SmithC - C&I 2007

Bootstrapping Processes in the Development of Students' Commonsense Matter Theories: Using Analogical Mappings, Thought Experiments, and Learning to Measure to Promote Conceptual Restructuring
Cognition and Instruction
2007, Vol. 25, No. 4, Pages 337-398

Carol L. Smith
University of Massachusetts at Boston

This study explores whether the development of students' understanding of matter as something that occupies space and has weight involves conceptual change and restructuring rather than only simple belief revision. Based on an analysis of how the concepts in students' initial matter theory (henceforth MT1) may differ from the concepts in the matter theory that is a target of middle school instruction (MT2), I propose ways that concepts in a given theory cohere with each other and identify the sources of the new ideas in MT2 and the learning processes by which those new ideas can be acquired. I test implications of these analyses by designing a curriculum unit that exploits these learning mechanisms, by using the curriculum with 4 classes of eighth-grade Earth Science students, and by assessing 42 students' thinking about matter, object size, and weight (via individual interviews and written tests) before and after the teaching unit. Consistent with the hypothesis of conceptual restructuring, the data not only show coherencies in students' thinking about matter, size, and weight before and after teaching, but also coordinated patterns of change. The implications for the design of science instruction are discussed.