Types of Conceptual Change

There are several different types of conceptual change, some of which are more difficult to achieve than others. Many educators aren’t aware of the different levels of difficulty, so they don’t adjust their instruction when confronting different cases. It isn’t always easy to know which kind of change is needed, and some change will require more time and effort on the part of both teachers and learners. Here we consider three broad types of conceptual change, beginning with the easiest and progressing toward the most challenging.

Elaborating on a Preexisting Concept

The easiest kind of conceptual change involves elaborating on an already existing conceptual structure. In biology, for example, students may learn how species’ anatomical features (e.g., teeth) convey information about the animal’s lifestyle (e.g., diet). Later they might investigate other body parts (e.g., claws, reproductive system) and extrapolate other behaviors (e.g., hunting, mating, cooperating). As students build a foundation of conceptual understanding, extending it with new evidence, knowledge, or experiences that fit well with their current thinking can be relatively easy to accomplish.

Restructuring a Network of Concepts

A more challenging type of conceptual change involves thinking about a preexisting set of concepts in new ways. Grasping the idea of air as matter, for example, requires a change in understanding of the concepts of both air and matter. Once this new understanding of air is fully integrated, the old idea that “air is nothing” is no longer relevant and can be discarded.

Restructuring a network of concepts can also involve uniting concepts previously thought to be fundamentally different or separate. For example, children may initially see liquids and solids as fundamentally different from air. Later they may come to see that all matter is made up of tiny particles and can exist in different “phases.” This requires a shift from thinking of matter as something that can be directly perceived (as something you can see, feel, or touch) to something that takes up space and has mass. Similarly, they must shift from seeing weight as something that is defined and assessed perceptually (how heavy something feels) to a magnitude that is measured and quantified. These steps are necessary if students eventually are to differentiate between weight and density. This type of conceptual change can be difficult and may require



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