Minstrell, a high school physics teacher, describes the process as follows (Minstrell, 1989:130–131):
Students' initial ideas about mechanics are like strands of yarn, some unconnected, some loosely interwoven. The act of instruction can be viewed as helping the students unravel individual strands of belief, label them, and then weave them into a fabric of more complete understanding. Rather than denying the relevancy of a belief, teachers might do better by helping students differentiate their present ideas from and integrate them into conceptual beliefs more like those of scientists.
The understandings that children bring to the classroom can already be quite powerful in the early grades. For example, some children have been found to hold onto their preconception of a flat earth by imagining a round earth to be shaped like a pancake (Vosniadou and Brewer, 1989). This construction of a new understanding is guided by a model of the earth that helps the child explain how people can stand or walk on its surface. Many young children have trouble giving up the notion that one-eighth is greater than one-fourth, because 8 is more than 4 (Gelman and Gallistel, 1978). If children were blank slates, telling them that the earth is round or that one-fourth is greater than one-eighth would be adequate. But since they already have ideas about the earth and about numbers, those ideas must be directly addressed in order to transform or expand them.
Drawing out and working with existing understandings is important for learners of all ages. Numerous research experiments demonstrate the persistence of preexisting understandings among older students even after a new model has been taught that contradicts the naïve understanding. For example, in a study of physics students from elite, technologically oriented colleges, Andrea DiSessa (1982) instructed them to play a computerized game that required them to direct a computer-simulated object called a dynaturtle so that it would hit a target and do so with minimum speed at impact. Participants were introduced to the game and given a hands-on trial that allowed them to apply a few taps with a small wooden mallet to a tennis ball on a table before beginning the game. The same game was also played by elementary schoolchildren. DiSessa found that both groups of students failed dismally. Success would have required demonstrating an understanding of Newton's laws of motion. Despite their training, college physics students, like the elementary schoolchildren, aimed the moving dynaturtle directly at the target, failing to take momentum into account. Further investigation of one college student who participated in the study revealed that