Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 8902 April 1, 1989
Enhancing Learning Through Conceptual Change Teaching
by William C. Kyle, Jr., E. Desmond Lee Family,
Professor of Science Education, University of Missouri - St. Louis,
St. Louis, MO and James A. Shymansky, Professor of Science Education,
University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
From the moment of birth infants begin to generate views about
their new environment. As children develop, there is a need construct
meaning regarding how and why things behave as they do. And, long
before children begin the process of formal education, they attempt
to make sense of the natural world. Thus, children begin to construct
sets of ideas, expectations, and explanations about natural phenomena
to make meaning of their everyday experiences. The ideas and
explanations that children generate form a complex framework for
thinking about the world and are frequently different from the views
of scientists. These differing frameworks are referred to in the
literature as misconceptions, alternative conceptions, or alternative
frameworks. Since the early 1970s, research in science education and
cognitive science has enriched our understanding of the importance of
the ideas and explanations that students possess prior to
instruction. This research has direct implications concerning the
nature of learning science, as well as the process of teaching
Prior Knowledge and Conceptions of Students
Teachers have always recognized the need to start instruction
"where the student is." David Ausubel (1968) emphasized this by
distinguishing between meaningful learning and rote learning. For
meaningful learning to occur, new knowledge must be related by the
learner to relevant existing concepts in that learner's cognitive
structure. For this reason, Ausubel contends that, "The most
important single factor influencing learning is what the learner
already knows." Ausubel also commented on the importance of
preconceptions in the process of learning, noting that they are
"amazingly tenacious and resistant to extinction...the unlearning of
preconceptions might well prove to be the most determinative single
factor in the acquisition and retention of subject-matter
Perhaps the most comprehensive interdisciplinary assessment of
children's conceptions of science is the Learning in Science Project
in New Zealand (Osborne & Freyberg, 1985). The following
examples, from the work of the Learning in Science Project, exemplify
conceptions that children ages 5 to 18 possess on a variety of
topics, while contrasting those views with the scientific
Scientific Perspective: Living things are distinguished
from nonliving things in their ability to carry on the following life
processes: movement; metabolism; growth; responsiveness to
environmental stimuli; and, reproduction.
Children's Views: Objects are living if they move and/or grow.
For example, the sun, wind, and clouds are living because they move.
Fires are living because they consume wood, move, require air,
reproduce (sparks cause other fires), and give off waste (smoke).
Scientific Perspective: A plant is a
Children's Views: A plant is something growing in a garden.
Carrots and cabbage from the garden are not plants; they are
vegetables. Trees are not plants; they are plants when they are
little, but when they grow up they are not plants. Seeds are not
plants. Dandelions are not plants; they are weeds. Plants are only
things that are cultivated; the more food, water, and sunlight they
get the better. Plants take their food from the environment. They
have multiple sources of food. Photosynthesis is not important to
Scientific Perspective: A current of electricity, or
electric current, is a flow of electrically charged particles through
Force and Motion
Children's View: Electric current flows from battery to bulb
and is used up.
Scientific Perspective: Force is a push or a pull on an
object. A body remains at rest or in uniform motion unless acted upon
by a force.
children's Perspective: A body requires a force to keep it in
motion. Force is always in the direction of motion. There is no force
acting upon a body that is not in motion.
Scientific Perspective: Gravity is a force between any two
masses. Gravity depends on the size of the masses and the distance
between their centers.
Children's Perspective: Gravity is something that holds us to
the ground. If there was no air there would be no gravity. For
example, above the earth's atmosphere there is no gravity, and you
become "weightless". Gravity increases with height above the earth's
surface. It is associated with downward falling objects.
Research related to students' conceptual reasoning and the
elucidation of alternative frameworks has also been conducted on the
following scientific concepts and/or topics: air and air pressure,
density, dynamics, the earth, ecological matter cycling, energy, heat
and temperature, light and vision, mechanics, natural selection, the
particular nature of matter, and respiration and photosynthesis
(readers interested in more comprehensive reviews should refer to
Driver & Erickson, 1983; Driver, Guesne & Tiberghien, 1985;
Gilbert & Watts, 1983; West & Pines, 1985; as well as
publications available from The Institute for Research on
Learning science for most students involves a process of
conceptual change. Anderson and Roth (in press) note that students
who achieve an understanding of a scientific topic successfully
integrate accurate scientific knowledge with their own personal
knowledge of the world. Research suggests, however, that many
students fail to do this; instead, they view scientific knowledge as
being separate and distinct from their personal knowledge. For these
students science is merely a compilation of strange, obscure facts
rather than a system of conceptual schemes for understanding their
Formal science instruction does not change the alternative
frameworks held by many students. In fact, while we have referred to
alternative conceptions common to elementary school students have
been found to exist among high school students and college students.
