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Sketching Some Postmodern Alternatives:
Beyond Paradigms and Research Programs as Referents for Science Education


David R. Geelan
Institute for the Service Professions
Edith Cowan University
Perth, Western Australia.


Conceptual change approaches to the teaching and learning of science have been enormously influential for almost two decades in science education. A recent international handbook (Fraser & Tobin, 1998) devotes three chapters almost exclusively to conceptual change theory, and many of the other chapters are strongly influenced by this perspective.

The paper widely acknowledged as the seminal statement of the conceptual change program is that by Posner, Strike, Hewson and Gertzog (1982). The authors' key contention is that they have combined concerns and theories from cognitive psychology with those from the philosophy of science to develop a novel model of science learning - or, more precisely, an epistemological framework - from which they derive a number of prescriptions for promoting conceptual change.

At some points Posner et al. seem to be using the ideas from the philosophy of science analogically and metaphorically, and at other times as though these schemes - predominantly those of Kuhn (1970) and Lakatos (1970) - were directly applicable to the learning of science. I wish to suggest that the lack of clarity about this connection leads to confusion about the epistemological bases of conceptual change pedagogy, but that the consciously metaphorical use of Kuhn's and Lakatos' schemes has value as a referent for thinking about science education.

I also wish, however, to critically explore the strong connections between theories in the philosophy of science and prescriptions for classroom practice. That connection seems to me to have value at the level of metaphor, but to fall down slightly in the ways in which theorists extrapolate the implications of particular epistemological perspectives for pedagogy (something Strike and Posner (1992) have acknowledged in a later revision of their work).

Finally, I wish to provide at least a preliminary sketch of four perspectives from outside the philosophy of science that I believe also have value as metaphorical referents for the practice of science education. These are Kelly's (1955, 1963, 1966, 1970; Bannister & Fransella, 1971) 'psychology of personal constructs', Whitehead's (1989, 1998) 'living educational theory', Van Manen's (1977, 1990, 1991) 'pedagogical thoughtfulness' and Polkinghorne's (1992) 'postmodern epistemology of practice'. The use of these theoretical schemes is supported from within the justification matrix they themselves provide - the postmodern epistemology of practice, personal construct psychology, pedagogical thoughtfulness and living educational theory - and grounded in the authority of my own praxis as a classroom teacher of science.

Paradigms and Research Programs

Two powerful and successful schemes from the philosophy of science - those of Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos - were 'adopted' by those who developed the theoretical frame for conceptual change approaches to pedagogy. Posner characterises his view of learning and knowing as 'based on a cognitive psychology and a Kuhnian (or, more precisely, Lakatosian) epistemology' (1982, p. 106). In the context of the present discussion it is valuable to briefly describe these two perspectives, while realising that any such brief precis cannot hope to do justice to their full explanatory power and the examples from the history of science that are given as evidence of their fruitfulness.

Kuhn (1970) explained the historical accounts of scientific revolutions by introducing the concept of 'paradigms'. Kuhn uses the term somewhat confusingly, sometimes considering a paradigm to be a particular exemplary scientific achievement that sets standards for practice and canons for evidence within a particular field. This is the kind of paradigm characterised by Stenhouse (1986) as a 'Public Demonstration Paradigm' (PDP).

The more powerful and pervasive image of a paradigm, however, is that of a complex, inter-related structure of theories and ideas which both explains our current observations and suggests interesting questions and directions for further research. Stenhouse (1986) describes this sense of the term as a 'Common Assumptions Paradigm' (CAP). An individual scientific 'fact', in Kuhn's formulation, is not an entity unto itself, but is given meaning and reality through its place within the complex web of meanings which forms the paradigm. For example, a statement such as "hydrogen is an odourless flammable gas" presupposes (at least) a class of things which are described as gases, human noses, conventions of odour and a definition of what 'flammable' means, i.e., 'combines with available oxygen from Earth's atmosphere, releasing energy, when ignited by a source of heat'. Of course, this definition of inflammability itself requires definitions of atmosphere, heat, and ignition: and so on, almost ad infinitum.

Kuhn described scientific revolutions as 'paradigm shifts' - the defeat of an existing weaker paradigm (of the CAP type) by a more powerful, useful one. He saw this as a dramatic, revolutionary process, and drew attention to such examples from the history of science as the Copernican revolution, changing views of the nature of light and the move to atomic theories of matter. Before such a revolution can occur, however, a dominant paradigm must exist. Kuhn describes the time during which this is the case as 'normal science'. He describes fields of endeavour where there exist no single dominant paradigm, but a variety of competing paradigms, as 'prescientific'. Kuhn notes that in such a situation scientific writing becomes much more cumbersome, since there exists no common vocabulary of key concepts which can be 'taken as read'. Each new scientist must derive every concept required in the argument from first principles, and must even postulate such principles.

