• Conceptual Change

    David Jonassen visited the IDEAs lab on May 11th from the University of Missouri to present a talk on “Model-Building for Conceptual Change (Cognitive Tools in Action)”. While this isn’t (or so I thought) related to my own research or interests in any way, we were all encouraged to attend if possible and I’m always interested in talks about learning in general. Here, belatedly, is a synopsis of my understanding of his presentation.
    The key underlying principle seemed to emphasize having people fail in their problem solving attempt at some issue because then conceptual change has a change to be engaged and then students will learn. This failure need not be catastrophic; in fact, it probably should not be, I would say, or the failure would foster a strong sense of discouragement, which is not going to get a student into the “learning zone.” So, how do you put students into a non-threatening environment where they can safely experiment and fail? David Jonassen’s idea was to encourage them to engage in model building which demonstrates their conceptual understanding of the problem/issue at hand. When learners build models,their understanding of the problem domain is deepened because you cannot model what you do not understand. Model building also allows you, as the instructor, to view the learner’s level of conceptual change as their models evolve. It is therefore possible to assess their underlying understanding without resorting to formal assessment tests. Finally, David Jonassen suggested that model building also improves critical reasoning and thinking because model building forces the model builder to examine the process and problem solving methodology.
    David Jonassen researches (among other things) the use of technology in educational settings to improve understanding. More information on his approaches to problem solving are available from on the following web site page: http://tiger.coe.missouri.edu/~jonassen/PB.htm.

    I think this is some interesting research, but obviously not applicable to every learning situation. Physical processes, like volcanos, weather, chemical reactions, etc. are very appropriate for model building. Or maybe I just need to change my understanding of what constitutes a model? For example, I’m teaching students how to program in JavaScript. In a way, a program is sort of like a model and we give students programming projects where they model some kind of answer to a stated problem to demonstrate their understanding of the process. Most students do not implement the solution correctly intially, so they need to refine their understanding of the problem and its solution over several iterations. Failure is forcing them into a state of conceptual change and as they repair their assumptions and their “model” code, they are learning valuable lessons about what works and the process of both developing and fixing. I guess, in fact, I’ve been doing this all along; I just didn’t have a name for it!