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Druids, Sunrises, and Optical Illusions:

The Relation of

Worldviews, Scientific Thinking, and Misconceptions

Judith Nuño

USC Rossier School of Education

EDPT 510: Human Learning

November 30, 1998


Worldviews and Scientific Thinking

Misconceptions and Conceptual Change

Worldviews and Scientific Explanations

References Cited


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.......If science textbooks explain that the sun stays in one spot all the time and the earth turns on its axis, they how come our culture and history has a different story? I had to explain the differences. In the mainstream of science, the sun does not move. But in our culture, we have a Sun bearer......(Allen, 1997, p. 21).
....."There was, but the ocean was much lower then. All over the world it was far colder than it is today, and when it rained and snowed over the land, the water was frozen to ice and could not flow back into the ocean.At that time, there was a land bridge between Roonagh Point and Clare Island.

"Then around ten thousand years ago the world got suddenly warmer, the ice began to melt, the oceans rose, and Clew Bay filled up with water...."

...Looking out at the island, Maddie thought for a while.

"Of course, there’s another explanation of how Clare Island got where it is."

Maddie’s eyes widened, as though to say, There always is, and Noreen wondered at her child’s opinion of her. As a girl she could remember being critical of her own mother’s serenity in the face of all the bracing details that made sense of the world.

"It’s a big boulder that one Druid launched at the head of another Druid."

"Did it hit him?"

Noreen shook her head. "It went wide."

"I like that story better." (Gill, 1996, pp. 130-131)

Students enter their science classrooms at all ages with a wealth of prior experiences, all of which impact their ability to understand, explain, explore, reason, and, ultimately, learn. They have already explored the world in some way prior to their first encounter with formal schooling and have explanations for how the world works. These "naive" conceptions color how they approach school, how they approach social interactions inside and outside school, how they view their teachers and their classmates, and how they modify these conceptions to construct new and/or more meaningful connections and explanations. Worldviews associated with science, derived from personal experience with nature, family culture and traditions, religious beliefs, language, and schooling itself are inextricably intertwined with explanations for natural phenomena; indeed, the explanations or nature schemas are often a prerequisite for survival in a formidable world beset with both natural disasters and technological challenges. Science educators worry about the persistence of "naive conceptions," usually considered "misconceptions" because they differ substantively from orthodox Western science explanations. But "misconception" is undoubtedly a misleading term. Both the Sun bearer and Druid explanations cited above have a measure of truth, albeit not "scientific" truth, but as a poetic vision that captures the essence of human curiosity and vision. As a science teacher I am, of course concerned with "science misconceptions." As a teacher, I am interested in the ability of students to use curiosity, experience, exploration, and science " ways of knowing" in an integrated fashion. And as a student myself of cognitive psychology and science education, I am interested in the intersection of worldviews, scientific thinking, misconceptions and conceptual change, and the development of explanations for natural phenomena. The worldview schema seems to be a fertile avenue for understanding students conceptions about the natural world and for enriching conceptual change teaching models applicable to multicultural classrooms.

Worldviews and Scientific Thinking

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Worldviews may be considered, from an information processing perspective, as narrative schemas representing a collection of beliefs about life and the universe and creating an overall perspective from which to see and interpret the world. A geocentric worldview would be one in which the earth is seen as the center of the universe; alternatively, a heliocentric worldview sees the sun as the center of a particular point in the universe (Kuhn, 1957). A common sense worldview is actually not common sense, but rather a personal worldview which may be in conflict with, for example, a physics worldview, which represents a shared set of ideas representing current explanations of how the material and physical world functions. The differences between that which makes personal sense and that which makes sense to a physicist may be due to different varieties of experiences (Kirkpatrick & Wheeler, 1995), but may be much deeper. Cultural history and traditions serve to create worldviews; indeed, a person’s culture may be considered the principal determiner of what is known at a point in time and what can become known (Anderson, 1984). Even among scientists, social and cultural diversity may lead to different interpretations of the same series of events (Hull, 1988) or same artifacts (Lewin, 1987). How great than must be the differences between those who view the world as scientists and those who either fail to understand or even fear scientific thinking? A full treatment of these differences, from a scientific worldview, may be found in a number of books and nature articles written for the lay person by scientists on the evolution-creationism debate (Berra, 1990), on the threatening nature of Darwin’s ideas to religious worldviews (Dennett, 1995); on the distinction between religion and science as ways of representing the world (Gould, 1997); on the existence of life on Mars (Gould, 1996)p; on the interpretation of scientific evidence (Gould, 1998); and on the conflict between science and paranormal and pseudoscientific worldviews (Sagan, 1995).

