Misconceptions: Do We Really Understand Them?

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(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

In the readings for my class today it talked about two Learning Sciences researchers who had fundamentally differing points of view when it comes to conceptual change. Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1970 and suggested that science moves forward through periods of radical change that differ greatly than the periods of relatively little change, which he referred to as “Normal Science”. He talked about scientists who thought the way everyone thought before the radical change and people who changed their thinking via the radical change ceased to see the world the same way. He referred to the change in terms of incommensurability, which referred to the inability of the new way of thinking to be stated in the old way and vice-versa. (Sawyer, 2006)

Conversely, Toulmin wrote Human Understanding in 1972 and it rejected Kuhn’s theory and presented an idea that suggested that the before and after wasn’t so different or defined, alluding to  metaphor of a moving picture rather than two distinctively different images. (Sawyer, 2006)

diSessa, who wrote the chapter A History of Conceptual Change suggested that the two helped form a fragmentation vs. coherence way of looking at conceptual change. Now I am no expert, but I took this, after doing a bit more digging into other articles, to mean that change can happen on the whole to an entire system of conceptual organization of knowledge, or by putting together and organizing all the little pieces of knowledge into a new and more informed conceptual model. If that sounds confusing then I have helped you join me in the same boat.

I found another article, which also written by diSessa, “Coherence versus fragmentation in the development of the concept of force”  which provided a bit more insight into the debate mostly because it suggested the debate was ongoing. Below is taken directly from the writing, and lists the three aims of  the paper:

1. We aim explicitly to articulate and explore an important and broad division among conceptual change theorists. We wish to contribute to the relatively sparse body of literature that self-consciously contrasts different views, and pursues an avenue intended to bring the debate to conclusion.

2. We aim to find common empirical grounds with other researchers, both in terms of age level of subjects and in terms of conceptual focus.

3. We deliberately seek to minimize differences in methods, rather than pursuing paths of investigation natural only to our own theoretical and empirical tradition. (diSessa, Gillespie and Esterly, 2004)

So it would seem, that at the time in 2004 when this paper was written the interested researchers were still trying to develop framework that would make studying conceptual change comparable. I notice a number of variables that they speak of, and that doesn’t even include the idea that maybe conceptual change occurs differently in different disciplines, as one of my classmates brought forward today. It would be interesting, when all the papers are done and I find myself with some time to dig, to dive in a little deeper and see what has occurred in this area of research since diSessa’s paper in 2004.

What I connected with in reviewing the article and seeking out further understanding, is the idea of studying something that, I think, is still trying to be resolved. It really brings the “Sciences” in Learning Sciences to life for me to think that I am looking in on research that pertains to my field and is ongoing, still searching for what could be considered some form of agreement or resolution. If my understanding of conceptual change remains a foggy, I can handle that, but it has caused a stir in me to look into it further, and maybe that’s a big part of what this experience is about.


diSessa, A. A., Esterly, J. B., & Gillespie, N. M. Coherence versus fragmentation in the development of the concept of force. Cognitive Science, 843-900.

Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2006). Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.  NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.




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