the the phenomenon is present in the clash between folk science ideas and the scientifically recieved view of Newton. Petrie (1981) describes the educational import of the paradox of Meno.

Jean Piaget is famous for his research on conceptual change in children. His theory has come under attack recently, but his numerous experiments, of course, remain invaluable. Susan Carey is one of the cognitive psychologists who have followed up on the work of Piaget, resulting in new theoretical insights in the phenomena of the origin of concepts as well as of conceptual change. I will use her work as my starting point in a journey through recent literature.

Conceptual change sounds somewhat ominous, but is it not approximately the same as what we used to call learning? Not quite, learning is a more general phenomenon, also incorporation kinds of learning one would not call conceptual change or the learning of concepts: imitation, repetition, association, etecetra. The latter kinds of learning might be important, however, in preparing for and otherwise facilitating conceptual change. After all, there must be possibilities to neutralize the paradox of Meno, otherwise conceptual change might not exist at all and we know that to be false. < class='lit'> Hugh G. Petrie (1981). The dilemma of enquiry and learning.. University of Chicago Press.

direct hits

Ayush Gupta, David Hammer & Edward F. Redish (2010). The case for dynamic models of learners’ ontologies in physics.. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19, 285-321. abstract

James D. Slotta (2011). In defense of Chi’s Ontological Incompatibility Hypothesis. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 20, 151-162. abstract

David Hammer, Ayush Gupta & Edward F. Redish (2011). On static and dynamic intuitive ontologies. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 20, 163-168. 1st page preview

Christa S. C. Asterhan & Baruch B. Schwarz (2009). Argumentation and explanation in conceptual change: Indications from protocol analyses of peer-to-peer dialog. Cognitive Science, 33, 374-400.

Stella Vosniadou (2007). The cognitive-situative divide and the problem of conceptual change, Educational Psychologist, 42(1), 55-66. (You can see this article here in pdf format)

Stella Vosniadou, Aristides Baltas and Xenia Vamvakoussi (Eds) (2007). Reframing the conceptual change approach in learning and instruction. Elsevier. PEDAG 48a.433

Irene Biza, Alkeos Souyoul and Theodossios Zachariades (n.d.). Conceptual change in advanced mathematical thinking. paper. pdf

S. Carey and C. Smith (1993). On understanding the nature of scientific knowledge. Educational Psychologist, 28, 235-251. pdf

Carey and Smith (1993) focus on the science curriculum. One way or another, students will have to fundamentally change some of their own concepts in order to be succesful. That being so, it might be much for the better to make them aware of the process of conceptual change itself (p. 236).

The authors (as well as a number of other authors, among them Derek Hodson, and Strike and Posner, 1985) distance themselves from what they present as the recieved view in science education, science being presented as the cumulation of knowledge obtained from experiments. Students should come to understand that science is about conjectures about the world, these conjectures being tested by appropriately chosen experiments (instead of the other way round, as implied by the reveived view). In that way they will also understand that doing science is not easy at all, nor will learning science be.

The particular educational strand here is that of the seventh grade, the 12 to 13 year olds.

In order to be able to study conceptual change, it should be clear what the original common sense epistemology is (the subject now is the concept of what it is to have or to get knowledge). The authors review the research literature attempting to establish this epistemology, and do a proposal in an appendix to the article. The point is whether children "can make distinctions between their beliefs about reality and reality itself and understand that people can have false beliefs" (p. 239). They can't, according to Kuhn et al. (1988). They can, according to Wellman (1990).

According to work by Inhelder and Piaget (1958), Kuhn et al. (1988) and Dunbar and Klahr (1989) children are not able to validly draw conclusions from experimental observations. Carey and Smith suggest that children lack knowledge about the process of hypothesis generating and testing, and might also have an "epistemology that makes no clear distinction between theory, specific hypothesis, and inference" (p. 140).

The article presents a somewhat ambiguous mixture of high level abstract theorezing, and summarized experimental results of a highly preliminary character. It should be read as an opinion paper, an appetizer to look up some of their references (for example, the work of Deanna Kuhn).