Science has may definitions but is most frequently characterized as a process of obtaining, analyzing, testing, and verifying evidence about the natural world. The specific science schema employed in this pursuit is determined by the scientist, the field of science, and use of a realistic or instrumental perspective (Hodson, 1982). Science as a process does not necessarily produce knowledge nor increase a knowledge base, but it attempts to both verify existing knowledge, improve upon it, and sometimes produce more. And it works, as witnessed by scientific, medical, and technological advances. Science, however, can be considered a worldview; indeed, it is one of the major ways that people in the Western world establish belief systems (Hull, 1988). Science was not always the dominant way of knowing in the Western world but has a rich, cultural history, full of controversy, discovery, validation, and even belief it its explanatory power (Moore, 1993). An understanding of the schema nature, the worldview nature of science is essential from a science education perspective in order to understand how children learn science, what conceptions and misconceptions they have about how the world works, about resistance of misconceptions to change in the classroom, and about how to improve science education.

Worldview schemas obviously cover more territory than science, but the interface between cultural worldviews and a science worldview create problems for the scientist, the science educator, and probably for persons interested in political change. Those problems faced by the science educator in the science classroom form the focus here. Cobern (1989), in a theoretical paper on worldviews, defines worldview as a fundamental, epistemological mind structure. He considers it a mistake on the teacher’s part to assume worldview homogeneity in the typical classroom, particularly with respect to what students know about how science works. In his view, constructivist and other conceptual change methodologies require worldview homogeneity, a situation that is not at all common in today’s multicultural classrooms. Cobern (1990), in an interview study on college students’ concepts of nature, found distinct gender-related differences in concepts of nature and science. Cobern and Gibson (1996), in a pilot study of cultural systems and nature concepts of science teachers and their students, found that even with common experiences, both teachers and students tended to view "school science’ and "school knowledge" as separate from nature concepts. A general consensus at a recent Cultural Studies in Science Education Conference held in Mito, Japan (1996), was that worldview differences exist in all cultures, including Western ones, and only a small proportion of students in any culture actually have worldview variations amenable to Western science concepts. (Aikenhead, et al., 1996). Other conclusions of the papers presented at the conference as part of a Joint Research Project on Cultural Studies in Science Education support this view: Students who base their reasoning on a non-Western scientific worldview tend to be inhibited from constructing science concepts; worldview tends to act as a selective filter of what to attend to in a science classroom; and science concepts taught without regard for worldview or everyday experience of students tends not to be applied in everyday nor in indigenous settings. (Aikenhead, et al 1996). Cobern (1996a) , in a historical review of the development of scientific knowledge, concludes that the distinction between scientific knowledge and other belief systems is artificial and possibly creates more problems than it solves. In may instances, science is taught at the expense of indigenous knowledge, which is often based on scientific methods but without the use of scientific jargon (Cobern, 1988). Grey (1986), in studying the interface of science and cultural worldviews, finds that non-technological cultural models for relating to the natural world are sometimes more exploitative and manipulative than those of Western science.

