Publication 6671

Smith J., Disessa A. & Roschelle J. (1994) Misconceptions reconceived: A constructivist analysis of knowledge in transition. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 3(2): 115–163. Fulltext at
This article uses a critical evaluation of research on student misconceptions in science and mathematics to articulate a constructivist view of learning in which student conceptions play productive roles in the acquisition of expertise. We acknowledge and build on the empirical results of misconceptions research but question accompanying views of the character, origins, and growth of students’ conceptions. Students have often been viewed as holding flawed ideas that are strongly held, that interfere with learning, and that instruction must confront and replace. We argue that this view overemphasizes the discontinuity between students and expert scientists and mathematicians, making the acquisition of expertise difficult to conceptualize. It also conflicts with the basic premise of constructivism: that students build more advanced knowledge from prior understandings. Using case analyses, we dispute some commonly cited dimensions of discontinuity and identify important continuities that were previously ignored or underemphasized. We highlight elements of knowledge that serve both novices and experts, albeit in different contexts and under different conditions. We provide an initial sketch of a constructivist theory of learning that interprets students’ prior conceptions as resources for cognitive growth within a complex systems view of knowledge. This theoretical perspective aims to characterize the interrelationships among diverse knowledge elements rather than identify particular flawed conceptions; it emphasizes knowledge refinement and reorganization, rather than replacement, as primary metaphors for learning; and it provides a framework for understanding misconceptions as both flawed and productive.


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