Teachers who use strategies that effectively challenge and encourage students to revisit their strongly held ideas about science promote learning because students are provided time individually, in groups, and with the teacher to think and talk through the implications and possible explanations of what they observe and investigate.

Teaching for Conceptual Change

Students need to make sense of their world.  Over an extended period of time they construct their own explanations for how and why things behave as they do.  Long before they begin formal schooling, children have made meaning of their everyday experiences.  One or two classroom activities are not going to change ideas that “work” for students.

Even after what appears to be a well-taught lesson, students invariably hold on to the explanations they had already constructed before teaching began.  Research has shown that all learners hold on to their ideas tenaciously, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Teaching for conceptual change takes time.  Students need to identify and articulate their ideas, to investigate the soundness and usefulness of their own ideas, and those of others, including scientists, and to reflect on and reconcile differences in those ideas.

Many science programs assume that students are “blank slates” and that it is the teacher’s job to fill the empty places with information.  Modern learning theorists directly contradict this.

Even if they recognize the many advantages of incorporating new material into a student’s own context, most teachers do not take time to assess what their students have learned from prior experiences.  If teachers do not assess and challenge a student’s theory, then the scientific theory or explanation will co-exist with the one already held by the student.  This creates a confusing mass of fact and fiction.  On their own students almost never use logical arguments or recognize the internal contradictions between their naive theories or ideas and those of experts.  It is the teacher’s task to ensure that these are conscious experiences for the student.

The challenge of teaching science is to ensure that students do not leave classrooms with their alternatative explanations intact or with new ideas and explanations that they do not understand.  Students will more readily discard misconceptions that they have defended than those that they have not examined at all.  Teachers should encourage students to look for inconsistencies between ideas they have and what their observations and exploration reveal to them.  Some students will find this frustrating and will continue reasoning that justifies their old beliefs;  for others, this experience will change their thinking.


“In too many classrooms across the U.S., science is still taught as a cohesive set of facts to be absorbed, and children are viewed as blank slates on which teachers are to write.”

Bruce Watson
and Richard Konicek



Conceptual Change Method

editor's comment:  I didn't write this page, and I don't have a reference for where it came from.   /   an IOU - Later, but probably not until 2011, I'll make a links-page citing the best pages I've found about this important teaching strategy.   Until then, you can begin with an overview from ERIC Digest which has links to four RESOURCES ON THE WEB.


Driver, R. (1983). The pupil as scientist?  Milton Keynes, England: The Open University Press.

Driver contributed much of the learning theory that underlies conceptual change teaching and has been one of its most articulate proponents.
Gil Perez, D., & Carrascosa Alis, J. (1985). Science learning as a conceptual and methodological change. European Journal of Science Education, 7, 231-236.
The authors refute some of the criticisms of the conceptual change model and discuss how misconceptions can form in the minds of children or adults.  They draw a parallel between the misconceptions of early science scholars and those of young children, and argue that successful teaching for conceptual change means nothing short of a scientific revolution in the minds of the students.
Kyle, W., & Shymansky, J. (1989). Enhancing learning through conceptual change. Research Matters...To the Science Teacher, 21.
This article discusses the development of conceptual change teaching from learning theory research.  It also gives several specific examples of misconceptions that show how they are consistent with a student’s observed world.
Watson, B., & Konicek, R. (1990). Teaching for conceptual change: Confronting children’s experience.  Phi Delta Kappen, 71, 680-685.
This is a review of teaching for conceptual change through the example of a fourth-grade teaching activity. It identifies the factors that permit misconceptions to survive traditional teaching and offers several general strategies and practices.

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