On Misconceptions and Situated Language Use

Misconceptions have been presented as structures of the individual mind. Such structures can be represented in concept maps1 that the researcher creates based on clinical interviews (e.g. Chi 1992, or that the research participants themselves [1]

A student-produced concept map that a physics teacher used to assess his students’ conceptions of a variety of phenomena involving light following a related curricular unit

Fig. 9.1 A student-produced concept map that a physics teacher used to assess his students’ conceptions of a variety of phenomena involving light following a related curricular unit

generate (Novak and Gowin 1984) . Take, for example, the concept map that a physics student produced during an exam following a unit on light and related phenomena, including the concepts of diffraction, reflection, and refraction (Fig. 9.1). The concept map represents a totality of statements in a particular domain; and, because it forms a structure, it is easy to see that investigators have come to use it as a representation of mental structures (mind). Indeed, teachers refer to this and similar representations also as “mind maps.” Just as a road map represents all the ways in which we can navigate a geographical area, the mind map represents all the ways in which a student might respond to test questions and clinical interviews. When a conceptual change occurs, it will be reflected in the map that the person produces or that someone else draws based on interview data. Sometimes conceptual changes are radical, in which case there are reorganizations in a person’s way of speaking that are so dramatic that the concept maps based on prior interviews and those following the change do not even contain the same concepts (Chi 1992). In non-radical conceptual change, existing concepts change their place in the hierarchy (laterally or vertically).

In the literature, misconceptions tend to be attributed to the individual research participants, most frequently students. Unsurprisingly given the dominance of the constructivist metaphor—according to which mental structure is the product of individuals’ (private, solipsistic, or subjective) constructions—these generally naive conceptions are incompatible with those that populate official science textbooks. We may say alternatively that the ways in which students speak about phenomena of interest to science is different than the ways in which scientists (professionally) speak about them.

Texts in educational psychology do not always consider the implications of the difference between non-radical and radical change and the associated phenomena of learning and development, respectively. Thus, new teachers are asked to “build carefully on what students already know” so that “students can integrate new knowledge with the old, and see in some cases how to correct misconceptions they may have had” (Sternberg and Williams 2010 : 50). If, however, a misconception is something that requires a radical, that is, a qualitative change and reorganization of consciousness (in the sense described in Chap. 6), then integrating new knowledge with the old will not assist them. Instead, the scientific ways of talking about phenomena frequently require a demise and complete overturn of the old, which only continues to exist as the sedimented ruins on which any emergent scientific language is built (Husserl 1939). Alternatively, the two discourses may exist side by side. The continued presence of two different ways of talking is particularly salient in astronomical phenomena: Even the most advanced astrophysicists can marvel at the beauty of a sunrise or sunset in the Australian outback, or talk about the sun moving across the sky rather than emphasizing the illusion of a solar movement that in reality the image is created by the rotation of the earth. Such scientists know how to talk when they find themselves in particular settings. It would be quite curious indeed if our astrophysicist were to reply to the statement, “What a beautiful moon- rise isn’t it?” by saying, “Do you want me to respond as an astrophysicist or as an ordinary person?” In this case, no alternative conceptual frameworks are required.

Readers may note in the preceding paragraphs that—in contrast to the mental things that other researchers attribute to the minds of individuals—we state our own position in terms of the language in use. This language inherently is a cultural- historical phenomenon (see Chap. 4), always already found in and given by the world that we inhabit. In which way does language give us a different approach to talking about what uninstructed and often even instructed individuals say?[2] The notion of the sign, widely used in Vygotsky’s writings, may advance us a bit.

In the history of scholarly discourse, the linguistic sign was conceived as a psychological entity [entite psychique] with two sides: (a) an acoustic image and a concept or (b) a signifier and a signified (de Saussure 1916/1995). The classical example is that of the Latin sound-word for tree, arbor, and the image of a tree (Fig. 9.2). Here, the sound-word is the signifier, and the tree is that which is signified. It is easy to see how the misconceptions and conceptual change literature are based on this conception—even if unacknowledged and unattributed to de Saussure. Thus, because from this view of the sign there is a strict correspondence between concepts and words, the latter provide us with access to what goes on inside the

F. de Saussure defines the linguistic sign as a two-faced entity that includes a sound-word (here the Latin word arbor for tree) and the concept (here the image of a tree)

Fig. 9.2 F. de Saussure defines the linguistic sign as a two-faced entity that includes a sound-word (here the Latin word arbor for tree) and the concept (here the image of a tree)

mind. Vygotsky however critiques the idea that words are in the mind, that they have semantic value only independent of the sounds that we hear as words. In fact, considering words to be independent of their implementation in actual speech is a typical way of thinking about cognitive issues, where logical relations are said to hold independently of the ways in which they are implemented in/by computer software and hardware or by (human) “wetware.” It is the same kind of conflation that allows researchers to state that gestures and other bodily phenomena somehow enact mind, concepts, schema or whatever alternative mental entity that is stipulated to underlie concrete action.

