FASTLY - Faith & Science Teaching

Essay: Conceptual Change: It’s Hard!

Conceptual Change: It’s Hard!

Consider a common teaching scenario: 

Mr. Bergwerff (teacher): Let’s think about what seeds need to germinate. Do you think seeds need sunlight to germinate?
Liesl (student):  Yes.
T:  Why do you think that is?
S:  They need sunlight, you know, for energy. [Pause]. Plants won’t grow in the dark.
T:  Think about this test. What if I put, say, 20 seeds in a ZiplocTM bag, and I add a little water and a paper towel to hold things in place, and then I put the bag in a dark closet? I could do the same for another bag, but this one would go in sunlight. After a few days, which bag will have more seeds sprouted?
S:  The one in the sun.
T:  What if the result is that the same number of seeds germinate in each bag?
S:  Then you must have done something wrong. 

Liesl’s view is sensible. She has tested it and it makes sense of her past experiences. Yet Liesl holds a well-established misconception. The result mentioned by Mr. Bergwerff is not surprising: seeds are planted underground and people eat seeds for the energy stored in them. However, Liesl’s first thought is to dismiss this result as errant. All too often this is what people do when encountering results that are inconsistent with their current conceptions. Why might it be so hard for Liesl to question her current conception?      

One model of learning, the constructivist learning theory, asserts that learning is constructed as the learner attempts to make sense of her experiences. In new situations a learner automatically summons related knowledge, and this prior knowledge influences subsequent learning. Just like Liesl, the typical response is to cling to a prior conception and deflect any evidence considered to contradict it. After all, if her original conception is discarded, Liesl is lost. As we teach scientific ideas, and especially ideas where students have strong cognitive and emotional commitments, we have to recognize how changing conceptions is a monumental task.

Introducing Conceptual Change

A widely studied model in science education clearly establishes how hard it is to get students to change their minds about any science topic. Assuming a completely rational perspective, four conditions must be met in order for conceptual change to possibly occur. 

The first condition is dissatisfaction. Imagine the reaction of a student who thinks magnets are attracted to shiny metals like paper clips, but discovers a magnet attracts some, but not all, shiny coins in a pile. When the learner acts puzzled and asks, “That’s not right. What’s going on here?” dissatisfaction is evident. In order for conceptual change to occur, a learner must first be dissatisfied with their current conception.

After dissatisfaction, the learner must be introduced to a new conception with intelligibility (they can explain the idea in their own words), plausibility (they believe the new idea works here and fits with other ideas they know about), and usefulness (the new idea explains things in a better way). Germination of radish seeds, for example, occurs equally well in light or dark conditions, yet students often expect seeds under a sun lamp to germinate more effectively than seeds in a dark closet. Contrary results puzzle them, arousing dissatisfaction. Meanwhile a competing idea can be proposed in the midst of this cognitive conflict arguing, “seeds get energy from within and thus do not need sunlight as an energy source” (intelligibility). This alternative idea explains why seeds are typically planted underground (plausibility), and also explains why birds and humans eat so many seeds as a food source (usefulness).

Yet all four conditions necessary for conceptual change can be met and still learners vehemently resist altering their original conception. Something more is needed.

A Flesh-and-Blood Model

Consider a study by Winslow, Staver, and Scharmann in which all participants were attempting to reconcile important ideas related to faith and science. Reconciliation, in this case, would mean changing views in both a scientific and a faith-based sense. Researchers wanted to explore the process through which Christian biology-related majors at a Christian university sought reconciliation between their understanding of evolutionary models and their personal religious views. Each participant was studied in depth. What did these students claim assisted them the most as they sought reconciliation? 

Many are surprised at the answer. The participants claimed they were most influenced when they had opportunity to come alongside professors whom they trusted as Christian role models and who themselves sought reconciliatory positions. Elaine Ecklund, author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, calls teachers who fill this role “boundary pioneers” and asserts that such people play a special part in religion-and-science discussions. Conceptual change, in this case, is not solely determined by the rational; there is an emotional and psychological side as well. Learners need the company of those they respect as faithful Christians and scientistsregardless of their position on evolution, in order to successfully work at reconciling their faith with their scientific study and work. 

When negotiating conflicting positions in science and faith discussions there is no quick fix, but there is ample evidence that a teacher is needed for both her scientific knowledge and her trustworthiness as a person of faith. The work of a teacher starts with respecting the learners’ views and their deep commitments, and then displaying a trustworthy Christian witness as a person of faith who is seeking to reconcile science and faith-based perspectives.


Ecklund, E. (2010) Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Posner, G.J., Strike, K.A., Hewson, P.W., &  Gertzog, W.A. (1982). “Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change.” Science Education, 66, 211-227.

Winslow, M.W., Staver, J.R., and Scharmann, L.C. (November 2011). “Evolution and personal religious belief: Christian university biology-related majors’ search for reconciliation.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (9), 1026-1049.

Further study:

Consider a video documentary on science learning designed for K-12 science teachers and parents. The segment below is of a girl, Karen, who is asked to describe her model for light. Pay particular attention to Karen, her views on light, and how these views are altered in the face of compelling counter-evidence.

Go to:

Watch the segment from 11:00 to 17:29.