Characteristics of Intuitive Concepts

Students’ concepts regarding the past are built not only in school contexts but also in the family context, in their community, or adapted from the media (Barton & Levstik, 2004). Two central aspects of intuitive concepts are analyzed next, to better understand conceptual change in history. On one hand, the nature of knowledge underlying intuitive notions is studied, and on the other hand, the functionality of these ideas is analyzed.

First, with regard to the nature of the knowledge that underlies intuitive concepts, at times it would seem that there is no agreement among researchers in this regard. Broadly speaking, in some cases, intuitive knowledge has been described as structured and organized knowledge (e.g., Carey, 1985; Vosniadou, 1994, 2008), and in other cases, it has been referred to as fragmented and disorganized (diSessa, 1993). This variety of descriptions has been the subject of controversy (diSessa, 2008; diSessa, Gillespie, & Esterly, 2004). To appreciate this apparent incommensurability of perspectives on the nature of intuitive knowledge—organized vs. fragmented—in a more integrated manner, it is necessary to analyze the long history of studies generated in psychology on conceptual development.

We have seen that concepts are elementary knowledge units that combine to form more complex conceptual structures—e.g., taxonomies, partonomies, mixed structures—and are present in other types of knowledge, including data, facts, principles, and theories. In addition, concepts constitute the basis of procedural knowledge.

If concepts are taken as units and are thought to underlie intuitive knowledge, then is it possible to understand the apparent contradiction in considering intuitive knowledge as fragmented or organized around more complex conceptual structures, such as theories. The level of development, organization, and integration of conceptual knowledge that underlies intuitive knowledge will depend on the expertise of the individual (Gadgil, Nokes-Malach, & Chi, 2012).

As to functionality, the second aspect that we want to tackle with regard to intuitive knowledge, it should be noted that this is a fundamental characteristic of these concepts. As we have stated elsewhere (Rodrfguez-Moneo & Carretero, 2012), functionality helps explain other features of intuitive knowledge. These features are described below. On the one hand, functionality reveals the origin of intuitive knowledge, given that people build it in response to their need to function in an environment and address their problems.

This knowledge is necessary long before it is taught in school and, therefore, is built by novices. For this reason, individuals elaborate the most outstanding characteristics they perceive and to a lesser extent on the basis of the traits that define a concept (Carretero & Lee, 2014). Thus, individuals build intuitive knowledge about the physical world with perceptive biases that facilitate interaction with the physical environment—for example, believing that the sun revolves around the earth because they perceive that it is in different places throughout the day. Similarly, they build intuitive knowledge regarding the social sciences and history to cope with the social environment. In this case, biases are determined by social perception. They are frequently ideological and attitudinal in nature, in response to the goals and interests of the social group to which individuals belong. For example, a student may think that a government agent was a dictator or not depending on the ideological position of his or her family.

Some time ago, Barsalou (1992) explained how subjects organize the world based on their goals and interests. Thus, for example, an athlete can categorize food as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy,’ and a fashion model can categorize it as ‘fattening’ or ‘not fattening’. Similarly, the use of knowledge from the social sciences and history can be quite varied and can help organize citizens, societies, political systems, economies, regulations, etcetera, based on the different goals or different interests of social groups. History is a field in which the conceptualization and theories that are built are used as tools. This happens to such a degree that the same historical event can be understood in various ways and can be taught completely differently in schools depending on the goals and interests of a particular social group (Carretero, Asensio, & Rodrfguez-Moneo, 2012; Carretero, Rodrfguez-Moneo & Asensio, 2012). One specific instance would be the so-called ‘discovery of America’ or ‘the encounter between two worlds,’ addressed in textbooks and taught differently in Mexican and Spanish schools (Carretero, Jacott, & Lopez-Manjon, 2002).

On the other hand, although intuitive notions have a conceptual basis, they have a practical and applied nature: they are used. In this sense, they underlie procedural knowledge. Thus, these implicit concepts become manifested through action. For this reason, people are not often very aware of concepts; they simply use them. It could be said that they think with theory and not about theory (Kuhn, 1988).

Finally, functionality also explains the resistance to changing these ideas. Because they are used in a seemingly adequate manner, they are often employed, and this frequency in use contributes to functionality’s consolidation and resistance to change. In the case of societal perceptions, they tend to coincide with the ideas of the reference group and, therefore, are confirmed and consolidated by the actions of others. This aspect has been addressed by studies on so-called social representations (see for example Barreiro, Castorina & Van Alphen and Paez, Bobowik & Liu, both in this volume).

Concepts in the social sciences and history have a greater tendency of being induced than do those in the experimental sciences, and they are more likely to be built with the greater involvement of other people—family members, friends, classmates (Barton & Levstik, 2004). Not only do the others generate a need for these concepts but they also shape them according to the over?all interests, goals, standards, values, and behavioral patterns of the group to which they belong (Rodrfguez-Moneo & Carretero, 2012).

Barton (2008) performed an exhaustive review of the studies that analyze students’ concepts about history and history learning that occur during their educational career. Three non-exclusive categories reflecting the trends in research were used to organize the large amount of work on this subject. One category refers to the influence of the social context in history learning. It includes all the works that analyze the importance of social groups and the social context in history learning.

The other two categories incorporate studies on: (1) students’ knowledge about the past and (2) knowledge of historical evidence, its interpretation, and the explanation provided regarding the actions of people from the past. The study describes the evolution of knowledge resulting from learning history in educational contexts. Thus, the process of conceptual change that results from learning is described to some degree. In the following, the process of conceptual change that occurs in the field of history is further analyzed.

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