To change perspective, consider a question like “Where do children first encounter language?” Of course, it is not in their mind. Language is materialized (historical, cultural) consciousness (Vygotsky 2010). The sonorities of language and the sounds particular to a society and culture are encountered while the child is still in the womb. As soon as the infant is born, it is exposed to regular sonorities as much as it is to the visual environment—and, not to forget, it is exposed to what reveals itself in all the other senses as well, smell, taste, and touch. As infants develop into toddlers, their worlds also begin to contain things that they later come to know as written words, which populate the child’s landscape as seen in an image from the same French culture that provided de Saussure with his life experiences (Fig. 9.3). As one of his critics suggested, language (signifiers) is not or not just in the head: it surrounds us everywhere in very material ways (Lacan 1966). Just as we become competent in navigating the material world (stairs, ladders, pedestrian crossings), we become competent in navigating the sonorous world, that is, competent in the use of a (spoken, written) language in association with the social and material situations where it is an integral part. The two competencies are so intertwined that knowing a language becomes indeed indistinguishable from knowing one’s way around the world—as we insist throughout this book.

It was Aristotle who noted that speech (logos) lets something show itself from itself; and that something is what speech is about. In this function, living language, the semantic field, constitutes the accented visible (Mikhailov 2001). We know this to be the case in our everyday exchanges with others, where we do not experience ourselves as interpreting or trying to figure out what someone else wants to say. We would never be able to construct the world unless it was already giving itself to be seen, heard, felt, smelt, or tasted. If parents produce the sound /'spl/ (“apple”) every time they give their child something, then whatever gives itself to be seen is associated with that sound, and, of course, with the feel, smell, and taste that comes with

Language is part of the world that children learn to navigate very early in their lives so that knowing a language becomes indistinguishable from knowing one’s way around the world

Fig. 9.3 Language is part of the world that children learn to navigate very early in their lives so that knowing a language becomes indistinguishable from knowing one’s way around the world

it. Eventually, upon hearing the sound, the child can anticipate the visual experience to be possible. The child will be associating the particular sound not merely with its perceivable features, but indeed with its appearance as part of a given context of action, such as an apple section brought close to the child’s mouth during lunchtime. Association,[3] therefore, is just a weaker name for the fact that we live in and form part of a world that changes us in its becoming. Our world becomes structured because of the specific relations we entertain with others, in which the semantic field contributes to accent the visible in affectively and practically characteristic ways. This makes the (life-) world of an Asian, Australian aboriginal, North American, or African child different. Our lifeworlds are the results of s ocietal relations and the associated cultures—which may vary even when the language apparently is the same.[4]

We entitle this chapter “Culturing Conceptions” to underscore two important points. First, whatever educational psychologists have denoted by the term (mis-) conception is not an individual feature. Rather, “conceptions” are cultural features and a function of language as it is encountered in the everyday world. Indeed, the fact that this phenomenon is so pervasive should have already suggested its cultural nature. “Eradicating” misconceptions, as some scholars have suggested, would amount to eradicating part of the world as it is made relevant to and by the people inhabiting it. Any so-called “misconceptions” are so pervasive precisely because they are part of our culture—so much so that they are sufficiently intelligible to the converted (scientist, educational psychologist). Second, culturing conceptions denotes our theoretical move to return conceptions to where they belong: culture. This means that we do not have to search for conceptions in mental structures or in the mind. Instead, we can look for them in language, in actual conversations, and recognize in them stable linguistic features. Without language and other forms of signs (gestures, drawings), investigators would be hard-pressed to identify cases of this interesting phenomenon; and the practice of eliciting “conceptions” involves a social relation so that whatever is attributed to the participant in a clinical interview (commonly used in research on conceptual change) inherently has the characteristics of that relation. Both phenomena are involved in the following section, because it is culture that speaks through the voices of the participants, and is that same culture that allows us to hear how participants hear each other. Our analysis, therefore, presupposes the same kind of cultural competence that these participants exhibit— which, of course, is the case of all (mis-) conceptions research, even if this is generally unacknowledged.[5]

  • [1] In a concept map, the most inclusive and therefore most general concept is located on the top andthe least inclusive, most specific concepts are placed on the bottom. The concepts, usually nouns,are linked by means of verbs so that statements are formed when the map is read from top tobottom. © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017 W.-M. Roth, A. Jornet, Understanding Educational Psychology, Cultural Psychology of Education 3, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39868-6_9
  • [2] A classical report appears on a widely distributed video featuring Harvard graduates talking aboutour universe in ways that are inconsistent with science. The website advertising the video on CDstates: “With its famous opening scene at a Harvard graduation, this classic of education researchbrings into sharp focus the dilemma facing all educators: Why don’t even the brightest studentstruly grasp basic science concepts? This award-winning program traces the problem through interviews with Harvard graduates and their professors, as well as with a bright ninth-grader who hassome confused ideas about the orbits of the planets” (http://www.learner.org/resources/series28.html).
  • [3] Vygotsky (1987) saw in associationist theories on the development of conceptions “the basis forthe whole of traditional psychology” (1987: 196). By focusing on associations between sensuousexperiences, associationist researchers are unable to see how (qualitatively distinct) developmentalchanges emerge as part of larger social contexts within which experiences are had. They alsobecome unable to account for the unity of intellect and affect, which is achieved by means of theVygotskian categories of perezivanie and social drama.
  • [4] Consider the differences between Austrian and German cultures, which exist despite their common language (though regionally different accents); consider also the differences between thecultures of French-speaking Quebec and France.
  • [5] Misconceptions can be a research topic precisely because they are intelligible, produced in interviewer-child exchanges, which require cultural competencies to be understood (e.g. Roth et al.2008).
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