The article is very much about this epistemology thing; that is a subject that will undoubtedly prove to be very fundamental to any instructional technology trying to effect conceptual changes from folk science concepts to target scientifi ones.

p. 244: here the authors start to contrast the traditional approach of science teaching, teaching the procedures of devising and doing experiments not related to anything that the students themselves might think about this, and their own approach emphasizing "the teaching of these skills in the context of of genuine scientifi inquiry," (...) "challenging the entrenched knowledge unproblematic epistemology that students bring with them to science classes." This is the core of the article. p. 245: goes on: "the standard curriculum fails to address the motivation or justification for using these skills in constructing scientific knowledge. Students are not challenged to utilize these process skills in exploring, developing, and evaluating their own ideas about natural phenomena." The article then goes on to discuss the Carey et al. (1989) results on an experimental high school course on scientific method. The results are not clear at all, however. It might be the case that more recent research is avalilable, i have to look into that possibility.

L. E. Klopfer and E. D. Carrier (1970). TOUS: Test of Understanding Science (Form JW). Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh. [I have yet to locate this one; used in Susan Carey (1993 p. 241: "However, these standardized tests {Rubba and Anderson, b.w.} were not designed to probe for the existence of an alternative epistemology in students."]

P. Rubba and H. Anderson (1978). Development of an instrument to assess secondary students' understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge. Science Education. 62, 449-458. [I have yet to locate this one; used in Susan Carey (1993)]

L. West and A. L. Pines (Eds) (1985). Cognitive structure and conceptual change. New York: Academic Press. [I have yet to locate this one; mentioned in Susan Carey (1993)]

Susan Carey (1985). Conceptual change in childhood. MIT Press. [I have yet to locate this one; used in Susan Carey (1993)]

D. Kuhn, E. Amsel and M. O'Loughlin (1988). The development of scientific thinking skills. Orlando, Fl.: Academic. [I have yet to locate this one; used in Susan Carey (1993)]

H. Wellman (1990). The child's theory of mind. Cambridge: MIT Press. [I have yet to locate this one; mentioned in Susan Carey (1993)]

Slotta, J. D. & Chi, M.T.H. (2006). The impact of ontology training on conceptual change: Helping students understand the challenging topics in science. Cognition and Instruction, 24, 261-289. concept

Slotta and Chi (2006) is the key research, if not the key publication, on the theme of this webpage. The 'conceptual change' is to be taken as 'conceptual replacement': it might be a misconception to suppose that naive physics ideas could or should 'change' into scientific ones. The ontology here is very intriguing also: for what is the ontological status of concepts like 'mass,' 'energy' or 'force'? (The works of Max Jammer summarize matters in a wonderfully transparent way, without providing answers, of course).

Chi, M.T.H. (2005). Common sense conceptions of emergent processes: Why some misconceptions are robust. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14, 161-199. (

Chi, M.T.H. & Hausmann, R. G. M. (2003). Do radical discoveries require ontological shifts? In L. V. Shavinina: International Handbook on Innovation. Elsevier Science Ltd., p. 430-444. pdf

Chi, M.T.H., & Roscoe, R.D. (2002). The processes and challenges of conceptual change. In M. Limon and L. Mason: Reconsidering Conceptual Change: Issues in Theory and Practice. Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Netherlands, pp 3-27. pdf

Chi, M.T.H., Siler, S., Jeong, H., Yamauchi, T., & Hausmann, R.G. (2001). Learning from tutoring. Cognitive Science, 25, 471-533. pdf

James D. Slotta and Michelene T. H. Chi (1996). Understanding Constraint-Based Processes: A Precursor to Conceptual Change in Physics. In Garrison W. Cottrell: Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society: July 12-15, 1996, University of California, San Diego. (p. 306-311) Erlbaum. questia

James D. Slotta, Michelene T.H. Chi, Elana Joram (1995). Assessing Students' Misclassifications of Physics Concepts: An Ontological Basis for Conceptual Change. Cognition and Instruction, 13, 373-400. pdf

S. Carey and B. W. Sarnecka (2006). The Development of Human Conceptual Representations.In M. Johnson & Y. Munakata (Eds.), Attention and Performance: Vol XXI. Processes of Change in Brain and Cognitive Development. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 473-496.

