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Conceptual change: enrichment and radical conceptual change - What does the metacognition research say?

Conceptual change often requires fundamental changes in the concepts and organisations of existing knowledge as well as the development of new learning strategies for deliberate knowledge restructuring and the acquisition of new concepts (Vosniadou, 2013). Conceptual change researchers argue about the type of conceptual changes and on which level the conceptual change takes place (e.g., Chi, 2008; diSessa, 2008; Vosniadou, 1994). There is, however, a general consensus that conceptual change can be seen as a specific form of learning and a process of restructuring domain-specific knowledge.

According to Vosniadou (1994, p. 46), the simplest form of conceptual change is called enrichment. In the process of enrichment, a learner is adding new information to an existing theoretical explanation on the level of specific theories, without changing the framework theory. Framework theory refers to the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of one’s knowledge system. Framework theories can be seen as “skeletal structures that ground our deepest ontological commitments concerning how we understand the world” (Vosniadou, 2013, p. 13). Framework theories are not considered to be subject to metaconceptual awareness or they may not be systematically tested for confirmation or falsification (see Vosniadou, 2013).

The enrichment type of conceptual change can be seen as the normal, daily accumulation of information and acquisition of facts and concepts about the topic to be studied, without structural changes in the information-processing system itself (Rumelhart & Norman, 1978, p. 38). The enrichment process can occur at a cognitive level without metacognition in thinking because the enrichment process does not require knowledge or awareness of one’s own (or someone else’s) thinking or metacognitive regulation of the thinking process.

When reorganisation of the knowledge structure occurs on the level of the framework theory it is called revision, and can be considered the most difficult and significant type of conceptual change, which seems to be an intentional process and often requires systematic instruction (see also Chinn & Brewer, 1993; Hatano & Inagaki, 1997; Sinatra & Mason, 2013). According to Rumelhart and Norman (1978, p. 38), this kind of restructuring of the organisational structures at times seems to be accompanied by a “click of comprehension”, a strong feeling for the topic that makes a large body of previously acquired (but ill-structured) knowledge fit into place. A revision process of this kind involves considerable time and effort, and there is still little evidence how the process occurs (Rumelhart & Norman, 1978, pp. 39-40; Mikkila-Erdmann, 2001; Mikkila-Erdmann, Penttinen, Anto, & Olkinuora, 2008; Penttinen, Anto, & Mikkila-Erdmann, 2013).

Recently, some studies using online methodologies, such as eye tracking, have indicated that conceptual change is a gradual and long-lasting process in which learners revise their conceptual structures many times (Mikkila-Erdmann et al., 2008; Penttinen et al., 2013; Sodervik, 2016). Furthermore, studies indicate that learners are often not aware of their prior knowledge and its contradictions with the scientific knowledge (Sinatra & Mason, 2013). Thus, metacognition can be seen as crucial in the revision process: if a learner regulates her/his own thinking process, it supports the learner in becoming aware of her or his own prior knowledge and its contradictions with the scientific knowledge which, in turn, can evoke metacognitive regulation to reorganise the knowledge system facilitating conceptual change. However, from a metacognition point of view, such a revision process requires that metacognition extends as far as the epistemic level, thus, covering Kitchener’s (1983) epistemic cognition, in which case metacognition also activates a person’s epistemological awareness and understanding (see Hofer, 2004). This points out the connection between conceptual change and developmental adult theories.

Adult learners, just like young learners, bring lots of prior knowledge with them into to formal or informal learning situations. Adults have started to acquire scientific knowledge by constructing a relatively coherent explanatory system and framework theory already at the early ages, based on their observations in everyday interactions (Vosniadou, 2013). When adult students study, for example, biology at university, they bring lots of knowledge with them which can to some extent be in contradiction with the scientific knowledge to be studied in academia. In terms of adult cognitive development, understanding of contradictions or different thought systems around the same phenomenon is regarded as achievement of multiple perspectives. The highest advancement in dealing with multiple perspectives is evaluation (and integration) of different viewpoints (see Chapter 4; Kallio, 2011). Another challenge is that the conceptual change process, revision, often deals with the key concepts of the domain, which are fundamental components of theory and expertise, such as photosynthesis or evolution in biology or the cardiovascular system in medicine. For example, photosynthesis seems to be a key biology concept which opens a new theoretical perspective or horizon for the novice learner. Concepts like photosynthesis are not possible to learn through either enrichment or induction in a situated learning setting (see Ohlsson & Lehtinen, 1997; Roth, Anderson, & Smith, 1987). The student has to become aware of prior knowledge and has to revise the old everyday and human-centred notion of food, so that it includes the critical distinction between energy-containing substances (which can only be made originally by plants through photosynthesis) and other kinds of nutrients that support life but do not provide energy (Mikkila-Erdmann, 2001). The studies on adult thinking have revealed that humans develop their thinking from concrete to abstract and from one-dimensionality to multiple perspectives and integrative notions. Our thinking in postformal stages seems to be qualitatively different from formal stages (Kallio, 2011). However, postformal thinking seems to be rare, even in adult learners (see Demetriou & Efklides, 1985). We suggest that adults’ domain-specific knowledge structures and metacognitive processes differ during conceptual change among adults.

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