Seventh-graders’ epistemic views related to science lessons

University of Joensuu, Finland

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The aim of this study was to explore seventh-graders’ views on knowledge and their acquisition of knowledge in the context of science education at the comprehensive school level. The pupils’ views were examined in the context of six double lessons in physics and chemistry, where their study focused on the structure and states of matter. The research task was divided into four main research questions. (1) The pupils’ conceptions of knowledge and knowing, i.e. their epistemic concepts, were approached from three different perspectives: their own, their teacher’s and a scientist’s. The pupils were asked how they assessed their own knowledge and knowing, and how they set about judging their teacher’s and a scientist’s knowledge and knowing. The relationship of their notions to the certainty of their knowledge and knowing was explored from each of the three perspectives. (2) The pupils’ notions related to their epistemic judgement of their own learning were examined, as well as (3) their conceptual understanding of the contexts in question. (4) The composite view of each pupil was correlated with his/her personal conceptions, and these personal epistemic views examined and compared with each other.

Studying pupils’ epistemic views in the context of the pedagogics of science is related in theoretical terms both to epistemological beliefs and to conceptions related to the nature of science. The first involves epistemological psychology, where an individual’s epistemological beliefs are studied from a perspective of cognitive psychology. This is an approach that was initiated by Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology. It was then further developed by William Perry in the 1970s, and since then this research approach has been conducted with an emphasis on developmental issues. The second theoretical framework of this study has been provided by Nature of Science (NoS) research, which since the 1950s has concentrated on students’, teachers’ and scientists’ notions of science. NoS combines the history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of science. In particular, however, both branches have so far neglected study of the notions of young pupils.

The present study consisted of an exploratory case study in which Finnish seventh-graders’ conceptions were examined within a context of well-defined and known parameters. The target group consisted of eighteen pupils: ten girls and eight boys, who were 13 years of age, i.e. seventh-graders at comprehensive school. The main feature of former studies of personal epistemologies has been a quantitative methodological approach common to the majority of cognitive psychological studies. In the present study, however, a qualitative approach based on phenomenography was deliberately chosen, which, when applied to this very young target group, stimulated numerous methodological challenges. As a result of these challenges a pilot phase was first applied so that the process of data-gathering could be tested and developed. Finally, on completion of a teaching series of 12 hours and after learning diaries had been written in response to the teaching sequence of 12 hours of class, a system of post-interviews was selected as the method of data-gathering for the main research phase.

The context of the study consisted of a lesson series of twelve hours, an empirical study of which was produced in the form of a multi-disciplinary research project. The two other parts dealt with the development the pupils’ ideas on models and modelling (i.e., research into didactic physics) and with their metacognition (i.e., educational research per se) during the teaching of the lesson series. Since this study belongs to the field of educational research, it was possible to co-operate closely with two other research projects. It should, therefore, be possible at a later date to combine our separate findings, which are related to the same group of pupils. The research project and its part-studies will help to fulfil the broad aim of the project, which is to develop the teaching and learning of science.

The main result from my own initial research question has been that developmental theories of personal epistemological belief are not the best for explaining young pupils’ epistemic conceptions. Amongst the 18 pupils involved in the study there existed both general and individual conceptions belonging to all four of the stages derived from earlier theoretical models. It can thus be claimed that theoretical models of development, which tend to assume that epistemological beliefs are general and coherent, in fact underestimate seventh-graders’ epistemic views. In contrast, when such epistemological beliefs are approached in greater detail and with their context taken into account, they can be seen to be structures that consist of epistemic primitives, and thus offer the possibility of a promising and more pedagogically applicable approach. The use of this contextual model, based on epistemological primitives, is supported by recent theoretical considerations. Indeed, the results of this study are one of the first empirical proofs of its explanatory effectiveness.

My second research question was designed to facilitate the linking of pupils’ epistemological conceptions and their metacognitions, both on a conceptual-theoretical level and on an empirical-hypothetical level. In the past, personal epistemic cognitions have been considered a part of metacognitive knowledge and its processes. The findings of the present study, though preliminary in nature, suggest that epistemic cognitions are in fact separate from metacognitions and that the relating processes are hierarchical in nature. Both processes guide the cognitive processes, but the epistemological processes function at a higher level. It will be possible to study this hypothesis in greater detail once the two distinct parts of the research project have been combined.

The third research question has provided valuable insight into pupils’ conceptual understanding of the topic under study, an aspect that was also essential for the contextual interpretation of the two above-mentioned pieces of research. The use of models and modelling as an instructional approach can be claimed to have produced a relatively far-reaching understanding of the structures and states of matter. Combining the pupils’ conceptions as parts of their composite epistemic views has also been of value in a methodological sense: few, if any, studies exist in which conceptual understanding has been explored as a part of epistemological beliefs. A number of preliminary assumptions do, however, exist concerning the ways in which epistemological beliefs affect the choice of learning strategies.

My fourth research question combined the findings of the previous questions. An epistemic profile of each pupil was constructed, and then the profiles were examined and compared with each other. The conclusion was reached that the composite epistemic views of each pupil were very different; in other words, they could not be categorised as such. This major finding suggests that, when science is taught, pupils’ epistemically different conceptions and their sheer variety also need to be taken into account. This situation should not be considered to be a problem, but rather the contrary, since it should be regarded as a challenging opportunity to examine and re-think the various epistemological ideas and forms. In other words, pupils’ epistemological beliefs should be seen not as developmental constraints but as epistemological starting-points and resources for class discussion.

The significance of this study, in addition to its empirical findings, is related to its conceptual-theoretical outcomes in its Finnish context. Studies such as this, that have been conducted within the Finnish educational system, now exist, and numerous new Finnish concepts are defined in the present study. Hopefully, this study may provide a starting-point for a national research project devoted to epistemological thinking within both a general and a science education framework.

Research into epistemic conceptions has almost no use in itself: it needs, rather, to be linked to developing, teaching and learning in a field such as science education. This aspect also needs to be taken into account in teacher training. Epistemological beliefs should be regarded as a challenge for theoretical and empirical development in research concerned with conceptual change in science education, as leading researchers have suggested. We must, however, remember that the aims of science education, like those of any other subject, are not purely concerned with conceptual knowledge and skills - with their various different disciplines, schools offer a socially rich environment in which the nature of knowledge and knowing can be investigated. Mastering knowledge and knowing is probably a more important skill than mastering particular chunks of knowledge or skills.

Key words: epistemological beliefs, epistemic cognition, science education, modelling, structure of matter, comprehensive school

Full reference for the thesis
Sormunen, K. 2004. Seventh-graders’ epistemic views related to science lessons. University of Joensuu. Publications in Education No. 95. (In Finnish) ISSN 0781-0334 ISBN 952-458-453-0


Kari Sormunen
Senior lecturer of physics and chemistry education
Department of Applied Education
University of Joensuu
P.O. Box 111, FIN-80101 JOENSUU, Finland
e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
Telephones (work): +358 13 251 2302, +358 50 380 5621
Fax: +358 13 251 3564

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