Concept formation

Words and ideas develop and change in meaning as children get older or as science progresses over cultural or historical time. As our minds constantly try to make sense of our everyday experiences, we build up mental models which begin to fit with incoming sensory data. Consider the following example relating to gases.

Gases and vapours, to Isaac Newton, were ethereal, like light, sound and smells; they had no real substance. Such 'vapours' were classed as imponderable (meaning unweighable; here pond is the same word as pound, the unit of weight). Later in the eighteenth century scientists such as Lavoisier were trapping gases over water and mercury, and realising that they could be weighed, and thus came to realise that gases were real, substantial forms of matter, made of stuff, just like solids and liquids. This work led to Dalton's atomic theory in 1810, when he proposed that all matter, including gases, was made of atoms. The old idea of imponderable gases is sensible to many children and we cannot hope that they will come up with the new ideas by themselves, though some might! We shouldn't be surprised if they hold the same 'naive' ideas of scientists of old.

It is often helpful to consider children as re-living the course of history as they grapple with the task of understanding their environment. By 'standing on the shoulders of giants' (e.g. through the input from teachers) they acquire an understanding unheard of 20, 50 or 100 years ago. A powerful way to help children with their misconceptions is to show them that other, quite learned, people saw the world very much as they do, and to show the children the problems with the old ideas and why new ideas were needed - the notion of cognitive conflict. Sutton (1992) suggests we should show pupils scientists' initial thoughts about a revolutionary theory, and ask, Well, Mary, what do you think these people had in mind when they put it that way?' (p. 80).

Not all topics lend themselves to this approach, but the principle that children need to have time and help to construct their own meanings is at the heart of modern approaches to teaching.

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