This Section of the book is devoted to students' knowledge and learning. This is a topic which has been documented by what is probably the largest number of studies during the last two decades. The investigations have shown that before instruction on a given topic children and students usually hold a set of ideas and ways of reasoning in stark contrast to accepted physics, and that these ideas are often extremely resistant to instruction. Needless to say, only a part of these findings can be discussed here.

Learners' ideas in mechanics and electric circuits are the two topics that have been the most extensively investigated. The two first chapters, one by L.C. McDermott and the other by R. Duit, review the main results concerning each of these two domains. Both authors suggest ways of teaching that, given these findings, they think appropriate to improve the effectiveness of the teaching-learning process. A third chapter (by myself) concerns the common views of learners on some phenomena involving heat and temperature. Although devoted to thermodynamics, this chapter emphasizes some trends of reasoning that are transferable among various areas of physics, and are referred to as "linear causal reasoning", an extension of the "sequential reasoning" introduced in a preceding chapter. This reviews ends with an analysis of possible teaching goals concerning phenomena in thermodynamics and, more generally, multivariable problems.

Thus these three chapters illustrate to different extents the two approaches that may be adopted when investigating the commonly held views of learners: collecting common ideas on a particular topic, and seeking more general ways of reasoning. They also put forth some hypotheses, based on research results, about what might be elements of effective teaching from the perspective of making the learners as active as possible in the construction of their own knowledge. However, it is only with detailed evaluations of such suggestions that one can assess their relevance, a point discussed in Section E of this book.

A fourth chapter, by R. Millar, deals with students' understanding of scientific enquiry. It discusses similar elements of information, but faces the additional difficulty that there is no consensus in the scientific community about what is meant by "the scientific method". Investigations of students' understanding of scientific enquiry are grouped according to the views of their authors on the scientific approach, a model is proposed to improve the ability of students to carry out scientific investigations, and (sub)teaching goals are identified.

Note that an important aspect emerges from all these studies on learners' common understanding: one cannot investigate students' ideas in a given domain of knowledge without reexamining this knowledge, a process which may lead to new teaching goals. Content analysis and investigation of learners' common understanding are two necessarily interrelated approaches.


Section C, Introduction  from: Connecting Research in Physics Education with Teacher Education
An I.C.P.E. Book © International Commission on Physics Education 1997,1998
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