Conceptual change and wooly hats

“Conceptual change” is one of the big words that gets thrown into every conversation on teaching and learning these days. But most people I talk to don’t really have a clear idea of what conceptual change actually means, let alone how you would go about to change concepts. But I found this article by Watson and Kopnicek (1990) that tells a nice story of conceptual change happening for some students of a primary school class.
In the story, children claim that sweaters, down sleeping bags, hats are “hot”. So they expect to be able to measure rising temperatures when they put their thermometers inside of those hot garments, and when this does not happen, they try for days to improve the measuring conditions in order to not distort the measurement by drafts of cold air that must be currently keeping the measurements at room temperatures, even though the thermometers are in places where they are bound to get hot. At some point, the children reach a point where they are confused because they cannot get the thermometers to measure what they know to be true: That it must be hot inside hot garments. Eventually, most of the children come to be convinced that there is a difference between bodies that produce heat (like the sun or their own bodies) and other things that just keep heat from disappearing.
What I really like about this article is that it illustrates very well why children have the mental models they have about heat: “For nine winters, experience had been the children’s teacher. Every hat they had worn, every sweater they had donned contained heat. “Put on your warm clothes,” parents and teachers had told them. So when they began to study heat one spring day, who could blame them for thinking as they did?”. Also, it describes the struggles the children have with the cognitive dissonance that arises when their observations just don’t match their expectations, and the long time it takes until they are willing to consider that their initial model might not be correct.
Those struggles felt very real to me when reading the article. And I think it is very important to always remember that if we are asking someone to change their concept of something, what we are putting them through is a really difficult process. Not just intellectually, but also emotionally.
The article ends with recommendations of how to support conceptual change and with children running around with thermometers in their hats, testing the new theory that – even though they had found that a hat itself could not produce warmth – a body heating the hat would finally lead to rising temperature readings on the thermometers.
 Go check it out for yourselves!

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