We observe many adults who have conceptions that are substantially
different from those of scientists. With this in mind, if
preconceptions are as tenacious as Ausubel contends, how can teachers
enhance the likelihood of conceptual development and thereby improve
students' science conceptions?
Teaching for Conceptual Change
Driver (1983) notes that the alternative conceptions that students
have constructed to interpret their experiences have been developed
over an extended period of time; one or two classroom activities are
not going to change those ideas. She emphasizes that students must be
provided time individually, in groups, and with the teacher to think
and talk through the implications and possible explanations of what
they are observing-and this takes time. Improving students' science
conceptions may begin by recognizing that "less is more." That is, we
may need to decrease the amount of new material introduced to
students each year if we truly desire to enhance their conceptions of
In teaching for conceptual change, students must experience
conflict with their expectations. It is only reasonable that students
would not accept a new idea with first feeling that their existing
views are unsatisfactory in some way. Posner et. al. (1982) suggest
that if students are going to change their ideas:
1. They must become dissatisfied with their existing
2. The scientific conception must be intelligible.
3. The scientific conception must appear plausible.
4. The scientific conception must be useful in a variety of new
Teaching for conceptual change then, demands a teaching strategy
where students are given time to: identify and articulate their
preconceptions; investigate the soundness and utility of their own
ideas and those of others, including scientists; and, reflect on and
reconcile differences in those ideas. The Generative Learning Model
(GLM) is a teaching/learning model that substantially provides this
opportunity. In the GLM, the learner is an active participant in the
learning context rather than an empty cup to be filled (refer to
Osborne & Freyberg for a more detailed description of the
Generative Learning Model). The GLM has four instructional phases
aimed at enabling the learner to construct meaning. Using the GLM, a
- Ascertains students' ideas, expectations, and explanations
prior to instruction.
- Provides a context through motivating experiences related to
- Facilitates the exchange of views and challenges students to
compare ideas, including the evidence for the scientific
- Provides opportunities for students to use the new ideas
(scientific conceptions) in familiar settings.
Teachers who effectively implement the GLM promote a learning
environment that engages students in an active search and acquisition
of new knowledge. Learning is characterized by a process of
interaction between the student's mind and the stimuli providing new
information. Such a learning environment enables students to modify
their existing cognitive structures. Students experience a dynamic
interaction between their preconceptions and the appropriate
The generative model for teaching/learning acknowledges a
constructivist approach to the process of learning. That is, students
construct meaning from their experiences. This is precisely how
Piaget viewed the process or learning (1929/1969). Piaget referred to
the process of acquisition and incorporation of new data into an
existing structure as "assimilation" and the resulting modification
of that structure as "accommodation." In learning science then, the
new facts, ideas, and concepts that are acquired gain more meaning by
being organized (assimilated) into a cognitive structure; at the same
time, the existing cognitive structure is given further clarification
and support, or perhaps even changed, by incorporating new
information (accommodating itself to the new data). The instructional
process to facilitating conceptual change must therefore: 1) identify
and address students' alternative conceptions, 2) provide
opportunities for students' ideas to evolve, and 3) enable students'
new ideas to be applied in a context familiar to them.
If teachers are to improve students' science conceptions we must
- students come to science class with ideas,
- students' ideas are often different from scientists,
- students' preconceptions are strongly held,
- traditional instruction (rote learning) will not lead to
substantial conceptual change, and
- effective instructional strategies enable teachers to teach
for conceptual change and understanding.
The key to altering the ideas, explanations, and conceptions of
science that students possess is to find out and use what students
already know. The challenge of teaching science is to ensure that you
do not leave intact students' alternative conceptions or fill
students with ideas and explanations which have little chance of
being understood. The conceptual change teaching literature on
generative learning may provide you with a solution to that
Anderson, C. W., & Roth, K. J. (in press). Teaching for
meaningful and self-regulated learning of science. In J. Brophe
(Ed.), Teaching for meaningful and self-regulated learning.
Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Ausubel, D. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view.
New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
Driver, R. (1983). The pupil as scientist? Milton Keynes,
England: The Open University Press.
Driver R., & Erickson, G. (1983). Theories-in-Action: Some
theoretical and empirical issues in the study of students' conceptual
frameworks in science. Studies in Science Education, 10,
Driver, R., Guesne, E., & Tiberghien, A. (1985). children's
ideas in science. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
Gilber, J. K., & Watts, D. M. (1983). Concepts, misconceptions
and alternative conceptions: Changing perspectives in science
education. Studies in Science Education, 10, 61-98.
Osborne, R., & Freyberg, P. (1985). Learning in science: The
implications of children's science. Portsmouth, NH:
Piaget, J. (1929/1969). The child's conception of the world.
Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams, & Co.
Posner, G. J. Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A.
(1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of
conceptual change. Science Education, 66, 211-227.
West, L. H., & Pines, A. L. (eds.). (1985). Cognitive
structure and conceptual change. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Research Matters - to the Science
is a publication of the National Association
for Research in Science Teaching