Commonsense conceptions of emergent processes: Why some misconceptions are robust

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This article offers a plausible domain-general explanation for why some concepts of processes are resistant to instructional remediation although other, apparently similar concepts are more easily understood. The explanation assumes that processes may differ in ontological ways: that some processes (such as the apparent flow in diffusion of dye in water) are emergent and other processes (such as the flow of blood in human circulation) are direct. Although precise definition of the two kinds of processes are probably impossible, attributes of direct and emergent processes are described that distinguish them in a domain-general way. Circulation and diffusion, which are used as examples of direct and emergent processes, are associated with different kinds of misconceptions, The claim is that students' misconceptions for direct kinds of processes, such as blood circulation, are of the same ontological kind as the correct conception, suggesting that misconceptions of direct processes may be nonrobust. However, students' misconceptions of emergent processes are robust because they misinterpret emergent processes as a kind of commonsense direct processes. To correct such a misconception requires a re-representation or a conceptual shift across ontological kinds. Therefore, misconceptions of emergent processes are robust because such a shift requires that students know about the emergent kind and can overcome their (perhaps even innate) predisposition to conceive of all processes as a direct kind. Such a domain-general explanation suggests that teaching students the causal structure underlying emergent processes may enable them to recognize and understand a variety of emergent processes for which they have robust misconceptions, such as concepts of electricity, heat and temperature, and evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-199
Number of pages39
JournalJournal of the Learning Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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