While Imre Lakatos' (1970) perspective differs in a number of important ways from that of Kuhn, Lakatos' 'research programs' are similar enough to Kuhn's paradigms - both are complex structures of internally consistent theories which may be superseded (in different ways) by better such structures - that to some extent they can be treated together for the purposes of the current discussion.

The key difference is that Lakatos saw the history of science as more evolutionary than revolutionary: rather than the complete overthrow of the older paradigm in a brief and violent revolution, he described research programs as growing together in similar soil, but competing with one another for adherents and resources. Research programs which cannot compete strongly begin to wither away, as scientists and research funding - and the intellectual allegiance of scientists - desert them: these are described as degenerating programs. At the same time other research programs seem to be becoming more useful and explaining the world better. Resources and acceptance flow toward these, and they become progressive research programs. It is possible, through a change in the 'climate' within which the research is conducted, for a degenerating program to become progressive again, and vice versa.

Lakatos also described research programs as consisting of a non-negotiable 'hard core' of assumptions and beliefs, surrounded by a protective cocoon of auxiliary hypotheses and extrapolated implications. Research programs are able to protect the core from falsification (Popper, 1968) to some extent by modifying the 'protective belt', but programs where the core becomes untenable in the light of increasing experiential evidence will tend to become degenerating programs.

Conceptual Change Epistemology and Pedagogy

Posner et al. (1982) suggest that, by analogy with the social processes of paradigm shift, individuals learn new scientific schemes (as opposed to particular facts or experiences) through a process of 'conceptual change'. They use Piaget's (1972) language of 'assimilation' - the fitting of new experiences into existing mental schemes - and 'accommodation' - the revolutionary change of schemes that no longer seem powerful enough to explain one's experience - to describe the processes of learning, although they claim not to use the terms in exactly Piaget's sense. The theory of conceptual change is intended to address accommodations. Conceptual change theorists maintain that prior pedagogical theories and practices had treated learning as though it consisted entirely of assimilation: the gradual and linear accretion of new pieces of knowledge. To the extent that knowledge was seen as being structured within the mind, this structure was seen as one that developed without major reconstructions and re-orderings. (I am not talking here of epistemological theory within philosophy, nor of cognitive psychology, but of the practice of science education.) I believe that the awareness of 'accommodation' type learning raised in educational research and practice by conceptual change theorists has been very valuable, but that perhaps the excessive concentration on this facet of learning has "force[d] other perspectives into blindness" (Bauersfeld, 1988, p. 41). I will return to this point later.

Conceptual change theorists use the term 'conceptions', again borrowed from Piaget (1972), to describe mental structures analogous to paradigms. Thus accommodation events - or 'conceptual changes' - for an individual are seen as directly analogous to Kuhn's 'scientific revolutions' or 'paradigm shifts'. Such events involve a 'gestalt switch' - the new way of seeing changes relationships and meanings and the relative importance of particular experiences and pieces of information.

For Posner et al. there are four necessary conditions for conceptual change to occur (this description is adapted from their 1982 paper, p. 214):

  1. There must be dissatisfaction with existing conceptions. Scientists and students are unlikely to make major changes in their concepts until they believe that less radical changes will not work. Before an accommodation can occur it is reasonable to suppose that individuals must have collected a store of unsolved puzzles ...and lost faith in the ability of their current concepts to solve these problems.
  2. The new conception must be intelligible. Individuals must be able to grasp how experience can be structured by a new concept sufficiently to explore the possibilities inherent in it.
  3. The new conception must appear plausible. Any new concept adopted must at least appear to have capacity to solve the problems generated by its predecessors, otherwise it will not appear a plausible choice. Plausibility is also a result of consistency with other knowledge already held.
  4. The new concept should suggest the possibility of a fruitful research program. It should have the potential to be extended, to open up new areas of inquiry.
This four-part scheme - dissatisfaction with a current conception, dealt with by the development of a new conception which is intelligible, plausible and fruitful - is the theoretical heart of conceptual change perspectives on learning. It is also at the heart of the implications for classroom practice that are drawn from conceptual change theory. Conceptual change approaches to teaching involve the provocation of dissatisfaction with students' existing conceptual schemes (which are seen as having been built up by their experience of 'living in the world' and trying to make sense of their experiences, as well as by what they have learned in school and been told by adults and peers), using anomalies and discrepant cases. Posner et al. suggest the following strategies for conceptual change teaching:
  1. Develop lectures, demonstrations, problems, and labs which can be used to create cognitive conflicts in students.
  2. Organize instruction so that teachers can spend a substantial portion of their time in diagnosing errors in student thinking and identifying defensive moves used by students to resist accommodation.
  3. Develop the kinds of strategies which teachers could include in their repertoire to deal with student errors and moves that interfere with accommodation.
  4. Help students make sense of science content by representing content in multiple modes (e.g., verbal, mathematical, concrete-practical, pictorial), and by helping students translate from one mode of representation to another . ...
  5. Develop evaluation techniques to help the teacher track the process of conceptual change in students. (Posner et al., 1982, pp. 225-226)
For conceptual change theorists, then, the most significant learning experiences that occur, particularly in science learning, are accommodations - dramatic re-structurings of an individual's conceptual framework, once it has been challenged by anomalies and by puzzles that are insoluble under the current scheme.