S. Vosniadou and I. Skopeliti (2005). Developmental Shifts in Children's Categorizations of the Earth. In B. G. Bara, L. Barsalou and M. Bucciarelli: Proceedings of the XXVII Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Italy, 2325-2330. pdf

S. Vosniadou, I. Skopeliti and K. Ikospentaki (2005). Reconsidering the Role of Artifacts in Reasoning: Children's Understanding of the Globe as a Model of the Earth. Learning and Instruction, 15, 333-351. pdf

S. Vosniadou and W. F. Brewer (1994). Mental models of the day/night cycle. Cognitive Science, 18, 123-184. pdf

S. Vosniadou and W. F. Brewer (1992). Mental models of the earth: A study of conceptual change in childhood. Cognitive Psychology, 24, 535-585. pdf

Stella Vosniadou (in press). The conceptual change approach and its re-framing. In S. Vosniadou, A. Baltas and X.Vamvakoussi: Reframing the conceptual change approach in learning and instruction. Oxford: Elsevier.

Shirley J. Magnusson, Mark Templin, Robert A. Boyle (1997). Dynamic science assessment: A new approach for investigating conceptual change. The Journal of the Learning Sceinces, 6, 91-142. first page

K. Wynn (1990). Children's understanding of counting. Cognition, 36, 155-193.

K. Wynn (1992). Children's acquisition of number words and the counting system. Cognitive Psychology, 24, 220-251.

B. Schaeffer, V. H. Eggleston and J. L. Scott (1974). Number development in young children. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 16, 214-312.

E. S. Spelke and S. Tsivkin (2001). Language and number: A bilingual training study. Cognition, 78, 45-88.

Carol Smith, Joseph Snir and Lorraine Grosslight (1992). Using conceptual models to facilitate conceptual change: The case of weight-density differentiation. Cognitive and Instruction, 9, 221-283.

Hirschfeld, Lawrence A. and Susan A. Gelman (eds.) Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994. For the abstracts of the chapters see:,%20Paul%20L.

Mathieu LeCorre (2003). On the role of analog magnitudes in learning how counting represents number. paper

M. LeCorre: enkele publicaties ism oa. Susan Carey

p. 487 explains the bootstrapping concept used. U crucial role is played here also by 'analogical reasoning, indutive leaps, and inference to the best explanation.' That is remarkable, because each of these in itself are highly complex concepts! Are they 'core concepts' also? I wonder what is happening here. It is absolutely essential to get this issue clear, because these kinds of 'reasoning' are the instruments of choice to effect conceptual change. But then it is imperative to now the pecise mechanisms involved, isn't it?

Be careful here: conceptual change probably is a tricky concept, in that it implies change of kind of concept, not simply one thing-concept for another thing-concept, for example. In the Carey research on the acquisition of a number concept by children, the conceptual change is one of kind, a whole new kind of concept is acquired, no analogy or whatsoever being involved here, other than a kind of 'inductive insight'.

p. 491: p. 492.:

Nersessian, N. J. (2007). "Mental Modeling in Conceptual Change" In S. Vosniadou: The Handbook of Conceptual Change. Erlbaum. In press.pdf

Nersessian, N. J. (2002). Kuhn, conceptual change, and cognitive science. In: Thomas Kuhn, T. Nichols, ed. Contemporary Philosophers in Focus Series, Cambridge University Press.pp. 178-211

N. J. Nersessian (1992). How do scientists think? Capturing the dynamics of conceptual change in science. In R. N. Giere: Cognitive Models of Science. 5-22. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. pdf

D. Klahhr and J. G. Wallace (1976). Cognitive development: An information processing view. Erlbaum.

C. R. Gallistel (1989). Animal cognition: The representation of space, time and number. Annual Review of Psychology, 40, 155-189.

Rochel Gelman site

Gelman, R. (1993). A rational-constructivist account of early learning about numbers and objects. In D. Medin: Learning and motivation. Vol. 30. Academic Press. See Rochel Gelman site for a download.

Gelman, R. and Gallistel, C. R. (1978). The child's understanding of number. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Second printing, 1985. Paperback issue with new preface, 1986. Translated into Japanese (1989) and Italian (1988).

