PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Conceptual change, models and science education

Conceptual change in science is a tough nut to crack. Ever since Kuhn pointed to what appeared to be incommensurability issues we have been on shaky ground. We have come a long way in understanding the complexity and intricacies of scientific practice but it is questionable if we have come closer to understanding what really happens when concepts radically change. Things do not get any easier when we face the task of explaining such a change in a classroom setting.
I consider the role models play in conceptual change and the interplay between novel scientific concepts.
We use the example for modeling Minkowski spacetime developed by Robert Geroch in his book Relativity from A to B, (1981) and suggest that his model gives some clues for an alternative approach to modeling scientific concepts which require fundamental conceptual change. Furthermore, this alternative approach can be of use in science education.
I consider two questions:
1. Must the conceptual change be undergone first in order to successfully and accurately model the new concept?
2. Is it helpful to use the historical approach when teaching concepts that involve conceptual change?
It seems reasonable to think that understanding the conceptual transformation from space and time to spacetime first, makes it easier to build a model of spacetime. This is the underlying assumption that Clark Chin and Ala Samarapungavan make (2007). Their objective is to find ways to facilitate conceptual change because they see the lack of understanding of the conceptual change that produced the concept as the main obstacle for students’ ability to build a model of it. I argue that this is not necessarily the case: in certain cases (spacetime for example) building the model can facilitate understanding of the conceptual change.
In a similar vein, although understanding how scientific concepts developed can often give clues for how to teach them I argue that in some cases the historical approach is counterproductive. Nancy Nersessian contends that the same kind of reasoning used in scientific discovery could be employed in science education and that problem-solving methods in science should work in teaching science (Nersessian, 1989). I essentially agree with this view but with a caveat. I argue that in some cases the historical approach might be constraining and in particular that the spacetime example shows that ignoring the historical path in certain cases is more successful.
Geroch’s approach to building a model for spacetime shows that we do not necessarily need to understand the new concept before modelling it – building a model can be a way getting students to understand the new concept. It suggests further that in certain cases ignoring the discovery path may be more effective in teaching novel scientific concepts. Furthermore, I propose that Geroch’s way to model spacetime can be successfully combined with the qualitative approaches to teaching advanced physics suggested in the ReleQuant project that aims to build such qualitative modules for teaching physics in Norwegian high schools (Bungum, Berit et al., 2015)

Author Information:

Dragana Bozin    
Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas
University of Oslo


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