Science Education and Changing People’s Minds Part 1: Introduction to conceptual change

This is the first post in a series that looks at how science education research can contribute to discussions about the best way to change someone’s mind about scientific issues such as evolution, climate change, natural medicine and paranormal activities.

Monday, I introduced the idea for this series, saying that it had recently occurred to me that when I’ve been asked about what I do to convince my friends and family to think scientifically I haven’t made the connection to studies done in my own research area. It’s amazing how we can compartmentalize our lives that way. As a result, my plan is to take a summer tour through the science education literature to see how what we’ve learned about teaching children and youth scientific concepts can contribute to engaging with larger issues in the public sphere.

Conceptual change theory is one of the keystones of science education research and I think one of the areas that has the largest contribution to make to this discussion. To get going, I’d like to start with a short introduction to conceptual change, explaining some key ideas and their origins. If you’re familiar with learning literature from cognitive or developmental psychology, many of these ideas will be similar but maybe with some different names and subtle differences in definition and interpretation.

Conceptual change isn’t what I’d call a hot topic in science ed research at the moment (it was in the 80s and 90s) but it’s one of the constants, something that most science education researchers would probably identify as a foundation of their understanding of teaching and learning. It is one of the core topics of the science teacher education courses that I teach.

The main idea behind conceptual change research is that students are not blank slates when they enter our science classrooms (or empty buckets if you prefer that analogy)[i]. They have complex, interconnected and established understanding of the way the physical world works that they’ve developed through the interactions with it. It’s just that, often, that understanding either conflicts with a more scientific understanding or is missing significant elements. When students have developed these ideas mostly through their own informal observations and experiences, we tend to call their non-scientific ideas alternative conceptions or everyday conceptions. Some really common ones are that electricity only needs a single wire to flow or that balls carry with them some type of force that keeps them going after they’ve been thrown or kicked. There are also misunderstandings that students learn either directly from other sources or by misunderstanding something they hear or read (often specifically in previous science classes). We usually call these misconceptions, although this term is sometimes used to refer to all misunderstandings to.

In line with most cognitive psychology research, science educators take the perspective that contradictory evidence or experience is necessary for changing conceptions. We sometimes call these challenges discrepant events but the idea is closely related to Piaget’s idea of cognitive disequilibrium and more generally to cognitive dissonance. One of my favourite strategies for challenging misconceptions through discrepant events is the Predict, Observe, Explain cycle. The idea is to present a scenario that students will either try themselves or see as a demonstration, for example showing a vacuum tube with a feather and a penny inside it. Students are asked to make a prediction about what will happen and to support their prediction with an explanation. This brings students alternative conceptions explicitly out into the open (called activation). Students then get the chance to see the demo or try the activity and (if all goes according to plan) it should contradict what they predicted, leading to gasps of “oh wow!” “Wait, what? Why did that happen?” That’s the discrepant event – the result is the opposite of what the students expected (e.g., the feather and the penny fall at exactly the same rate). After the exclamations of surprise have settled down, teacher and students work together to construct new explanations to account for this experience. The cycle is best done repeatedly, always pushing the students a little bit further.

For this cycle to be effective, it is not only the discrepant event or information that matters. The content and form of the new scientific ideas is also important. George Posner and his colleagues at Cornell[ii] initially codified the idea of conceptual change as a way of thinking about science learning. They emphasized how difficult and complex the process is and based their analogy on the way that theory change happens in a scientific field, drawing on literature from sociology and history of science. They likened students’ new conceptions and the way students accept ideas from their teachers and peers to the process of creating new scientific ideas, to paradigm shifts and program change (to use the words of Kuhn and Lakatos). They proposed that to be accepted and integrated into students views of the world, new ideas (whether presented by their teacher or created by the students themselves) need to be:

  • Intelligible: It has to be graspable by the students. This can be as simple as using words that make sense but it can also mean that the causal reasoning has to be accessible to the them. Young students often see the world from the perspective of one way cause and effect – one thing always directly causes another. Teaching students about electric circuits for example can be difficult because charges and flow need to be thought of as both simultaneously cause and effect. If this isn’t clear, circuit concepts can be unintelligible.[iii]
  • Plausible: It has to fit with students’ previous experiences at least as well as their own ideas did. In a great vignette of conceptual change, Bruce Watson and Richard Kopnicek describe a teacher who challenges her students to understand that sweaters and mittens are insulators and not heat sources. They try several different scenarios, putting thermometers inside their warm layers to see what happens. The new idea (that they’re insulators) becomes plausible as the teacher helps them see that this explanation would also explain why sweaters feel warm when you wear them.
  • Fruitful: If students are going to make the difficult effort to change their ideas, there needs to be reason: The new idea needs to be fruitful. In particular, it should help them understand things that they couldn’t explain or understand with their own prior conceptions. For example, the idea that sweaters are insulators is fruitful because in addition to explaining why sweaters feel warm, it explains why the thermometers don’t show any increase in temperature when no one is wearing the sweater. Ideas can also be fruitful when they open up new questions and new avenues of investigation. The idea that sweater are insulators opens up the intriguing possibility that they can also keep things cool.