Philosophy of Science and Learning As Conceptual Change

The connection between the philosophy of science and conceptual change theories of learning is a close and explicit one:

These authors, and others working in the field of conceptual change, seem at some points to be consciously using the sociological/historical schemes developed by Kuhn and Lakatos to explain the history of science as a human activity as a metaphor for the psychological processes by which individual science students develop their own scientific ideas. At other times, however, the connection seems to either be seen as a direct correspondence, or at least is not explicitly identified as metaphorical. Posner et al. state:

I would like to suggest, however, that Kuhn's and Lakatos' schemes - of paradigm change through scientific revolutions and of the methodology of scientific research programs respectively - cannot be directly applied to the science learning of individual students (and, of course, were never intended by Kuhn and Lakatos to be used in that way). As described above, both of these perspectives describe the processes by which communities of scientists arrive at consensus understandings within their fields of research endeavour. They are both related to the contention between clearly articulated, highly elaborated systems of related concepts, each of which has already proven fruitful in suggesting new directions for research and explaining existing results. They both explain the change from the dominance of one paradigm or research program to that of another in terms of social changes - the migration of adherents, research activity and funding from one paradigm to another.

I would suggest that these processes can have only a metaphorical relationship with the processes by which students of science develop and elaborate meaning-making schemes within their own minds, based in both their in-school and out-of-school experiences, and then test these schemes against one another. Presumably, the migration of allegiance of scientists from one paradigm to another is mirrored by the individual's increasing reliance on the more powerful and inclusive meaning-making scheme or scientific idea, but this parallel is not direct.

Kitchener (1987), building on and defending the epistemological stance of Piaget, suggests that this connection is more than metaphorical - that there is a degree of 'isomorphism' between the development of new conceptions (or, more precisely, the transfer from one scheme to another) in the individual and this development in the community of scientists. The degree to which he finds it necessary to qualify this process however - limiting it to the 'epistemic subject' (Kitchener, 1993) and specifically excluding the 'psychological subject' and 'individual subject', and excluding all 'irrational' factors in decision making and the transfer of allegiance - makes Kitchener's perspective (or rather, his characterisation of Piaget's perspective) less than useful as a referent for science education. It may be epistemologically powerful, but it is pedagogically weak, simply because it intentionally excludes so much of what makes classrooms function and students learn - relationships, emotions and the lifeworld of the student. Kitchener has attempted to sketch some epistemological implications for science education (Kitchener, 1992, 1993), however again this perspective seems to me to be excessively rationalistic and to ignore the richly complex set of motivations, goals, influences and other 'irrational' factors that school students bring with them to the science classroom. I will discuss some limitations of the relationship between philosophy of science and conceptual change further in a later section of this paper, but I wish first to consider its value in a more positive light.

Paradigms and Research Programs in Student Learning

Given my contention that this relationship between science learning and theories from the philosophy of science can most usefully be seen as a metaphorical one rather than any other kind, does it continue to have value as a referent for thinking about science education? I believe that it does, and that Lakatos' scheme is more powerful than Kuhn's for this purpose.

There are two related reasons for this view, based (a) in my experience of my own cognitive processes and as a learner and teacher in classrooms, and (b) in cross-cultural research such as that of Waldrip and Taylor (1999). These reasons are not based on any consideration of the relative value of these two perspectives in their own area of application, the history and philosophy of science - that is a separate judgement requiring different criteria.

The first reason I believe Lakatos' scheme is more powerful as a referent is that it is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This corresponds to the notion of degenerating and progressive research programs. Rather than the dramatic replacement of an existing conception with a competing one, evidence gradually accumulates, both in school and in the students' lifeworld experience, that tends to challenge the existing understanding. If school science is taught well, at the same time as this occurs a new, more inclusive and powerful conceptual scheme is being offered, and will be used by the students in contexts they consider appropriate. (This notion corresponds in some ways to that of the 'status' of a scheme increasing and decreasing, a perspective used in later versions of conceptual change theory (Hewson et al., 1998), although the 'status' perspective is less strong on the context-dependence of research programs (Duschl & Hamilton, 1998).)

