The Case for Dynamic Models of Learners' Ontologies in Physics
Ayush Gupta, David Hammer, and Edward F. Redish
Submitted to The Journal of the Learning Sciences on 02/28/2008
In a series of well-known papers, Chi and Slotta (Chi, 1992; Chi & Slotta, 1993; Chi, Slotta & de Leeuw, 1994; Slotta, Chi & Joram, 1995; Chi, 2005; Slotta & Chi, 2006) have contended that a reason for students' difficulties in learning physics is that they think about concepts as things rather than as processes, and that there is a significant barrier between these two ontological categories. We contest this view, arguing that expert and novice reasoning often and productively traverses ontological categories. We cite examples from everyday, classroom, and professional contexts to illustrate this. We agree with Chi and Slotta that instruction should attend to learners' ontologies; but we find these ontologies are better understood as dynamic and context-dependent, rather than as static constraints. To promote one ontological description in physics instruction, as suggested by Slotta and Chi, could undermine novices' access to productive cognitive resources they bring to their studies and inhibit their transition to the dynamic ontological flexibility required of experts.