It doesn’t take a big stretch to think about how this cycle might apply beyond the classroom. When engaging in outreach and public education about climate change, for example, there is more to the process than providing contradictory evidence or information. How effective might public communication strategies be with more attention to this last phase, providing resources to build new conceptions of climate that are intelligible, plausible and fruitful?

Of course, nothing as difficult as changing someone’s ideas of the natural world is as simple as following a few steps. Conceptual change is more like ecological change that retail exchange. There is no such thing as simply swapping one conception for another like a sweater that doesn’t fit. Conceptual change is very difficult. Even when excellent and powerful contradictory evidence is provided and new ideas are intelligible, plausible and fruitful, change is messy and often temporary.

In the opening minutes of the documentary A Private Universe we are introduced to a science student who is describes by her teacher as an excellent student and someone likely to answer the questions correctly. The researchers then ask her explain what she knows about the seasons. She starts with some simple facts that she’s learned (e.g., the Earth takes 365 days to go around the sun) and then adds some explanatory details that she has developed (e.g., the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun helps explain the seasons) but when she is probed further, the explanation gets more and more convoluted. The Earth ends up with a strange and complicated looped orbit as she tries to connect what she has learned in school with the other ideas that she has. We see her struggling to make sense of what seems more like a bramble bush of ideas than a coherent understanding.

She is not unusual, our understandings (sometimes called mental models) usually contain mixes of thoughts, beliefs, learned ideas, and physical experiences. The term conceptual ecology is often used because it captures the complex way we think about things.[iv] Challenging one idea doesn’t always have the intended effect, just like adding an organism to an ecosystem to solve one problem often causes many others. Developing real and deep understanding takes many many experiences and opportunities to make sense of a new way of understanding the world. When we wonder about helping people accept evolution, we’re not just asking them to learn a new idea but instead to challenge a deep and interconnected web of understandings about the natural world.

And this is what I mean by changing people’s mind. Teaching science isn’t about transmitting ideas that students write down and then know. It is a difficult process of helping them see the world in a new way – connecting it to all other efforts to encourage critical and scientific thinking in the public sphere.

Now that you’ve got a sense of what I mean by conceptual change and I’ve introduced some of the key terms that I’ll use, the remaining posts in this series will look at conceptual change research. For example, what writing strategies are most effective in supporting conceptual change? With a significant amount of science communication being text based (from newspapers to blogs to twitter) what writing styles and text structures are most effective in changing conceptions? The acceptance and rejection of some scientific ideas is also tied into ideological movements and community solidarity. What then are the influences of social influences on conceptual change? What makes people motivated to change their minds or hang onto conceptions even in the face of strong contradictory evidence? These are just a few of the questions that I’d like to explore.

Do you have any suggestions for a question to explore or a particular paper to discuss? Drop me a note in the comments!

[i] This is a view descended from Piaget’s work with young children’s explanations of the world:

Piaget, J. The child’s conception of the world. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929.

Piaget, J . The child’s conception of physical causality. London: Kegan Paul, 1930.

[ii] This paper was the first and seminal paper to explicitly think of science learning through the analogy of conceptual change.

Posner, G.J., Strike, K.A., & Hewson, P.A., & Gertzog, W.A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception:

Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66, 211-227.

[iii] If you’re interested in reading more about electric circuits and causal reasoning, Tina Grotzer and Margot Sudbury (Harvard University) conducting a great study exploring and categorizing the reasoning Grade 4 students use to explain circuits.

[iv] Posner et al. say that they borrowed the term from Stephen Toulmin but Piaget also made the analogy that when babies encounter new objects it is like a new species being introduced into an ecosystem.


3 responses to “Science Education and Changing People’s Minds Part 1: Introduction to conceptual change”

  1. Hi Dr Shanahan,

    You asked: “what writing strategies are most effective in supporting conceptual change? With a significant amount of science communication being text based (from newspapers to blogs to twitter) what writing styles and text structures are most effective in changing conceptions?”.

    I truly hope you don’t restrict future comments on effective strategies supporting conceptual change to written forms. Audio-visual media also play a key role in communicating sciences, specially when the concept is novel and/or hard to grasp. For instance, in my opinion, the discussion over climate change only gathered significant momentum when Al Gore was featured on the “An Inconvenient Truth” movie. Before then, governments from all over the world were not “as” engaged in tackling climate change “as” they currently are. Again, in my opinion, it’s important to discuss the roles and structures of forms of communication other than the written ones.

    Can’t wait

    Best regards,


    • Hi Cris – Thanks for asking. You are absolutely right about the importance of other forms of communication. Partly, I just mentioned text because it’s the topic of my next post so it was on my mind when I was writing. That said, there actually isn’t as much research, from science ed anyway, on other communication media. The science ed research focuses mostly on experiential activities, text and interpersonal interactions between students and teachers. You’ve asked a good question though and I’ll put extra effort into tracking some down! 🙂

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