Introduction Science Education
for All
Conceptual Change Learning Learning with Multiple Representations
Frontiers of Sciences:
Charles K. Kao and
the Information Age

Learning for Conceptual Change

The conceptual change learning perspectives are now generally used for understanding and improving science education at the time when constructivist approaches have become popular in education. Conceptual change learning has its roots in science education and developmental psychology. Learners’ conceptual prior knowledge, including their ideas, commitments, beliefs, and so on, provides the context within which conceptual change occurs. The key factor to conceptual change is the status of a new conception held or considered by a learner according to three conditions for conceptual change. The conceptual status measures the extent to which the learner (1) knows what the new conception means and can represent it (intelligibility) ; (2) believes the new conception to be true and finds it consistent with or is able to reconcile with it other accepted ideas (is plausibility); and (3)finds the new conception of value useful in solving problems or suggesting new possibilities and directions (fruitfulness). Another conditions for conceptual change is that they must also be dissatisfied with their old conceptions. A fall in the status of a learner’s conception—as intelligibility, plausibility, and/or fruitfulness, respectively, decrease—leads to dissatisfaction, and a rise in the the learner's conceptual status leads to satisfaction of the new conception. Therefore status is the hallmark of conceptual learning (Hewson & Lemberger, 2000).

Multidimensional Conceptual Change

Since the time when Posner, Strike, Hewson, and Gertzog (1982) proposed the well-known conceptual change model, researchers have endeavoured to advance the model beyond the original epistemological perspective. The motivational perspective of conceptual learning was first brought to the attention of science educators when Pintrich, Marx, and Boyle (1993) suggested of applying research on student motivation to the process of conceptual change because of “the theoretical difficulties of a cold, or overly rational, model of conceptual change” (p. 167). They discussed four motivational constructs: goals, values, self-efficacy, and control beliefs, as potential mediators of conceptual change. Chi, Slotta and de Leeuw (1994) suggested an ontological perspective for interpreting conceptual change. They proposed three basic ontologically distinct categories to which physical entities of the world can belong: matter, processes and mental states and two kinds of conceptual change: a change within an ontological category or a change across ontological categories. Drawing from previous researchers' work, Tyson, Harrison, Venville, and Treagust (1997) proposed a multidimensional model that incorporates the epistemological,ontological and social/affective perspectives for interpreting classroom conceptual learning of science. The model has proved to be a robust framework in a number of recent case studies (e.g., Harrison & Treagust, 2001; Venville & Treagust, 1998; Tsui & Treagust, 2007).

In my research, I expanded these dimensions through my studies of how students learn to reason and problem solve through their interaction with multiple external representations, both computer-based and classroom-based. I have enriched the model by drawing on theories of intrinsic motivations in explaining students' interest and fun in learning science, the sociocultural perspectives of Vygotsky (1978) for supporting students working with their peers in reasoning and problem solving, and the discursive views of Lemke (1980) and other researchers who emphasize the role of language in learning science and dialogic interactions in the classroom. In so doing, I am looking at how students can develop a fruitful conception in their learning that gives them power and promise and convinces them that their new conception is a better one.

In my opinion, the other dimensions of conceptual learning, apart from the epistemological one, are important to student learning in Hong Kong and China, where learning of science at school or even university, is primarily for tackling exams and for finding a job afterwards and the motivation is largely extrinsic with not much interest in the subject unless they are involved in a career relevant to such a subject. If students find their learning fruitful, they are more likely to develop lifelong passion for learning, something they continue to value long after they have left school or university.



Harrison, A., & Treagust, D. (2001). Conceptual change using multiple interpretive perspectives: Two cases studies in secondary school chemistry. Instructional Science, 29, 45-85.

Hewson, P., & Lemberger, J. (2000). Status as the hallmark of conceptual learning. In R. Millar, J. Leach & J. Osborne (Eds.), Improving science education: The contribution of research (pp. 110-125). Buckingham UK; Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63(2), 167-199.

Tsui, C.-Y., & Treagust, D. F. (2007). Understanding genetics: Analysis of secondary students' conceptual status. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(2), 205-235.

Tyson, L. M., Venville, G. J., Harrison, A. L., & Treagust, D. F. (1997). A multidimensional framework for interpreting conceptual change events in the classroom. Science Education, 81, 387-404.

Venville, G. J., & Treagust, D. F. (1998). Exploring conceptual change in genetics using a multidimensional interpretive framework. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35, 1031-1055.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.





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