A problem-posing approach to teaching the topic of radioactivity

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

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Introduction – A first line of thought that is developed in this thesis concerns the interpretation of pupils’ ideas. I think that any novice in the field of science education research is initially impressed and excited by the fact that pupils say things that a scientist would not say or that even seem to be in flagrant contradiction with what a scientist would say, and from this fact tends to conclude that pupils have ideas of their own that are at variance with scientific ideas. However, this is a negative description. If we are to give serious application to the idea that education should start from where pupils are, a description of where they are not is of little help. Somehow a positive interpretation of what the pupils are saying should be delivered.

A second line of thought is related to this idea of positive interpretation, namely that ‘there is a need to find common elements in the seemingly quite disparate research results, in order that the various findings form a cohesive group, and also to achieve a deeper understanding of the pupils’ reasoning.’ (Anderson, 1986).

Connecting these ideas to teaching the topic of radioactivity, suggests that starting with a presentation of first principles (atomic and nuclear models), as is done in nearly all textbooks, is not in fact the appropriate way to begin. Therefore, a third line of thought – connected to the other two – concerns the design of an approach that is not based on micro-level descriptions and explanations. An approach that, instead, is based on a reasonable picture of what pupils’ beliefs are, so that reasonable assumptions can be made about how they will interpret an intervention and also make reasonable predictions about how their beliefs will be modified in the course of that intervention, so that the design of the next intervention can then be based on knowledge of (or expectations about) what the modified beliefs are, etc. This does have the consequence that the burden of the construction of interventions is shifted towards the beginning, to the very first intervention(s), to how to begin.

The aim of the study was to elaborate and interrelate these three lines of thought, which could be summarised as developing a constructivist theory for contextual physics education for middle ability pupils about radioactivity and atomic models. This aim also provided the opportunity to explore the issue of what kind of education constructivism stands for, as there seemed to be nearly as many views on this as there were researchers.

Methods – After a first phase of orienting on middle ability pupils and their ideas about radioactivity and particles, of observing current teaching practice on the topic of radioactivity, and of devising and testing some ‘constructivist’ interventions, the second phase of the study took the familiar pattern of developmental research (Lijnse, 1995): writing materials, writing down expectations, observing lessons with the materials, evaluating the materials in the light of the expectations, rewriting the materials in the light of the evaluation etc. During this second phase, the one teacher who was going to participate in this action research and I also spent a considerable amount of time on getting acquainted with each other and with each other’s work.

Contents – The first parts of the thesis are a direct continuation of lines mentioned above: positively interpreting what pupils say, in particular about situations having to do with radioactivity, and arguing against the common tendency to base a treatment of the topic of radioactivity upon micro-level explanations.The next part is of a general, philosophical and methodological nature: a theory of interpretation that is based on the work of the philosopher Davidson (e.g. 1984). His point is that interpretation requires us to see the mental lives of others as enough like our own in point of overall coherence and correctness to allow us to assign reasons to their acts, intentions, beliefs and other attitudes – in other words, to understand them. It requires us to see other agents as more or less rational creatures inhabiting a shared world that they conceive much as we do. This insight has served as a general background and source of inspiration for my thinking about matters relating to science education. If it is understood, for instance, in what sense the interpretational maxims just mentioned are not met in much research on students’ conceptions, this will considerably weaken the plausibility of the idea that students’ conceptions are in stark contrast with scientific conceptions, or that there is anything seriously wrong with their epistemological, metaphysical or other meta-theoretical conceptions.

The thesis continues with the ‘teaching and learning’ line mentioned above, by exploring the possibilities for improving science educational practice at a content-specific level. It is argued that these possibilities are to be sought in appropriately taking into account the content-directed evaluative attitudes (desires, aims, interests, etc.). That is, as far as the cognitive attitudes are concerned it is argued that pupils’ science learning should be thought of as a process in which they, by drawing on their existing conceptual resources, experiential base and belief system, come to add to those. What needs to be added to this is that, if the process is to make sense to them, pupils must also be made to want to add to those, in a way that leads to a proper understanding of science. An approach to science education that explicitly aims at this is called problem-posing. This approach paints a picture of science education that differs both from the traditional one and from the ones that are inherent in well-known constructivist approaches. A picture, namely, in which pupils’ rationality serves as a kind of driving force. Accordingly, pupils’ learning process can be planned as a dynamical process of rational accommodation, in which they intentionally act to keep their total system of thoughts (cognitive, conative and affective) as coherent as possible by adjusting it rationally as new thoughts are thrust on them, e.g. by outcomes of experiments they performed for good reasons.

It is suggested that this programmatic view of the possibilities for improving science educational practice at a content-specific level is to be further explored and empirically realised by science educational research. The results of this research will consist of empirically based didactical structures – roughly: examples of good science education. In the remaining part of the thesis a few steps in this direction are taken. It is argued that some ideas that are based on ‘levels of understanding’ (ten Voorde, 1990) are of heuristic value in outlining a didactical structure at a global level. After discussing some aspects of the process of constructing and reconstructing a didactical structure, a concrete didactical structure, namely of the topic of radioactivity, is presented and evaluated – including the role of the teacher in a problem-posing approach.

Finally, some suggestions for the construction of other didactical structures are made.


Anderson, B. (1986), The experiential gestalt of causation: A common core to pupils’ preconceptions in science. European Journal of Science Education 8, 155-171.

Davidson, D. (1984), Inquiries into truth and interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Voorde, H.H. ten (1990), On teaching and learning about atoms and molecules from a van Hiele point of view. In: P.L. Lijnse, P. Licht, W. de Vos & A.J. Waarlo (Eds.), Relating macroscopic phenomena to microscopic particles: A central problem in secondary science education (pp. 81-103). Utrecht: Cd? Press.

Key words – problem-posing approach, didactical structure, radioactivity, physics education, interpretation, student ideas.

Full reference

Klaassen, C.W.J.M. (1995), A problem-posing approach to teaching the topic of radioactivity. Utrecht: Cd? Press, Centre for Science and Mathematics Education, Faculty of Physics and Astronomy, Utrecht University (Cd? Series on Research in Science Education, 18) – 299 p. (including a 9 p. summary in Dutch) – ISBN 90-73346-26-6.URL: http://www.library.uu.nl/digiarchief/dip/diss/01873016/inhoud.htm 


Klaassen, C.W.J.M (1994), Knowledge acquisition as interpersonal understanding. In: P.L. Lijnse (Ed.), European research in science education: Proceedings of the first Ph.D. Summerschool (pp. 322-330). Utrecht: Cd? Press.

Klaassen, C.W.J.M., H.M.C. Eijkelhof & P.L. Lijnse (1990), Considering an alternative approach to teaching radioactivity. In: P.L. Lijnse, P. Licht, W. de Vos & A.J. Waarlo (Eds.), Relating macroscopic phenomena to microscopic particles: A central problem in secondary science education (pp. 304-315). Utrecht: Cd? 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.

Klaassen, C.W.J.M. (2005), The concept of force as a constitutive element of understanding the world. In: K.Th. Boersma, M. Goedhart, O. de Jong & H.M.C. Eijkelhof (Eds.), Research and the quality of science education. Springer Science and Business media.

Kortland, J. (2001), A problem-posing approach to teaching decision making about the waste issue. Utrecht: Cdß Press.

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.

Vollebregt, M.J. (1998), A problem-posing approach to teaching an initial particle model. Utrecht: Cd? Press.


Dr. Kees Klaassen

Centre for Science and Mathematics Education (Cd?)

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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