Science makes both scientific and worldview sense to a scientist but not to science students (Waterman, 1983). Teaching science concepts may become a cross-cultural activity when science concepts do not fit into a student’s worldview, suggesting the need for scientific pluralism in science teaching (Cobern, 1994), considering first the cultural worldview and the requirements and advisability for supplanting that cultural worldview solely on the premise the "science works." (Cobern, 1996b). Cobern (1996c) identifies several scenarios that occur at the interface of culture, worldview, and science learning: enculturation, when science subculture and student worldview are in harmony; assimilation, when science subculture is at odds with student worldview and the student is obliged to abandon or marginalize an indigenous way of knowing and reconstruct a new, scientific way of knowing; "Fatima’s Rules," when science subculture and worldview are at odds but student creatively and persistently resists assimilation but responds correctly to "school science" questions; and anthropological or collateral learning, in which the student successfully navigates the border between science subculture and worldview (see also Aikenhead, et al, 1996). These scenarios function both at the interface of Western science and indigenous cultures (Allen, 1997), immigrant cultures, and lower socioeconomic groups (Cobern, 1996c).


Misconceptions and Conceptual Change

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Cobern (1993) presents a model relating worldview, science understanding, science misconceptions, and conceptual change. He defines worldview as a framework that orders the intellect and operates via knowledge structures. He considers "misconceptions" a relative term, only deserving the "mis" with regards to accepted science concepts. The alleged misconceptions may be due to factual misunderstanding derived from uninformed naivete, misinformation and/or misinterpretation, or derived from an alternative worldview or cognitive framework which actively hinders science understanding , only allows unconnected understanding, or allows for unvalued understanding. Apprehension is induced when information contrary to the worldview is perceived but conceptual change would only occur when the discrepant information is judged as plausible by the worldview. Cobern’s model has much in common with other conceptual change and learning cycle teaching models that consider prior experiences and knowledge as the basis for misconceptions (see Cleminson, 1990; Chinn & Brewer, 1993; Duit, R., Komorek, M., Wilbers, J., & Roth, W. M. 1997; Kyle & Shymansky, 199; Lemlech, 1998; McDermott, 1997; Mestre, 1998; Posner, Strike, Hewson, Gertzog, 1982; Pozo, 1996; Roschelle, 1995; Stepans, 1994; and Solé, 1996) but differs in its emphasis on worldview as opposed to personal experiences as the major reason for resistance to change. Villani and Orquiza de Carvalho (1997), in a review of qualitative research studies on conceptual change teaching, attribute partial attainment of new ideas and resistance to change to experimental settings and not to prior knowledge, while Slusher and Anderson (1995) indicate that the quality of students’ causal judgements is more important that the presentation of noncausal or statistical evidence in generating conceptual change, and Jones and Eichinger (1998) and Welzel and Aufschnaiter (1997) provide evidence that the quality of the social and physical environment are of importance in engendering conceptual change (See also Panofsky, John-Steiner & Blackwell, 1990 and Martin, 1990). Other studies have shown that misconceptions persist despite targeted training of teachers in nature of science (Thomaz, Cruz, Martins, & Cachapuz, 1996), that misconceptions coexist with new concepts (Toledo, Arriassecq, & Santos, 1997), that misconceptions persist if they are coherent albeit scientifically invalid (Howe & Jones, 1998; Lightman & Sadler, 1988; Núñez & Banet, 1996), and that misconceptions are stable throughout the school years (Arnaudin, 1983; Clement, 1983). Several studies have investigated how language may underscore the presence and persistence of misconceptions via inability to understand the terms used (Blosser, 1987); lack of understanding concrete vs. symbolic language (Solomon, 1983); and problems in translating between visual and written images (Peterson, 1997; Bowen & Roth, 1998; Roth & Bowen, 1998). According to Cobern’s model (1989), these studies are based on the implicit assumption of worldview homogeneity, that students enter the classrooms with similar epistemological frameworks for understanding the inquiry nature of science, and that, although gender, race, and religion may have some bearing on attitude and interest in science, they are of less importance in misconception persistence than some controllable variable.

