Alternative Conceptions and the Learning of Chemistry

Alt Conceptions & tLoC

Taber, K. S. Alternative Conceptions and the Learning of Chemistry. Israel Journal of Chemistry, 0(0). doi:10.1002/ijch.201800046


The abstract reads:

A great deal of research has indicated that teaching is rarely a matter of introducing learners to material that simply replaces previous ignorance, but is more often a matter of presenting ideas that are somewhat at odds with existing understanding. In subjects such as chemistry, learners at school and university come to their studies already holding misconceptions or ‘alternative conceptions’ of subject matter. This has implications for subsequent learning, and so for teaching. This article reviews a number of key issues: (i), the origins of these alternative conceptions; (ii), the nature of these ideas; and, (iii), how they influence learning of the chemistry curriculum. These issues are in turn significant for guidance on (a) how curriculum should be selected and sequenced, and (b) on the pedagogy likely to be most effective in teaching chemistry. A specific concern reported in chemistry education is that one source of alternative conceptions seems to be instruction itself.


An invitation

This is one of those somewhat awkward articles – an invited article which none-the-less has to pass through and satisfy peer review. As the name suggests, Israel Journal of Chemistry is not an education journal but a chemistry journal. I was therefore pleased to learn that it was to have a special issue on Chemistry Education as often educational scholarship does not feature in mainstream natural science journals.

As a review article I was aware I had written quite a long piece, and felt that I needed to avoid it becoming over-long. The review process was supportive as recommendations from reviewers gave me the opportunity to develop some aspects further that I have initially felt I had space to do. I think the final review is better for that.

Whilst I was working on this review, Israel was in the news – once again – due to issues of conflict with its Palestinian neighbours. I am by nature a pacifist, but also not so stupid not to be aware that this is a luxury more easily afforded to someone who has never faced war, nor the kind of provocation that arises in major conflicts. Although I have been inconvenienced by terrorism in the UK, and have of course seen the outcome of it in the media, I have never lost a loved one or been injured or made homeless in such actions. It is very hard to fully appreciate the position of those who are directly affected by such issues (and I hope I never do). The State of Israel sometimes behaves in ways I consider completely unacceptable, but I also recognise that innocent Israelis are subject to totally unacceptable attacks as well. I appreciate the frustrations of the Palestinians in Gaza, without accepting this justifies terrorism. I also appreciate how people in living in Israel should not have to face terrorist attacks, but do not feel this justifies the Israeli state responding in ways that seem to many outside the situation to be little better than state terrorism and criminality.

I did wonder if publishing in a ‘national’ journal (the official journal of the Israel Chemical Society) might be considered as ‘taking sides’, or offering tacit support for the state Policies in Israel. However, I have professional friends and colleagues in Israel, and they have done nothing to deserve to be isolated from the international community. I am also something of an internationalist – I have always felt that the greater the cultural integration of people from different countries, the better the networking, and the more they work together to address common issues and problems, the harder it becomes for governments to take their peoples to war lightly. So, on balance, I am pleased to make a contribution.

The structure of the article is:

1. Introduction

2. Examples of Learners’ Alternative Conceptions in Chemistry (2.1 Some Examples of Common Alternative Conceptions in Chemistry; 2.2 An Alternative Conceptual Framework: the Octet Framework)

3. The Nature of Alternative Conceptions (3.1 Conceptions Vary in their Match to Canonical Knowledge; 3.2 Degree of Commitment to a Conception; 3.3 The Presence of Manifold Conceptions; 3.4 Degree of Integration of Conceptions; 3.5 Tacit Knowledge Elements; 3.6 Degree of Commonality of Alternative Conceptions; 3.7 Conceptual Change)

4. Acquiring Personal Conceptions (4.1 The Acquisition of Implicit Knowledge; 4.2 Cultural Facilitation of Learning; 4.3 Sources of Alternative Conceptions)

5. Implications of Alternative Conceptions for Learning (5.1 The Challenge of Class Teaching; 5.2 Working with Students’ Thinking)

6. Pedagogy that Takes into Account Alternative Conceptions (6.1 Diagnosing Student Thinking; 6.2 Responding to Alternative Conceptions: Working for Conceptual Change; 6.3 Recruiting Productive Facets of Student Thinking; 6.4 Explicitly Teaching About Models; 6.5 Teaching Informed by the History and Philosophy of Chemistry)

7. Summary and Outlook


Writing something new?

There is something of an inherent tension is constructing invited reviews of this kind. People are asked because they are considered to know something about the topic, which is usually based on being known for having written quite a bit about the matter already! So there is then something of a balancing act in writing reviews of this kind. To some extent they will re-tread previous writing on the same theme (as the perceived usefulness of such writing is why someone was selected to contribute on the topic). However, if a review simply reproduces work already published, then it does not really add anything to the topic.

The aim as an author then is to offer something more insightful, or organised in a more provocative or fruitful way, of with a new range, compared with earlier work on the topic. (I hope I have done so, but that is for others to judge.)

A particular issue here was  matter of audience. Some research reports, perspectives and reviews are written primarily for other researchers – with the intention of moving forward a particular research programme that a community works in. Other writing is intended primarily for non-researchers, practitioners such as teachers. Researchers and teachers bring different background knowledge, different expectations, even different lexicons to the writing. Writing for researchers is often expected to be technical (so almost curt); but for teachers to offer exemplification that links to their everyday classroom practice. The audience I was expecting here was primarily research chemists, most of whom have a teaching role in a university or research institution. The assumption was that many readers had limited exposure to educational ideas. I hope I have met the needs of the audience, but again that is for others to judge.


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