G. G. Corbett (2000). Number. Cambridge University Press.

Gale M. Sinatra (Ed.) (2003). Intentional Conceptual Change. Erlbaum. questia

Philip Van Loocke (Ed.) (1999). The Nature of Concepts: Evolution, Structure, and Representation. Routledge. questia.

Susan Carey (1992). The origin and evolution of everyday concepts. In R. Giere (ed.), Cognitive Models of Science (Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. XV). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 89-128. pdf

conceptual differentiation

Duane Roller (1950). The early development of the concepts of temperature and heat. The rise and decline of the caloric theory. Harvard case histories of experimental science case III. Harvard University Press.

For the works of Max Jammer on the history of - and therefore change in the meaning of - concepts in science, see physicseducation.htm

cognitive science

Walter Schaeken, André Vandierendonck, Walter Schroyens, Géry d'Ydewalle (Eds) (2007). The Mental Models Theory of Reasoning: Refinements and Extensions. Erlbaum. Not yet mentioned on the Erlbaum site.

Jonathan St B.T. Evans (1991). Theories of Human Reasoning: The Fragmented State of the Art. Theory & Psychology, 1, 83-105.

Aidan Feeney, Jonathan St.B.T. Evans and Simon Venn (2000). A rarity heuristic for hypothesis testing. In L. R. Gleitman & A. K. Joshi (Eds), Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 119–124). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. [pdf of paper]

P. N. Johnson-Laird (1989). Mental models. In Michael I. Posner (Ed.) (1989). Foundations of cognitive science (p. 469-499). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. html

Roy D. Pea (1993). Learning Scientific Concepts Through Material and Social Activities. Conversational Analysis Meets Conceptual Change. Educational Psychologist, 28, 265-277. questia

philosophy of science

A. C. Crombie (Ed.) (1963). Scientific change. Historical studies in the intellectual, social and technical conditions for scientific discovery and technical invention, from antiquity to the present. Symposium on the History of Science University of Oxford 9-15 July 1961. London: Heinemann.

Thomas S. Kuhn (1962/1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Larry Laudan (1977). Progress and its problems. Towards a theory of scientific growth. University of California Press.

Nancy J. Nersessian (1992). How do scientists think? Capturing the dynamics of conceptual change in science. In R. Giere: Cognitive models of science. University of Minnesota Press. pdf

Paul R. Pintrich and Gale M. Sinatra (2003). Intentional conceptual change. Erlbaum. questia

Ilkka Niiniluoto and Raimo Tuomela (Eds) (1979). The Logic and epistemology of scientific change. Acta Philosophica Fennica, 30, #2-4. North Holland. isbn-10 9519505415 [a.o.: R. Rorty: From epistemology to hermeneutics - L/ Hertzberg: Criteria and the philosophy of science - L/ Krüger: Does a science need knowledge of its history? - W. Stegmüller: The structuralist view: Survey, recent developments and answers to some criticisms - J. Sneed: Theoretization and invariance principles - W. Hoering: On hypotheses attached to theoretcal concepts - E. Scheibe: On the structure of physical theories - R. Tuomela: Scientific change and approximation - A. Musgrave: How to avoid incommensurability? W. Harper: Conceptual change, incommensurability and special relativity kinematics] [Niiniluoto on scientific progress:] [Niiniluoto: Belief revision and truthlikeness:] [Stuart C. Shapiro (1998). Belief Revision and Truth Maintenance Systems: An Overview and a Proposal.]

Frederick Suppe (Ed.) (1977). The structure of scientific theories. University of Illinois Press.


Monique Boekaerts, Paul Pintrich, Moshe Zeidner (Eds) (2000). Handbook of Self-Regulation. Academic Press. isbn 9780121098902 0121098907, 783 pp., hardcover damaged







Researchers in the field of cognitive change keeping an informative website:

Susan Carey (Harvard) site

Michelene Chi (Pittsburgh) site

Rochel Gelman (Rutgers) site

Stella Vosniadou (Athens) site

Mental Models Website

September 8, 2011 \ contact ben at at at

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