Several recent studies in the social sciences, as opposed to the "hard" sciences support the concept of worldview impact on naive theory retention, although the term worldview is not explicitly stated (see Anderson, 1982, 1983, 1995; Anderson & Lindsay, 1998; Anderson and Ross, 1980; Anderson, New & Speer, 1985; Anderson & Sechler, 1986). There is a growing body of science education studies that support a worldview model of the persistence of alternative science conceptions, including general studies by Crowther (1997), Jung (1993), Martínez Ortiz de Montellano (n. d.), Resnik & Collins (1994), Roschelle (1995), and Solomon (1983); Hogan & Fisherkiller (1996), Klotz (1993), Settlage (1996), and Tull (1992) in American students; Tsai (1983) in Taiwanese students; Jimínez Gómez & Marín Martínez (1996) and Martí (1996) in Spanish students; Herbert (1986) in West Indian students; and Allen (1997) and Kawagley (1995) in Native Americans; and Ogunniyi (1995) in non-Western science teachers. The general message of these studies is that the worldview assumptions among students with difficulties in learning science were poorly, if at all, integrated with Western nature of science concepts. Tsai’s conclusion, from a study of 48 Taiwanese 8th graders, that students with a worldview oriented towards a constructivist nature of science viewpoint preferred and learned well with a constructivist learning style while those students with empirical worldviews preferred a rote learning style. The implications for science education are numerous, the most obvious being the importance of evaluating worldview orientation prior to embarking on single teaching method.

Worldviews and Scientific Explanations

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In its simplest terms, science is about building or inventing explanations to explain and make sense of the world (Sandoval & Reiser, 1997). Children are natural scientists, curious about the world but also in need of forging explanations about the world for their personal survival. Children initially perceive the world as flat (Howe and Jones, 1998; Lightman & Sandler, 1988) and see the sun rising and setting. Both are optical illusions, one because of the limitations of distance vision and the other because of perception of apparent movement. For practical purposes, flat earths and rising suns provide sufficient survival-type explanations, unless one is traveling across the vast ocean like Columbus or towards outer space. That they function well in spite of being optical illusions is, for me the scientist, a type of poetry, but that is my personal worldview. The issue for science education is that practical explanations, teaching explanations, and research explanations are not the same (Edgington, 1997). Alternative explanations exist because they explain natural phenomenon on a practical and often on an aesthetic level. On a cognitive level, they consist of propositions, images, procedural rules which minimize the expenditure of mental energy. In addition, they are often incomplete, hold contradictory elements, and are constantly being revised on a subconscious level (Redish, 1994). Barca (1986), in a study of Portuguese high school students, found that students tended to form explanations based on everyday assumptions about the world not understood by their teachers. Orquiza de Carvalho, Carvalho, Alvarado, Tawny, & Gallagher (1983), in a study of a multicultural 6th grade class, found that the ability to form explanations increased with familiarity with experiments but decreased with exposure to increasing numbers of scientific concepts. All explanations, alternative explanations as well as "standard science" explanations are individual creations, developed from a personal mental ecology embedded in a hierarchical worldview. Responses to the same set of data or empirical evidence are rarely the same for all students (Gauld, 1989).

A scientist and a science teacher can state unequivocally that the sun does not require a sun bearer, that Druids did not create Clare Island, that the sun does not move around the earth, that the tides do not depend on the movement of sea turtles (Cobern, 1998) nor the use of sea water for cooking (DeSpain, 1996). But can or should the science teacher provide explanations for natural phenomena prior to ascertaining the worldviews, the alternative conceptions, or the explanatory process used by science students. Indeed, just because students have alternative explanations, does not mean that they are proficient at developing explanations. Krull & Anderson (1997) and Anderson, Krull & Weiner (1996) in their investigations on the explanatory process stress the role of belief systems, or worldviews, in the development of explanations. The science educator would do well to consider the role of worldviews on science as an explanatory process for natural phenomenon and include this consideration in any conceptual change method used in the classroom.

References Cited

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