Reflection on the Professional Development Experience as a Science Teacher and Research Project Team Member

Author: Heather McPherson 

As a high school teacher, I found the experience of working on the Chantier 7 project both rewarding and enlightening.  When I teach, I am intuitively aware of students’ pre-conceptions in science.  My awareness is the result of teaching for 26 years. Since working on the Chantier 7 project I have become more aware how prevalent these pre-conceptions are, and how difficult is to change students’ intuitive ideas so they become aligned with accepted scientific models and theories.

I worked as co-author and author on some of the lesson plans that are available on the web site.  These lessons plans include diagnostic items to assess student’s pre-conceptions.  The lesson plans then provide activities that address the preconceptions and help students develop an understanding of accepted scientific models and theories.

One of the lesson plans I worked on dealt with evolution.  I was fully aware that students’ preconception of evolution favored the Lamarckian notion of evolution (use/disuse) rather than Darwin’s theory of natural selection. After writing the lesson plan, I piloted the lessons as written.  I used the diagnostic items at the beginning of the lesson.  I probed students’ understanding, I elicited higher level thinking.  Then I did the activity on Darwin’s finches, where students analyzed how type of food available to finches favored specific beak shapes, that birds whose beak was best adapted to a specific food had a greater likelihood of: (1) having offspring; and (2), passing the trait to their offspring.  Natural selection at work.  I also went through a PowerPoint presentation, students took notes.  We did further sessions of probing, eliciting, making sense of data.  Finally, I assigned the last activity in the lesson plan.  I decided to have students research any example of natural selection and then, using a PowerPoint presentation, explain their example to the class.

To my complete dismay, all but one group explained their example of natural selection using Lamarck’s notion of use/disuse. I truly believed that I had resolved the issue of this preconception over the two weeks we developed the lessons on evolution. When students were left to their own devices, they fell back to their conceptual preunderstanding of natural selection.  However, having the class work together during the presentations did finally put the use/disuse theory of evolution to rest.  In the formal evaluation extended answer question on natural selection, all students were able to explain both theories, and to articulate why natural selection was accepted, and why use/disuse was not.

It took more energy and time than I anticipated. Working with the Chantier 7 lessons provided me with a sharper focus on the challenges of altering those strongly held student preconceptions. I was not as obvious as I thought. In the end, however, mission accomplished.


[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

[New Article ] Science Misconceptions – How Should Teachers Deal With Them?

Submitted by Ken Elliott on November 20, 2015 – 1:09 pm

We’ve all heard or expressed the common teacher refrain or some variation of “I taught it to them so many times and in so many different ways and yet they still got it wrong on the exam!” It’s frustrating . . . [full article]

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