Rather than even obeying the first law for walking on the wing of a biplane - never let go of what you're holding until you're holding tight to something else - students rarely let go of their so-called 'naive conceptions' at all. These were developed as the result of intensive intellectual activity and meaning-making, and will remain part of the students' conceptual repertoire throughout their lives. The 'school conception' will be over-laid on the prior understandings, and will be used to the extent that it is seen to be fruitful. Kelly's (1955, 1963, 1966, 1970; Bannister & Fransella, 1971) perspective, discussed below, seems to me to powerfully address this issue.

The second reason relates to Lakatos' emphasis on the importance of context in making decisions between competing theories. The metaphor I used above - of plants growing in similar soil, but differently adapted for that soil - captures this facet of the perspective nicely. Duschl and Hamilton (1998) have reviewed literature from both history and philosophy of science (HPS) and psychological perspectives relating to the importance of context in conceptual change and learning. Waldrip and Taylor (1999) studied the science learning of students in a South Pacific island nation. They report that students seemed to mentally compartmentalise their 'traditional' epistemological and ontological views, metaphysical beliefs and explanations for natural phenomena away from the 'school views'. Students who returned to the village after completing their schooling rapidly forgot the school knowledge and explanations and reverted to the 'village knowledge', while those who went on to work in Western-style businesses or other contexts forgot or rejected the 'village knowledge' and used the school learned explanatory frameworks almost exclusively in giving explanations for natural events. These two forms of knowledge can be seen, under Lakatos' scheme, as competing research programs - which program becomes degenerating and which progressive depends on the context of the situation in which knowledge claims are used and tested.

Limitations of the Metaphorical Relationship

Lakoff and Johnson's (1980) contention that we never really escape the web of metaphor - that all of our thinking and communication is essentially metaphorical in nature - is an intriguing and powerful one. If this approach is taken to be a valuable way of proceeding, then my 'deconstruction' of the metaphorical links - between the philosophy of science and the learning of individual science students - which form the basis of conceptual change pedagogy can be seen only as a value judgement about the relative power of competing metaphorical schemes, not as the activity of sweeping aside the metaphors to reveal the underlying reality. Before outlining what seems to me to be a more powerful metaphor for student's learning of science, I wish to discuss some of the ways in which the philosophy of science metaphor appears to me to be unsatisfactory for discussing student learning. Or rather, to state the point more clearly, the ways in which the conceptual change pedagogy that has been extrapolated from that metaphor seems unsatisfactory. I do not believe that this particular set of extrapolations is inevitable if we believe that metaphor to have value, nor even that conceptual change pedagogy as outlined by Posner et al. (1982) provides a particularly good 'fit' for the perspectives it claims as its key referents. Indeed, Strike and Posner's later (1992) revision of the conceptual change scheme backs away from the prescription of teaching methods and approaches:

As I suggested earlier, I believe that conceptual change pedagogy suffers from an excessive focus on accommodation at the expense of assimilation. Piaget (1972) represents learning and concept formation as a tension between these two processes, each of which is essential to the other. He also suggests that assimilation is the 'normal' situation in learning, and occurs more often - accommodations are very important in concept development, but are less frequent and involve greater risk and uncertainty for learners. This Piagetian characterisation of learning is, I believe, actually closer to Kuhn's picture of science than is conceptual change theory. Kuhn describes science as spending most of its time involved with 'normal science' - the situation where a shared paradigm (CAP) is providing the organising framework for the new scientific work being done, and is not under challenge from an alternative. The tendency for teachers attempting to teach in the ways prescribed by conceptual change theorists has been to try for accommodation in almost every lesson, and as the key goal of instruction. Such an approach can lead to a situation where students remain continually at the 'dissatisfaction' stage of Posner et al.'s four-part scheme, because they are not given the necessary time to become familiar with either the schemes they develop for themselves or those offered by teachers, or to render those schemes intelligible, plausible and fruitful.

Second, Posner et al. have acknowledged that anomalies and discrepancies are themselves theory-laden:

That is to say, seeing that an anomalous experimental result is anomalous already requires a coherent and well-elaborated knowledge of the students' existing scheme for understanding the world, including the specific logical implications of that scheme for the present context and the consequences of a particular experimental result. This seems to me at best a simplistic and optimistic view of the situation when compared with my own classroom experience, and at worst an unworkable over-rationalisation of what are often complex social and psychological processes. Strike and Posner (1992) concede that:

In addition, Chinn and Brewer (1993) list seven possible reactions on the part of students to the presentation of anomalous data, only one of which is to accept the data as disconfirming evidence for a currently held conception and change to a new conception in order to resolve the anomaly. They provide numerous examples from both the history of science and from science education of each of the six defensive strategies being chosen rather than undergo conceptual change.

Gunstone (1990) has reported intriguing results in which students actually observed what they had predicted in an experiment about which of two objects of different mass would strike the ground first when dropped. Chinn and Brewer (1993) report similar results in this and other experiments. Rather than the experiment being able to create an anomaly and dissatisfaction with the existing mental schemes, those schemes were so powerful that they caused the students' observations to be different depending on their understanding.

The understanding that a single laboratory experiment, or even a set of such experiences, is insufficient to falsify students' well-elaborated and strongly-held personal meaning-making schemes, however, has not always been made clear by those who have carried on the conceptual change research and teaching program. Many of the prescribed strategies owe more to Popper's (1968) 'falsificationist' view of the nature of science than to either Kuhn or Lakatos.

Finally, I would suggest that conceptual change approaches are excessively rationalistic, in quite a narrow sense, and fail to take into account the complexity of human decision-making processes. Posner et al. are quite explicit about the rationalistic nature of their scheme:

West and Pines (1983) challenged Posner et al. almost immediately on publication of the original paper, asking 'How "rational" is rationality?'. They identify factors in human decision making - such as power, simplicity, aesthetics and personal integrity - that they suggest are outside Posner et al.'s conception of the 'rational' activity of choosing between competing conceptions, but that they none-the-less consider to be important factors. Similarly, Gunstone (1990) highlights the importance of sources of authority, and their relative importance to the learnerwith his story of a school science student who refused to believe the teacher when she said there was only one kind of electric current because "my Dad's an electrician and he told me there are two different kinds". Strike and Posner (1983) responded to West and Pines by claiming that their original understanding of rationality was broad enough to include such considerations, however again this is something that has not always come through strongly in papers and books about conceptual change pedagogy. With a decade's hindsight, in 1992 Strike and Posner wrote:

For all of these reasons - over-emphasis on accommodation at the expense of assimilation, lack of awareness of the theory-dependence of observation and excessive and narrow rationality - I would suggest that, although conceptual change pedagogy has led to a very healthy concentration on students' learning as a psychological process, and on what is needed for a learner to move from one conception to another, it lacks sufficient attention to social and other influences on learning and decision-making (at least in the form originally described by Posner, Strike, Hewson and Gerzog (1982) - later versions of the conceptual change program, e.g. Hewson et al. (1998) and Duschl & Hamilton (1998), have to some extent addressed this imbalance). It also lacks the necessary descriptive and predictive power required for the complex social-psychological world of the classroom. I continue to believe that this research program has much conceptual power, and that there is value in pursuing it, particularly in the revised and clarified form outlined by Strike and Posner (1992). As referents for the actual classroom practice of science education, however, I would like to suggest and outline some possible alternatives to conceptual change approaches to pedagogy.

The Notion of a 'Referent'

I have chosen to use the term 'referent' as a way of linking theories and practices in science education. A referent may be thought of as a metaphor or mental image that is held by a practitioner, and to which his or her practice is 'referred' - compared and contrasted, reflected upon in relation to. The process of change, growth and development in teaching practice occurs both as the operating referents change, and as the practice comes to more fully embody the referent. In my own first few years in the secondary school science classroom, my working referents changed from a highly didactic, teacher-centered model of teaching, through personal constructivism and toward a social constructionist view (Geelan, 1996). Of course, these are only the public labels for some influential perspectives. The referents for my classroom practices also included (at least) the sum of my experience of schooling, both as a student and teacher, my reflections on and meaning-making about those experiences, my experience of learning in non-school contexts, and ideas and theoretical perspectives from my teacher education and from other reading. Further, it could not be said that I taught in full accordance with my working referents: constraints arising in my own personality and psyche, in those of the students, in relationships between the teacher and students and among students, and in the social structures of schooling modified the embodiment of my beliefs and commitments in my practice. (See the discussion of Whitehead's notion of a 'living contradiction' below.)

Conceptual change pedagogy, then, can be seen as an evolving and developing referent for practice in science classrooms. The perspectives described below are essentially offered as additions to the 'toolbox' of referents used by science educators, rather than to supplant conceptual change approaches, or any other working referents that teachers have found fruitful. To the extent that these referents are found to be fruitful to educators, they will be used, and will become, if you like, progressive research programs in the practice of science education.

The Authority of Practice: Questions of Style and Content

In this article, up to this point, the mode of argumentation and representation I have chosen, and the criteria for legitimation of knowledge claims I have tacitly used, have largely been those of modernism. I have attempted to make a clear, linear, rational case for the perspective that conceptual change pedagogy, metaphorically linked to Kuhn's paradigms and Lakatos' research programs, has been a highly influential research program in science education, but that it has some shortcomings in that role. The evidence adduced has been largely that found in published papers and reported research, although I have also alluded to evidence from classroom practice and from personal experience.

I now wish to change my approach and mode of discourse - to begin to carry on the textual conversation that I have begun with you, the reader, in a more postmodern (Lyotard, 1986, 1992) vein. The decision to do this is explicit for me, and carries some risk: a different approach may alienate some readers, or the shift of style may seem arbitrary and the paper less coherent. I am willing to accept that risk because I see this 'postmodern turn' as a way forward for the classroom practice of science education, and wish to make the form of this paper match its content: it would be ironic to argue in modernist ways for the adoption of postmodern practices. Specifically, in order to be able to explain why I place a high value on the four perspectives described below, it is necessary for me to appeal, at least to some extent, to the local, subjective, contextualised authority of my own practices as a classroom teacher of science. While I believe there are also good theoretical and research grounds for valuing these approaches to practice, they are themselves concerned with the contextual and local and human, rather than with grand theories and metanarratives (Lyotard, 1984, 1986), and the evidence that is most appropriate for advocating their value is likewise contextual and local.

I am a 35 year old male teacher of Year 11 and 12 chemistry and Year 10 science in a small Christian school, set in a national park south of Perth, Western Australia 1. My classes are small - often only six to ten students - and the students come from an economically and socially disadvantaged area of the city. I recently completed a PhD in science education. These factors profoundly influence the ways in which the scientific knowledge to be learned by the students, the institutional structures of schooling, my own beliefs and commitments and those of the students, and the relationships we form all interact to shape the practices of teaching and learning in science that are enacted in the classroom. Postmodern modes of representation and legitimation of knowledge claims recognise and value these local factors, rather than attempting to submerge them in order to create broadly generalisable theory.

In this article, my intention is to investigate the referents that I have found to be valuable for the practice of science teaching. In such an investigation, the authority of my own practice and lived experience (Van Manen, 1990) is not dismissed as 'merely subjective' or 'just opinion'. Instead, it is valuable as part (a small part) of what Polkinghorne refers to as '...the aggregate of the professional community's experience of what has been beneficial to clients' (1992, p. 162). The intention is to share my thoughtful, critical reflections on that experience as a way of developing a shared body of knowledge for the practice of science education.

Sketching Some Postmodern Alternatives

Some possible alternative referents for thinking about science learning and teaching draw - by analogy and metaphor - on the 'psychology of personal constructs' outlined by Kelly (1955, 1963, 1966, 1970; Bannister & Fransella, 1971), on Polkinghorne's (1992) 'postmodern epistemology of practice', on Van Manen's (1977, 1990, 1991) 'pedagogical thoughtfulness' and on Whitehead's (1989, 1998) 'living educational theory'.

I have suggested that one reason for the shortcomings of conceptual change pedagogy described above is that the metaphorical link between, on the one hand, the sociological processes of scientific discovery and legitimation and, on the other, the learning of individual science students is not a particularly tight one, and that, because the perspectives of Kuhn and Lakatos have been developed in the context of the history of science, there are significant ways in which they do not apply to individual cognition and learning. In sketching possible alternatives, then, I wish to draw on a source that is more closely related to the psychology of the individual (Kelly), on two that relate to the practice of education in classrooms (Whitehead and Van Manen) and on one that bridges the worlds of psychology and practice (Polkinghorne). I believe there is a strong synergy or resonance between these four perspectives - themes from one reappear in and are transformed in the others, so that the combined set of referents is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is important to note that I do not wish to assert that Kelly's is in any sense a final account of cognition, Polkinghorne's of the epistemology of practice nor Whitehead or Van Manen's of the practice of education. I continue to consciously use these ideas metaphorically and strategically for my own pedagogical purposes. It seems plausible, however, that conceptual schemes developed with the explicit purpose of understanding what goes on in classrooms and in students' heads might be more relevant and useful for understanding these things than would schemes designed for the purpose of accounting for the social history of science.

The Psychology of Personal Constructs

George Kelly (1955, 1963, 1966, 1970; Bannister & Fransella, 1971) has outlined a theory of cognition that suggests that our understanding of our experiential world is the result of the active process of attempting to construe the repetition of events, and to predict future events. This perspective is epistemologically similar to the various constructivist perspectives (Geelan, 1997) - Kelly identifies his epistemology as 'constructive alternativism' (1970). His 'fundamental postulate' is that: An individual's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he or she anticipates events. Kelly suggests that from birth (and before) the growing child is immersed in the stream of experience. The mind does not passively absorb this experience, but actively seeks to understand, and to anticipate future experiences on the basis of its construction of past experience.

According to Kelly, certain experiences recur, and the mind imposes regularity on these experiences through the development of a hierarchical network of dichotomous constructs (i.e., hot/cold, light/darkness, love/hate, fear/security). The complex, dynamic sum of these constructs is described as a 'construct system' or 'construction system' - these terms are in many ways synonyms for 'mind', since it is with the construct(ion) system that experience is construed and understood, and future events predicted. New experiences that challenge existing constructs or their organisation lead to re-organisation and elaboration of the construct system so as to render them intelligible. The construct system is constantly seeking coherence and consistency, but because of its richness and complexity never attains it. New changes and experiences continue to impinge on the learner and to permeate the construct system, so that there will always be inconsistencies and confusions (the fragmentation corollary). These should not be seen negatively, however, since they will act as 'batteries' for inquiry, providing motivation for further elaboration of the construct system in the search for coherence.

The power of Kelly's scheme for thinking about science education is its understanding that all events are significant in learning and the development of the individual's construct system, not just those particular classes of highly structured experiences called 'experiments' and 'lessons'. To some extent the student behaves like a scientist, in that he or she is actively involved in the process of seeking to understand and explain, but the sum total of the student's lifeworld experience, organised into a complex, dynamic system, is the unit of interest for thinking about learning, rather than the narrow set of experiences occurring in the science classroom. The 'naive conceptions' that the student holds about physical phenomena have been developed out of attempting to construe the repetitions of each student's experiences of the physical world. Each student's construction system will be different, and the other constructs that stand in ordinal relationships with the 'scientific' understandings will also be different. These means that for learning to occur, experiences must be provided that allow students to conduct experiments for themselves in using their developing construction systems to anticipate events. This does not necessarily mean conducting their own laboratory sessions - 'experiments' conducted as conversations with the teacher and other students, in the playground and at home will be equally relevant for the students. What is important is a concern with the meaning of the experience for the student:

Postmodern Epistemology of Practice

Given that minds (or construct systems) are so complex, highly abstract theoretical perspectives may lack the necessary power to act as referents for thinking about them, particularly when they are involved in a complex, multi-person social interaction like classroom learning. Polkinghorne (1992) has suggested that postmodernism in its many forms has three consequences for practices in the 'service professions' (psychology, sociology, social work, nursing and police work, family services, education and others). He characterises these as (a) foundationlessness - a skepticism about the possibility of grounding practices in firm, invariant theoretical structures, (b) fragmentariness - the recognition that social worlds are complex, diverse and changeable, rather than unitary, uniform and static and (c) constructivism - the idea that human knowledge is something actively constructed by human minds as they seek to understand the flow of experience in which they are immersed. Polkinghorne suggests that, by themselves, these three components could tend to lead to a solipsistic or excessively relativist approach: if knowledge claims cannot be set in a firm foundation, and may not be relevant across cultures or microcultures, and if they are individually constructed anyway, then perhaps knowledge claims cannot be justified at all. This could in turn lead to a paralysis or fragmentation of practice, as the warrants for particular theoretical referents for practice were called into question. Polkinghorne adds to the mix 'neopragmatism': schools will go on teaching and psychologists will go on treating clients, but knowledge claims will be justified, not by appeal to an external, scientifically sanctioned body of theory, but by 'what works in practice'. Polkinghorne describes a 'postmodern epistemology of practice' for psychology, which he contrasts with the theoretical and research base of academic psychology:

Many of these changes are reflected in the critical practice of science education, and this positive, constructive response to the challenges of postmodernism is, in my opinion, to be applauded. The complexity and fragmentariness of classroom contexts and of human beings are simply too rich for simplistic rationalist schemes. Students' decision-making processes will fail to be fully comprehended by teachers if they assume that these processes are the same as those that occur in scientific revolutions - passionate but strongly rule-bound debate between professionals with strong, well-elaborated understandings of the competing paradigms. As Strike and Posner (1992) have suggested, 'what we assume about classroom events is not all that is going on. For some learners, it may not be what is going on at all'. Student learning in science is motivated by a wide range of factors, many of them far removed from the formal logical structure of the discipline (Solomon, 1987). These include, but are not limited to, the desire to achieve good grades, and be seen to succeed, the desire to please parents or teachers, and the desire to understand a body of knowledge. They may also include the desire to avoid peer ridicule for succeeding, to displease a disliked teacher, to escape parental pressures for success, or to successfully 'fake' understanding to avoid sanctions for failure.

The postmodern epistemology of practice suggests that the communication - in staffrooms and teacher 'war stories' (and in papers like this one) of "the aggregate of the professional community's experience of what has been useful to [students]" (Polkinghorne, 1992, p. 162) will be a powerful approach to improving what happens in science classrooms. This will include more than simply referents for the teaching and learning of science - it will also include conversations about relationships, backgrounds, families, support, students' needs and challenges, and huge variety of other factors that impinge on the rich, complex, fragmented world of students' science learning in classrooms.

Pedagogical Thoughtfulness

Max Van Manen (1977, 1990, 1991) describes an approach to teaching and research that he characterises as 'pedagogical thoughtfulness'. The construct of 'thoughtfulness' or 'tact' (Van Manen uses the terms somewhat interchangeably, although 'tact' seems broader) is two-edged:

Van Manen sees tact as including both of the common senses of the word 'thoughtful' - (a) a considerate, empathic regard for the needs and ideas of another, and (b) a propensity for critical reflection. In order to behave tactfully or thoughtfully toward others, he suggests, it is necessary to be thoughtful about our experiences and ideas.

