Transformation of robust misconceptions through peer argumentation
Domain-specific theories of cognitive development propose that innate mental structures guide learning in early childhood by actively seeking and assimilating different inputs (Carey & Spelke 1994, 1996; Gelman & Brenneman 2004). Whereas some of these structures foster the accumulation of more sophisticated knowledge in a domain, early learning can also interfere with the understanding of complex scientific constructs that children are confronted with in formal instruction. Extensive research has shown that children’s (and adults’) naive theories concerning constructs such as evolution, force and astronomy are not only different from, but incommensurable with the scientifically accepted ones (e.g. Carey 1992; Chi 2008). The radical reorganization (Vosniadou 1999) that is required in these knowledge representations has traditionally been referred to as conceptual change (e.g. Carey & Spelke 1996; Chi 2005). Some of these misconceptions, also referred to as naive theories, everyday concepts or intuitive concepts, are difficult to uproot even with extensive formal instruction (e.g. Limón 2001). They are often very adaptive in and compatible with everyday experience and are sustained by ambiguous language use. In addition, Chi (2005, 2008) has suggested that the robustness of certain misconceptions can be attributed to the fact that students often misinterpret one kind of process, the emergent type, for another, namely direct processes. A direct process is, among others, characterized by the fact that it has a clear beginning and end, a sequence of distinct actions that are contingent and causal, and an identifiable, explicit goal. Emergent processes, on the other hand, are uniform, simultaneous and ongoing and have no clear goal (Chi 2005; Ferrari & Chi 1998). According to Chi, conceptual change in these instances requires a lateral re-categorization to an ontologically different and often lacking conceptual category, that of emergent processes. Natural selection is an example of an emergent process (Ferrari & Chi 1998). However, most students frame evolution as a direct process: For instance, it is often regarded as a process that serves a certain purpose or goal (e.g. becoming better adapted). Moreover, all individual members within a population are considered to develop new characteristics as a result of and in response to changes in the living environment. Similar to other robust misconceptions, naive theories of natural selection have consistently been found to be extremely difficult to uproot,
even following extensive formal instruction on the subject (e.g. Bishop & Anderson 1990; Brumby 1984; Jensen & Finley 1996). The set of studies that we discuss in this chapter focus on whether, when and how peer argumentation may foster conceptual change on scientific topics that have been known to be notoriously difficult to teach. The topic we chose for these studies concerns natural selection. The learning tasks in these studies were designed within the socio-cognitive conflict paradigm, according to which collaborating peers are either confronted with anomalous data or contradicting views and/or are paired with peers who have different views (Limón 2001; Mugny & Doise 1978). Elsewhere we have argued that peer argumentation combines a number of social and cognitive processes that have either been identified or proven to foster concept learning within such task settings (Schwarz & Asterhan in press). However, a causal relation between peer argumentation and conceptual change had not been established yet. This was the goal of our first experimental study.