Gustav Helldén

Kristianstad University, Sweden



Rationale and objectives

In order to create teaching situations in during which students’ ideas can be challenged educators must know more about the development of students’ conceptions concerning different phenomena.  Therefore, science education researchers need to stretch the duration of their research projects and study the same subjects over time in order to be able to make knowledge and value claims about students’ long-term conceptual development.  Short-term studies can not capture the full story [1-2].  Even if many studies about students’ conceptions in science have been carried out around the world very few have been longitudinal in nature [3].  Such studies can also give researchers a possibility to study the nature of the learning process, learning pathways and the influence of everyday experiences.  Therefore I started a longitudinal study of students’ understanding of ecological processes.


Many research projects have been conducted around the world, exploring students’ learning about different natural phenomena.  This research has largely been guided by constructivist perspectives on learning.  According to these perspectives the learner is an active participant in the process of constructing her/his knowledge about the world around her or him [4].  The research reported in this paper has been grounded in such constructivist epistemologies.


There is an intensive debate going on between researchers who emphasize different perspectives on learning.  One group argues that the situative perspective can provide a broader framework for understanding and improving educational practice.  They mean that this can include important aspects of individual cognitive functioning, but can also go beyond them [5].  Another group argues for a cognitive perspective.  This perspective focuses on individual human beings and their minds.  They suggest that a deeper understanding of mental processes of learning and applying knowledge can improve methods of teaching and learning [6].  Others want to broaden the ongoing debate by assuming a somewhat different vantage point.  They argue for a theoretical perspective that they find useful for their purposes is a version of constructivism that sees considerable merit in situated accounts of learning [7]  On the basis of empirical data from my longitudinal study I will discuss situative and cognitive aspects in relation to my analysis of the interviews.


The present paper will report on a study of personal context and continuity of human thought.  It is a result of a deeper analysis of interview data from a longitudinal study of 23 students’ understanding of ecological processes from 9 to 15 years of age.


The objectives of the present research project were:

1)    to analyze the interviews with the students during a longitudinal study in order to identify and describe personal themes;

2)    to study how personal context and continuity can influence the students’ conceptual development

3)    to discuss the results from a situative and cognitive perspective.


Design and procedure

My present study sought to examine if it was possible to recognize personal context and continuity in the students’ conceptions through the years.  The empirical data were gathered during a longitudinal study of students’ understanding of ecological processes dealing with conditions for life, decomposition, and the role of the flower in plant reproduction [8].  I found personal features that appeared in the interviews year after year.  During interviews with the same students at 15 and 19 years of age, they listened to interviews with them four years earlier.  Then I let them try to interpret characteristic features in the interviews and to describe their learning.


The longitudinal study was carried out at a small primary school, and later at a larger secondary school in southern Sweden.  I visited the class with the 9-years-old students regularly during half a year before I started the study and talked to them about natural phenomena.  The purpose was to be familiar with them and to show them that I was interested in their thinking.


I have like many other researchers in science education found that clinical interviews give the best information on students’ thinking about natural phenomena.  I underlined my interest in their think by starting the interview questions with; ‘What do you think …..’  The twenty-three students were interviewed individually on 11 different occasions from grade 2 (9 years) to grade 8 (15 years) in the Swedish comprehensive school.  I did not teach the class but spent some time in class during excursions and fieldwork.


To challenge the students’ ideas about conditions for life, I used cultivation of plants in sealed transparent boxes during the interviews.  For my interviews about decomposition I had soil, brown leaves and litter on a table in front of the students.  During my interviews about the flower’s role in reproduction I showed the students different kinds of flowers.


After the last interviews at the age of 15 I let each student listen to what they said in the interview four years earlier.  I asked them to comment on their ideas at 11 years of age and explain why the said as they did. I also asked them to try to describe how they had developed their ideas after age 11 and what they thought had been of greatest importance in the development of their ideas.  At 19 years of age I interviewed the students again with the same questions after they had listened to what they said at 11 and 15 years of age.



