extensive and repeated opportunities to reexamine and think about the concepts in question.

Achieving New Levels of Explanation

Perhaps the most challenging type of conceptual change involves achieving new levels of explanation for particular phenomena; this type of conceptual change is necessary for the advance of students’ scientific understanding. To understand atomic-molecular theory, for example, they need to understand that materials consist of atoms and molecules, and they need to understand the behaviors and interactions of these microscopic constituents of matter. These new levels of understanding provide for a much deeper understanding of many other phenomena, and they connect explanations in one area of science to explanations in other areas of science. For example, once students understand atomic-molecular theory, they are in a position to understand the basic biological processes of living things.

Types of Conceptual Change

  1. Elaborating on a preexisting concept

  2. Restructuring a network of concepts

  3. Achieving new levels of explanation

Developing new levels of explanation can be challenging because fundamental conceptual change requires that existing concepts be reorganized and placed within a larger explanatory structure. Learners have to break out of their familiar frame and reorganize a body of knowledge, often in ways that draw on unfamiliar ideas. Because of the complexity of this process, students are likely to require extensive and well-supported opportunities to work on the development of these new levels of explanation.

Using Prior Knowledge to Make Sense of the World

One common approach to science education in the past has been to focus on students’ “misconceptions.” Children often use their observations and common sense to arrive at conclusions about the world that are incomplete or incorrect. The extreme version of this view is that a kindergartner arrives at school with a bundle of mistaken ideas that need to be corrected.

A more productive way to look at these misconceptions is to see them as children’s attempts to make sense of the world around them. It is true that science instruction should ultimately aim to have children understand scientific explanations of natural phenomena, but if one jumps to scientific explanations too fast,

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement