[Discussion]: Ohlsson’s (2013) article – Beyond Evidence-based Formation: How normative ideas have constrained conceptual change research

Decades of research in science education – and our own experience of teaching science – suggest that students bring their intuitive or common sense explanations about the natural phenomena to the science classroom.  These intuitive ideas make sense to them in terms of understanding the natural world.  Intriguingly, students’ preconceptions or intuitive conceptions tend to persist even after years of science instruction.  Therefore, changing their intuitive ideas or models in line with accepted scientific models and theories has been an enormously challenging task for science teachers.

Current approaches to science instruction emphasize the importance of understanding students’ intuitive ideas on the part of teachers so that they can carefully design instruction to address and change those intuitive ideas or alternative frameworks – the conceptual change approach.  At the same time, inquiry oriented approaches to science teaching and learning focus on eliciting students’ prior conceptions and engaging them in making predictions –  based on their intuitive ideas – and testing those predictions through hands-on activities and experiments to support the students to re(construct) their ideas and develop a deeper understanding of scientific models.  However, I recently came across argument by Stellan Ohlsson – a psychologist at Chicago University – about conceptual change.  He contends that children – and adults – may not change their ideas, assumptions or stereotypes about the natural or social world based on evidence.  In other words, even if they are confronted with contradictory evidence that doesn’t support their intuitive ideas, people usually tend to hold on to their views and don’t change them.  I am curious to know your response to this argument as it directly relates to the work we have been doing together in our Chantier 7 project.  Over the past three years to develop diagnostic items to assess students’ preconceptions or intuitive ideas related to concepts included in the QEP science curriculum and Progression of Learning (POL) goals for secondary cycle 1 (grades 7 and 8).

Although, I understand that conceptual change is not easy, I also believe that – based on evidence from research – students and experts are able to construct and use scientific models when they have to solve problems.


What are your thoughts on it?  Are there any strategies that you’d like to share with us that you think have worked in your practice in terms of supporting your students to develop a deeper understanding of scientific concepts/models?


Note: You can read the following paper by Ohlsson (2013).  We can also forward the paper to you.

Ohlsson, S. (2013). Beyond evidence-based belief formation: How normative ideas have constrained conceptual change research.  Frontline Learning Research 2 (2013) 70-85.


Blog Author: Dr. Anila Asghar, Associate Professor, DISE, McGill University

5 responses to “[Discussion]: Ohlsson’s (2013) article – Beyond Evidence-based Formation: How normative ideas have constrained conceptual change research”

  1. Amy says:

    This year I have had an opportunity to teach pre-service teachers about different strategies involved in science teaching. While there seemed to be points to be disagreed/agreed upon for other stretegies (including hands-on activities, plased based learning), all seemed to agreed that eliciting students’ preconceptions/conceptual changes is a great way to teach science.

    Coming up with different intervention strategies are important, but I think it is also important focus on developing different/diverse way to bring up students’ intuitive models is important as well. (based on the multiple intelligence models– not only focusing on developing intervention strategies to meet different learners type, why not develop diagnostic tools to meet different leaners type as well?).

    or is it…too much work for us- teachers?


    • yinghuang says:

      Definitely a lot of work for teachers. This is why I think working with a research team who are experts of these topic was very helpful!

  2. Harley Nadler says:

    I wonder if students’ preconceptions around scientific phenomenon comes from their own observation of the world or from other sources such as parents; or perhaps a combination of both. In the case of preconceptions coming from the parents, could be an answer be to devote more time to science education at a younger age? However, In the case where preconceptions are coming from the students’ observations of the world, it seems nearly impossible to provide guidance to a student during all instances of real-world observation.

    • yinghuang says:

      I think our diagnostic tools could help teachers to prob students’ prior knowledge and try to understand their preconceptions. From my experience of working with teachers, a lot of them also mentioned that students’ pre-conceptions often came from their daily life experience.

  3. Mithula Logeswaran says:

    Conceptual change is something that teachers have to deal with when teaching science and I strongly think that it is important for teachers to properly know how to implement the conceptual change approach. Research has shown that students do not abandon their misconceptions when presented with falsifying evidence. For this reason I, to some extent, agree with Ohlsson (2013) because simply showing the evidence which contradicts a certain idea is NOT enough to falsify an individual’s preconception.

    Merely showing evidence that disprove a student’s ideas can be seen as indoctrinating the evidence on the student. To prevent these imposed evidences, I suggest that students explore certain ideas by themselves. One great way of doing this is by using the 5Es: engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration and evaluation. During these activities it is very important on how you phrase the driving question because it is crucial that the question does not already have a claim in it. For example if you are doing an activity on heat versus wind and what dries water droplets faster, you would simply ask: what happens to a water droplet? Instead of, does heat from a fan or wind from the fan dry the droplet faster? The claim here is that both will dry the droplet. Let the students come up with their own observation and ideas.

    A good way to insure that an instructor does not impose evidence on students is by using anchoring activities for a certain topic. Anchoring activities are designed to voice the ideas of the students (Corlett 2003). It is important, especially in the cycle 1, that students explore certain questions and come up with their own conclusions. The teacher is there to facilitate the students by asking questions.

    Amy brings up a good point of, “Is this too much work for teachers?” I think it is important for student to go through evidence based learning because we are not trying to develop robots who are able to regurgitate what teacher say, rather we want our students to be able to explore an idea, find evidence based on their exploration and elaborate on their evidence in order to come up with an idea. These skills are important for student to have in young scientists because many students forget that science is about exploring questions about the world around us.

    Corlett, C. (March 01, 2003). Anchor activities. Science Scope, 26, 6, 40-42.
    Ohlsson, S. (2013). Beyond evidence-based belief formation: How normative ideas have constrained conceptual change research. Frontline Learning Research 2 (2013) 70-85.

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