Conceptualizing misconceptions:
A primer on constructivism and conceptual change
Secondary Science Teaching Methods
Adam Johnston & Sharon Ohlhorst

The good news: Humans are “sense making creatures.”
The bad news: Humans are “sense making creatures.”
The entire concept of constructivism is based on the fact that we are continually making sense of the world around us and any new information. This information does not get stored independently of anything else that’s in our head, but instead gets incorporated into an existing conceptual framework.

This can take place in one of two ways:
• Assimilation: Put the new information into the existing framework.
• Accommodation: Rearrange or rebuild the existing framework. This is generally what’s referred to as “conceptual change”.

To create a conceptual change, 4 factors must be considered and addressed (Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982):
• Dissatisfaction
• Understanding
• Plausibility
• Fruitfulness

Alternative conceptions can be formal understandings or they can be made up on the spot, based on other thinking processes within the conceptual framework. These may be any of the following:

• Theoretical frameworks (Vosniadou, 1994)
• Ontological categories (Chi & Slotta, 1993)
• Phenomenological primitives (“P-prims”) (diSessa, 1993)
• Extrarational factors (Johnston & Southerland, 2001; Strike & Posner, 1992)


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Chi, M. T. H., & Slotta, J. D. (1993). The ontological coherence of intuitive physics. Cognition and Instruction, 10(2 & 3), 249-260.

diSessa, A. A. (1993). Towards an epistemology of physics. Cognition and Instruction, 10(2 & 3), 105-225.

Johnston, A. T., & Southerland, S. A. (2001, March). Conceptualizing the nature of science: Extra-rational evaluations of tiny atoms, round planets, and big bangs. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching, St. Louis, MO.

Posner, G., Strike, K., Hewson, P., & Gertzog, W. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66(2), 211-227.

Strike, K. A., & Posner, G. J. (1992). A revisionist theory of conceptual change. In R. A. Dushl & R. J. Hamilton (Eds.), Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Psychology, and Educational Theory and Practice (pp. 147-176). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Vosniadou, S. (1994). Capturing and modeling the process of conceptual change. Learning and Instruction, 4, 45-69.