It is this idea of 'thoughtfulness' that informs Van Manen's methods for conducting inquiry into pedagogic situations and practices such as schooling and parenting. As a teacher-researcher, my own stance within the school is pedagogic. My practices are not those of an objective researcher whose purpose is to passively observe the activities of others and attempt to make sense of them, but of a teacher, educationally involved with young people, who is attempting to richly understand that involvement in order to improve it. As such, thoughtfulness in both these senses is required of me. First, it is necessary that I be thoughtful and tactful toward my students and colleagues - something I do not always achieve - in trying to understand what it means to 'improve' my practices and their learning. That is, it is important that I negotiate change with those involved, and that I make a sincere attempt at understanding their perspectives and understandings and expectations. Second, it is necessary for me to be critically reflective about my own assumptions, ideas and prejudices, and to be actively involved in reconstructing both my experiences in formal educational settings (as teacher and learner) and the rest of my beliefs and life history. This is an iterative process:

From Van Manen, then, I have taken not so much methodological prescriptions but a stance for 'being in the world' or, in this instance, in the mini-world of the school. Like him, and like Jack Whitehead, my concerns are pedagogical, rather than philosophical, psychological or sociological, and the modes of inquiry that are appropriate for addressing these concerns are likewise pedagogical.

Living Educational Theory

Jack Whitehead has for some years been pursuing an approach to inquiry in education which he describes as the development of 'living educational theory' (Whitehead, 1989, 1998). Through asking questions of the kind 'How do I improve my practice?', suggests Whitehead, practising educators work to develop theoretical understandings that, rather than being derived from bodies of formal research and theory in the disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and even institutionalised educational research, are derived directly from educators' attempts to embody their educational and personal values in their practice. Whitehead's perspective is explicitly value-laden: teachers value certain things, and the process of attempting to improve teaching is necessarily the process of attempting to embody more fully in our practices the things we value.

Whitehead offers this description of living educational theories:

Whitehead notes that, due to a variety of constraints - both external/institutional and internal/biographical - none of us is able to fully embody in practice the values and beliefs we espouse. He writes:

On the basis of our personal and educational values, we have certain aspirations for the ways we will teach and interact with young people, yet in our practice we find ourselves negating these values and aspirations. This experience spurs us to inquire into the constraints - both institutional and personal/biographical - that cause the contradiction, and to explore ways to resolve it through thoughtful attention to our practice.


The connection between the philosophy of science and prescriptions for the teaching of science is one with a relatively long history. I have argued that, at least in the field of conceptual change pedagogy, this connection is metaphorical rather than direct, but that this is often ignored or unrecognised by conceptual change theorists. I continue to believe that schemes from the philosophy of science have value as metaphorical referents for science education, but have suggested that their use should be accompanied by the critical awareness that the relationship is metaphorical, and by the development and use of as many other powerful metaphors as we can imagine.

Kelly's 'personal construct psychology', Polkinghorne's 'postmodern epistemology of practice', Van Manen's 'pedagogical thoughtfulness' and Whitehead's 'living educational theory' seem to me to offer a set of powerful referents for thinking about science teaching and learning, and about what happens in science classrooms. These ideas may not even be strictly commensurable in their epistemological bases, but I am not attempting a strict synthesis. Instead, in an approach that is itself postmodern in intent, I am thoughtfully choosing perspectives that seem to me to have the power to explain my own classroom experiences and understandings, and to offer possibilities for further fruitful inquiry into my own classroom practices. I am consciously using these perspectives in a metaphorical manner, and exploring the resonances and insights they provide when applied to contexts of pedagogical interest. This article constitutes an invitation to other practitioners and researchers to consider the value of these perspectives as referents for their own practices, and to join a research program into developing understandings and practices in science education that draw on a much wider range of epistemological, ontological and axiological sources, and that are grounded in thoughtful classroom practice.

  1. When I wrote this paper, I was a practising classroom science teacher. At the time of the revisions and preparation of the final manuscript I had moved to a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for the Service Professions, Edith Cowan University.

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About the author...

David Geelan is a postdoctoral research scholar at Edith Cowan University. He has taught secondary school chemistry, physics and mathematics in three Australian states and in Papua New Guinea. David's current major research project is related to the construction of educational and social advantage in school physics education. For the past five years he has also been collaborating with Dr. Peter Taylor of Curtin University to develop, teach and research Internet-based science education courses for graduate students. David's research interests include constructivist theory and practice, educational research methodology, self-study of teacher practices, philosophy of science and narrative methods for classroom inquiry.

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