All of the interviews were transcribed verbatim.  Ausubel’s theory of meaningful learning had important implications for the analysis of the interview data and for the description of the students’ differential conceptual development [9].  It has been  possible to follow step by step how the students developed their understanding and to identify cases when integrative reconcilation occured.  By comparing concept maps and interview transcripts from each student through the years, I have studied differences and similarities in the development of content and structure of the conceptions.  The next step in the analysis was to identify and describe personal context and continuity in the students’ conceptions. I have found examples of learning as a part of a social practice that then had been integrated in the learner’s ideas and how such examples of situated learning could develop through the years.



During the analysis of the interviews over the years I found that the students assimilated different concepts depending on their prior conceptualizations.  It has been possible to recognize personal themes in the students’ conceptions about the phenomena.  Such themes can have a structural nature – a way of explaining a phenomenon through the years but can also concern the content.


At the beginning of the study the students thought that the plants in the sealed transparent boxes would die because they lacked access to life supporting resources like water and air.  In order to understand what was going on, the students described a ‘use up model’ that meant that the plant was the ‘end point’ for the necessary resources.  Following the first interview the teacher introduced the concept of the water cycle.  Many students described individual ‘cycle models’ during the subsequent interviews to explain how the plants in the sealed box could maintain water, air, oxygen and carbon dioxide.  Other personal themes that can be recognized in the interviews year after year are some students’ use of characteristic anthropomorphic explanations that they express through the years especially concerning defoliation and the role of the flower in plant reproduction.


Personal themes do not only concern the structure of the students’ thoughts but also the content.  One student mentioned for example always dew in her explanations of the water cycle and another student worms in his descriptions of a plant’s need.  Many students seemed to have a core idea, a personal theme that can be followed through the years also in the interviews about decomposition of leaves on the ground.  It can have to do with how the leaves are fragmented by dryness or rain or what is happening in a compost heap.


In the interviews about defoliation, there is a continuity in the development of the students’ conceptions from tree-centered to leaf-centered views, and from explanations expressed in terms of physical efforts to those expressed in terms of physiological needs.  It is also possible to find such continuity in the way students use anthropomorphic ideas in their explanations.


When the 15- and 19-year-old pupils listened to earlier interviews with them, they could often reveal concrete personal experiences that they went back to again and again often without remembering that had mentioned the same event at the previous interviews.  Many of these experiences were most often from the ages of 5-10y.  Descriptions and explanations of phenomena appeared as themes in the interviews that were based on early personal experiences together with family members, playmates or teachers.


The experiences were traced back to social situations but had become a part of the pupils’ personal context.  For example, the students participated in intensive discussions about conditions for life in the sealed boxes at the beginning of the study, and they learned a lot.  Then, the students continued to develop personal ways of thinking that were used on other occasions.



The longitudinal design has made it possible to get insights into students’ individual learning and thereby contribute to the development of a more complete description of the nature of conceptual change in the course of learning.  Even if there was a substantial conceptual, there was also a strong element of personal context and continuity, a personal biography that has important implication for the learning process [10].  Usually, the students did not replace one understanding with another one.  Instead, the learners widened their range of possible understandings or increased their repertoires of ideas.  The design made it possible to identify a personal context and continuity in the development of the students’ thinking.  The results of this study can be a valuable contribution to the discussion of situative versus cognitive perspectives on learning.



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3. White, R. The revolution in research on science teaching. In V. Richardsson (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching, New York: Macmillan, In press.

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6. Anderson, J. R.; Reder, L. M.; Simon, H. A. Situative versus cognitive perspectives: Form versus substance, Educational Researcher, 1997,  26, (1), 18-21.

7. Cobb, P.; Bowers, J. Cognitive and situative learning in theory and practice, Educational Researcher, 1999, 28 (2), 4-5.

8. Helldén, G. A longitudinal study of pupils’ conceptualization of ecological processes. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, San Diego, April 1998.

9. Ausubel, D. P.; Novak J. D.; Hanesian H. Educational psychology: A cognitive view, 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.

10. Marton, F. Towards a theory of quality in higher education. In Dart, B.; Boulton-Lewis, G. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Melbourne: ACER, 1998.