The Process of Conceptual Change

Before analyzing the process of conceptual change in history, we will discuss some particularities regarding historical concepts. First off all, two types of conceptual knowledge in history can be distinguished (VanSledright & Limon, 2006; see also Limon, 2002): first- and second-order. First-order conceptual knowledge consists of the conceptual and narrative knowledge that answers the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘where,’ ‘when,’ and ‘how’ of history. Thus, ‘names,’ ‘dates,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘socialism,’ ‘stories of nation building,’ ‘the evolution of capitalism,’ and others are examples of these first-order concepts. Second-order conceptual knowledge involves the knowledge of the concepts and ideas that historians use to interpret the past. This knowledge makes reference to metaconcepts related to the epistemological conceptualizations of history. Concepts such as ‘cause,’ ‘primary and secondary sources,’ ‘historical context,’ ‘perspective taking,’ and ‘source reliability’ constitute second-order conceptual knowledge. Some of these second-order concepts have been identified to be at the core of historical thinking (Lee, 2004; Levesque, 2008; Seixas, 2004).

As will be fully discussed below, studies on conceptual change in history have been largely focused on changes in so-called first-order concepts or substantive concepts. We believe that more attention should be paid to second-order concepts or metaconcepts to provide an in-depth explanation of the process of conceptual change in this discipline. Yet, regardless of whether change is related to first- or second-order concepts, what do we mean when we talk about conceptual change?

Conceptual change refers to two aspects: the result ofchange or final state in the structure of individuals’ conceptual knowledge; and the mechanisms that are triggered and occur in the course of or in process of change (Rodrfguez- Moneo, 1999). In the case of history, because concepts underlie individuals’ historical narratives, the result of conceptual change reflects a change in this narrative. The process refers to the mechanisms activated and the steps taken to change the narrative.

With regard to the result of change, as discussed elsewhere (Rodrfguez- Moneo, 2007), many models of conceptual change have indicated the existence of two types of changes in the structure of knowledge. On one hand, there are changes of lesser degree (also called ‘weak restructuring,’ ‘non-radical change,’ ‘assimilation,’ or ‘growth’) that are essentially characterized by the incorporation of new concepts or new relationships to the structure of knowledge, without substantially changing the meaning or the hard core of concepts. On the other hand, changes of greater degree or radical changes (also known as ‘major restructuring,’ ‘radical change,’ ‘accommodation,’ ‘restructuring,’ or ‘conceptual change’) represent radical transformations of the conceptual structure, a theoretical change that affects its hard core and, therefore, is central to the meaning of concepts.

The existence of these two types of change can be explained because, among other reasons, conceptual change does not often occur abruptly; it is frequently a gradual incorporation of small or minor changes (Vosniadou, 2007). Nonetheless, conceptual change is identified with higher degree or radical transformation, which implies a substantial and significant change with regard to previous concepts.

To illustrate the result of conceptual change, let us look at some investigations. For instance, the work of Vosniadou, Vamvakossi, and Skopeliti (2008) examines the process of conceptual change in relation to the shape of the earth. It analyzes the transition of intuitive concepts from conceiving the earth as a plane where inhabitants stand upon to more scientific concepts, conceiving the earth as a sphere and its inhabitants living in the southern hemisphere without falling into the void. In his work on the problem-based teaching and learning of history, Bain (2005) analyzes the historical concept of a ‘flat earth’ as a trigger for a series of historical events (e.g., Columbus’ voyage) and the development of historical writings that need to be interpreted.

In the field of history, Carretero and Lee (2014) analyze the characteristics of historical knowledge before and after conceptual change. Before, historical events are conceived in a very superficial manner; they are analyzed more descriptively, focusing on perceivable aspects and giving excessive explanatory and anecdotal weight to historical characters. In addition, the economic, political, and social phenomena that constitute historical phenomena are considered in a simple manner, independently of each other. Finally, historical events are considered as isolated states, favoring a static concept of history. After a conceptual change, historical events are understood in depth through an explanatory approach that bears in mind the relationships between economic, political, and social phenomena. Furthermore, explanations are not so focused on historical figures but instead on institutions. This shift requires understanding the abstract dimensions of the concepts involved. Finally, historical events are understood as related elements, contributing to a more dynamic concept of history (these and other components of conceptual change in history are discussed in detail below).

Up to this point, we have presented the description of the outcome of conceptual change. Next, we analyze the second meaning of conceptual change, which refers to the mechanisms that constitute and give rise to this change.

With regard to the mechanisms that trigger the process of conceptual change in this field, special attention has been paid to the mechanism of conflict. However, the roles of analogies, metacognition, and metaknowledge have also been analyzed, in addition to the application of knowledge in multiple contexts (Rodrfguez-Moneo, 1999; Vosniadou, 2008). Here, we briefly focus on metacognition and metaknowledge4 because of their links with metaconcepts or second-order concepts in history.

Many studies have shown the benefits of metacognition in the process of conceptual change, given that metacognition allows one not only to think with but also to think about the concepts or theories that one possesses (Kuhn, 1988), in addition to the cognitive processes that occur during learning. For conceptual change to occur and in order to think historically, it is useful to think about the theory. Therefore, an awareness of cognitive processes (metacognition) and the nature of disciplinary knowledge (metaknowledge) is an important mechanism in the process of conceptual change.

Metacognition contributes to awareness regarding the use of intuitive concepts, which are implicit because of their applied nature. This awareness is extremely favorable to conceptual change. The greater awareness of the first- order historical concepts that one possesses and uses, for example the concept of nation, may contribute to generating reflections on and elaborations of this concept, which will favor a change in and the development of the concept of ‘nation’, for instance, learning that ‘nation’ is rather an elusive concept.

Sometimes, metacognition interacts with other mechanisms. Thus, when it is activated along with a conflict, the awareness of contradictory situations is facilitated, and the process of change can be stimulated. For example, if a student thinks that the Second World War was caused solely by Hitler, then learning about other explanatory variables for the origin of the war (political variables, economic variables, social variables, etc.) will cause some conflict. Because metacognition will contribute to awareness of this conflict, it can encourage change in the explanation of the causes of the Second World War. Sometimes, conflictive situations do not generate conceptual change because students are not aware of the conflict at hand (Rodrfguez-Moneo, 1999).

When metacognition is activated along with an analogy, awareness regarding the models that are compared is enhanced, and conceptual change is also favored. For example, comparing colonialism in a foreign country with the colonialism occurring (or that occurred) in one’s own country can contribute to better understanding and generating a change in the concept of colonialism in one’s own country. In this comparison, the awareness of the elements being compared, of what is thought and of what one thinks, facilitates the process of change.

Metacognition is closely related to metaconceptual knowledge, that is, to epistemological knowledge, which in turn is knowledge about the nature of a discipline (its theories, goals, methods). Some studies have indicated the effect of metaknowledge on the process of conceptual change.

In history, metaconceptual knowledge is linked to second-order concepts that organize historical knowledge (Limon, 2002) and guide historical thought (Van Drie & Van Boxtel, 2008) and history learning (Carretero & Lee, 2014) and is therefore relevant in the process of conceptual change of substantive or first-order concepts. For example, an individual’s concept regarding the goals of history (whether they describe or explain the past), the type of source, the role of evidence, and so on can influence this disciplinary learning process.

However, the relationship between first- and second-order concepts in history is not unidirectional but bidirectional. Thus, conceptual change in a first- order concept can generate changes in metaconcepts. In the example of the Second World War coined above, changes in the explanation of its origins can also contribute to changes in the second-order concept of ‘reason’. In this sense, it can be argued that first- and second-order concepts reciprocally feed into each other.

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