A problem-posing approach to teaching an initial particle model

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

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Introduction – Molecules and atoms, particle models, models in general and the process of modelling are important in science and science education. Over thirty years of research on pupils’ pre- and misconceptions in science education has shown that understanding such scientific subject matter, as well as developing adequate teaching approaches, is often considered far from easy (Driver & Easly, 1978).

In our view, a major problem with research on pupils’ pre- and misconceptions is that it often seems to misinterpret pupils’ ideas, ascribing to them incorrect beliefs about the world which they do not hold (Klaassen, 1995). This implies that teaching approaches that focus on a process of conceptual change (Driver & Oldham, 1986) start from an inadequate point of view (Klaassen & Lijnse, 1996). In our view, pupils’ pre-knowledge is largely correct and therefore an adequate and productive starting point for further learning. The educational problem then becomes how to make pupils able and wanting to develop their knowledge in the direction that is set by our educational goals.

An elaboration of such a ‘bottom-up’ strategy for teaching and learning is the ‘problem-posing approach’ (Klaassen, 1995). Apart from building on knowledge that pupils have previously developed, this approach focuses heavily on inducing content-related motives that may drive their process of learning in such a way that the educational goals are better reached. In other words, the approach aims to bring pupils in such a position that they themselves develop good reasons to extend their knowledge in the way that was intended by the designers. It suggests how pupils’ ideas can be taken into account, how to make pupils involved in the process of teaching and learning and, moreover, how to encourage them to further develop their own ideas towards the educational goals.

Thus, the central problem of this thesis is: the design of a problem-posing, empirically supported process of teaching and learning, during which pupils learn that, according to science, matter consists of specific particles, learn to use such particle models in order to explain and predict several relevant phenomena, and come to understand the nature of particle models and scientific modelling.

This problem can be considered a specific example of a more general problem, namely how processes of teaching and learning in science education may be designed, so that pupils consequently reach an adequate understanding of scientific knowledge, the nature of science and/or the process of modelling. Therefore, the results of this thesis should also provide some preliminary indications as to how the more general problem may be solved.

Methods – The central problem presented in this thesis has been tackled by means of ‘developmental research’ (Gravemeijer, 1994; Lijnse, 1995). Such research starts from explicit views on teaching and learning science, based upon which specific choices are made concerning the way in which, for a specific topic, the process of teaching and learning should take place. Subsequently, tests are performed, by means of a specific teaching sequence, to determine whether it is possible to actualise such a process and whether it leads to the intended aims. The results of such a test, in turn, contribute to the development of ideas concerning the way in which the teaching and learning should take place. Developmental research can thus be characterised as a theory-driven, cyclic process of designing and evaluating.

Contents – The results of research into pupils’ ideas about the macroscopic behaviour and particulate nature of matter, as well as about the nature of particle models and of science in general, are reported and reflected upon. In addition, some innovative teaching materials that deal with the particulate nature of matter are analysed. The findings illustrate why the central problem outlined in this thesis is still not solved satisfactorily, resulting in the following five specific problems:

  • Can we find an aim, which pupils can come to find worthwhile, and which creates a need for particles that differ from tiny bits?
  • Which initial axiom(s) should be introduced and how can we make these seem plausible to students?
  • Which model do we want pupils to learn?
  • How can aspects that need to be added to the initial model become worthwhile to pupils?
  • How can we encourage pupils to reflect on issues that concern the ‘nature of particle models’ in such a way that they themselves see the connection with the development of the model?

The views on teaching and learning physics, and on particle models, upon which the research presented in this theses is based, are described in light of our search for improvement of current teaching about particles. These are followed by initial suggestions for possible solutions to the above mentioned specific problems.

The specific teaching sequence that was constructed on the basis of these suggestions is presented and accounted for by means of the results of the above analysis. This description contains examples of expectations of the course of the actual process of teaching and learning in the classroom, as well as illustrations of activities. Subsequently, the actual process of teaching and learning as observed during the tests is described and analysed, accounting for possible deviations of the expected course of events.

Finally, the thesis deals with an evaluation of the approach. Pupils’ and teacher’s opinions about the approach are summarised and discussed. In addition, it is evaluated to what extent pupils have reached the intended aims and to what extent our choices have been adequate. As such, this evaluation constitutes an answer to the above research question. In reflection on these answers, a structure for the introduction of a particle model in secondary physics education is presented and some suggestions are made concerning teaching and learning physics in general.


Driver, R. & J. Easly (1978), Pupils and paradigms: A review of literature related to concept development in adolescent science students. Studies in Science Education 5, 61-84.

Driver, R. & V. Oldham (1986), A constructivist approach to curriculum development in science. Studies in Science Education 13, 105-122.

Gravemeijer, K.P.E. (1994), Developing realistic mathematics education. Utrecht: Cdß Press.

Klaassen, C.W.J.M. (1995), A problem-posing approach to teaching the topic of radioactivity. Utrecht: Cdß Press.

Klaassen, C.W.J.M. & P.L. Lijnse (1996), Interpreting students’ and teachers’ discourse in science classes: An underestimated problem? Journal of Research in Science Teaching 33, 115-134.

Lijnse, P.L. (1995), ‘Developmental research’ as a way to an empirically based ‘didactical structure’ of science. Science Education 79, 189-199.

Key words – problem-posing approach, didactical structure, particulate nature of matter, particle models, physics education.

Full reference

Vollebregt, M.J. (1998), A problem-posing approach to teaching an initial particle model. Utrecht: Cdß Press, Centre for Science and Mathematics Education, Faculty of Physics and Astronomy, Utrecht University (Cdß Series on Research in Science Education, 30) – 201 p. (including a 7 p. summary in Dutch) – ISBN 90-73346-38-X.


Lijnse, P.L. & C.W.J.M. Klaassen (2004), Didactical structures as an outcome of research on teaching-learning sequences.International Journal of Science Education 26, 537-554.


Dr. Kees Klaassen

Centre for Science and Mathematics Education (Cdß)

Faculty of Physics and Astronomy, Utrecht University

PO Box 80.000, 3508 TA Utrecht, the Netherlands

Tel: 31 30 253 1176

Fax: 31 30 251 7629

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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