Understanding Conceptual Change

Because learning involves transfer from previous experiences, one’s existing knowledge can also make it difficult to learn new information. Sometimes new information will seem incomprehensible to students, but this feeling of confusion can at least let them identify the existence of a problem (see, e.g., Bransford and Johnson, 1972; Dooling and Lachman, 1971). A more problematic situation occurs when people construct a coherent (for them) representation of information while deeply misunderstanding the new information. Under these conditions, the learner doesn’t realize that he or she is failing to understand. Two examples of this phenomenon are in Chapter 1: Fish Is Fish (Lionni, 1970), where the fish listens to the frog’s descriptions of people and constructs its own idiosyncratic images, and attempts to help children learn that the earth is spherical (Vosniadou and Brewer, 1989). Children’s interpretations of the new information are much different than what adults intend.

The Fish Is Fish scenario is relevant to many additional attempts to help students learn new information. For example, when high school or college physics students are asked to identify the forces being exerted on a ball that is thrown vertically up in the air after it leaves the hand, many mention the “force of the hand” (Clement, 1982a, b). This force is exerted only so long as the ball is in contact with the hand, but is not present when the ball is in flight. Students claim that this force diminishes as the ball ascends and is used up by the time the ball reaches the top of its trajectory. As the ball descends, these students claim, it “acquires” increasing amounts of the gravitational force, which results in the ball picking up speed as it falls back down. This “motion requires a force” misconception is quite common among students and is akin to the medieval theory of “impetus” (Hestenes et al., 1992). These explanations fail to take account of the fact that the only forces being exerted on the ball while it is traveling through the air are the gravitational force caused by the earth and the drag force due to air resistance. (For similar examples, see Mestre, 1994.)

In biology, people’s knowledge of human and animal needs for food provides an example of how existing knowledge can make it difficult to understand new information. A study of how plants make food was conducted with students from elementary school through college. It probed understanding of the role of soil and photosynthesis in plant growth and of the primary source of food in green plants (Wandersee, 1983). Although students in the higher grades displayed a better understanding, students from all levels displayed several misconceptions: soil is the plants’ food; plants get their food from the roots and store it in the leaves; and chlorophyll is the plants’ blood. Many of the students in this study, especially those in the higher grades, had already studied photosynthesis. Yet formal instruction had done little to overcome their erroneous prior beliefs. Clearly, presenting a sophisticated explanation in science class, without also probing

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