Cognitive Approaches to Science
Professional educators should be aware of the nature of the learner in order to select effective teaching behaviors and activities. Cognitive psychology helps us see learning as "a product of the interaction among what learners already know, the information they encounter, and what they do as they learn" (Bruning, 6) Knowledge reflects the outside world as filtered through and influenced by culture, language, beliefs, interactions with others, direct teaching and modeling. (McElmeel) Constructivists take the point of view that students actively construct the knowledge they possess. The knowledge we already possess affects the ability to learn new knowledge. (Mestre)
When students enter the classroom, they have already constructed a lot of knowledge. This set of knowledge that students possess prior to formal science education is usually filled with preconceptions. When these preconceptions are in conflict with scientific concepts, they are called misconceptions. (Mestre) While research suggests that instruction improves class performance slightly, more than forty percent of students continue to display misconceptions (Bruning, 350). Because students have spent considerable time and energy construction their naive theories, they have an intellectual attachment to them. Students adhere to their naive beliefs steadfastly, often explaining away conflicts by reinterpreting the lessons taught by teachers or by making inconsequential changes to their theories. (Mestre)
By all accounts, effective science instruction must take into account the knowledge that students have already constructed. According to Posner, Strike, Hewson and Gerzog (1982) in order for students to overcome misconceptions, several conditions must be met:
Students must become dissatisfied with their existing conception;
Students must possess some minimum understanding of the scientific concept;
Students must view the concept as plausible;
Students must view the scientific concept as useful for interpreting or predicting various phenomena.
Thus it is important that instruction is designed to bring about conceptual change. This can be done by probing for and identifying misconceptions, providing discrepant events, and guiding students in reconstructing knowledge (Mestre). The teacher needs to help ensure that students are actively engaged in constructing scientific knowledge by taking on the role of the coach rather than the transmitter of knowledge.
It is important to recognize the cognitive approaches and the implications for instruction. First, science needs to be taught as a problem solving process rather than simply as an acquisition of declarative knowledge. Second, naive beliefs need to be identified and confronted immediately. Curriculum should begin with a focus on what the students bring with them to class. Third, hands on demonstrations need to be used to help challenge misconceptions. Finally, adequate time must be given to restructure knowledge. (Bruning, 368-370)
Below is an illustration from Michael Bentley to stress the importance of implementing a complete curriculum. When components are omitted, the program is significantly weaker than if all elements are present.
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