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International Journal of Science Education
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Being constructive: an alternative approach to the
teaching of the energy conceptpart one
Ricardo Trumper
a
a
School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement, University of Haifa, Oranim, Israel
Version of record first published: 23 Feb 2007.
To cite this article: Ricardo Trumper (1990): Being constructive: an alternative approach to the teaching of the energy
conceptpart one, International Journal of Science Education, 12:4, 343-354
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INT. j . sci. EDUC., 1990, VOL. 12, NO. 4, 343-354
INNOVATIONS AND DEVELOPMENTS
Being constructive: an alternative approach
to the teaching of the energy concept--part one
Ricardo Trumper, Oranim, School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement,
University of Haifa, Israel
This article describes a study carried out in Israel which deals with the identification of high school pupils'
beliefs about energy, both before and after formal instruction in physics. In so doing, several of the
alternative frameworks reported in the literature were redefined. Based on the findings obtained, an
elementary course was developed and implemented which teaches the scientific view of energy while
taking into account the prior beliefs adhered to by the pupils. The article also describes experiences in
implementing this course, in using 'comparative events' which helped pupils move from the anthro-
pocentric framework, wherein energy is associated only with human beings, to the more appropriate
scientific view. Subsequent articles will deal with the process of conceptual change as pupils move from
two other common alternative frameworks to the scientific view.
Introduction
During the past decade, a great deal of research has been devoted to pupils'
'alternative frameworks' (Driver and Easley 1978) vis-a-vis physical phenomena.
Today, it is generally accepted that pupils' pre-instructional knowledge plays a
crucial role in the acquisition of science concepts. Nussbaum and Novick (1982)
define the process as follows:
. . . students' alternative frameworks, when at variance with scientific conceptions, play
a crucial interfering role in learning science. This conclusion is consistent with the
general notion that the internalization (selective perception and interpretation) of new
information and ideas by a person is a function of his existing conceptual framework.
I n other words, any effective instructional strategy must take into account the
current beliefs adhered to by the pupils. In the realm of energy, a large number of
studies (Bliss and Ogborn 1985, Duit 1984, Gilbert and Pope 1986, Stead 1980,
Watts 1983) have yielded valuable information about how children understand this
very abstract and difficult to grasp concept. Watts (1983) listed 'the most popular and
persistent' frameworks about energy held by pupils. Despite the great amount of
information gathered on this subject during the past few years, very little has been
done in the planning and implementation of instructional strategies which deal with
these alternative frameworks.
The goal of this study was to identify the ideas about energy held by Israeli
pupils, both prior to and after formal instruction in physics and to use this
information subsequently to develop an introductory course based on a constructi-
vist model of learning. This model views children's minds not as a tabula rasa, but as
a rich and varied network of ideas derived from day-to-day experiences and non-
scientific language. This paper describes experiences in identifying pupils' ideas
about energy and in developing and implementing such a course.
0950-0693/90 $3
.
00 1990 Taylor & Francis Ltd.
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344 INNOVATIONS AND DEVELOPMENTS
The development of a questionnaire on the energy concept
The questionnaire developed for the present study was based on the tasks formulated
by Duit (1984). Of the six tasks developed by him for presentation to pupils in West
Germany and the Philippines, the following four were translated into Hebrew.
(Copies of the questionnaire may be obtained from the author on request.)
Task 1: Pupils were asked to write down their three first associations with the
word energy.
Task 2: Pupils were asked to define or describe the meaning of the word energy.
Task 3: Pupils were asked to write three examples of the concept of energy.
Task 4: This task dealt with the motion of a ball rolling without friction along a
curved path after being released from a point A. Pupils were asked to
predict the height the ball would reach and to explain their predictions.
This task showed if the pupils could apply the energy concept and,
especially, the principle of energy conservation.
In addition to these tasks, a fifth one was added:
Task 5: Pupils were asked to select three out of 15 pictures in which they were
able to identify the energy concept and to explain their choice. They
were also asked to choose one picture in which the energy concept does
not appear at all and to explain this choice too.
The questionnaire comprising the foregoing tasks was pre-tested with groups of
pupils similar to those used in the main study. In the light of the answers obtained,
the following modifications were made to the questionnaire:
1. In task 1, pupils were asked to write sentences linking their associations with
the word energy.
2. In task 2, the focus was sharpened by asking pupils to choose one definition of
energy out of five. The five alternative definitions represented the five
alternative frameworks most commonly used by pupils.
3. Task 3 was eliminated.
4. A question similar to task 4, was added.
5. The second part of task 5, in which pupils had to choose a picture in which the
energy concept does not appear at all, was dropped.
The content validity of the revised questionnaire was judged by 17 experts in the
field. After making some minor changes as suggested by the judges, the test was
deemed valid.
The test-retest reliability of the final version of the questionnaire was determined
by asking pupils in the sample to respond to the same questionnaire one month later.
Responses were checked and the Chi-square coefficient between responses on the
two occasions was calculated. For none of the questions was a statistically significant
difference between the pupils' answers on the two occasions measured.
Identification of high-school pupils' ideas about energy
The first stage in dealing with pupils' prior knowledge about energy was to identify
these beliefs. This was done in order to establish whether these beliefs were
congruent with the alternative frameworks described in the literature. This part of
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TEACHING THE ENERGY CONCEPTPART ONE 345
the study encompassed 35 Israeli high-school pupils, none of whom had participated
in former stages of the study. They were:
(a) Sixteen ninth-graders before any physics instruction;
(b) Ten tenth-graders after completing a one-year programme for poor
achievers;
(c) Nine eleventh-graders after completing a two-year physics programme
which focused on energy, optics and waves.
Testing was carried out in two stages:
1. The pupils answered the five written questions in the questionnaire about
energy previously described.
2. Pupils in the same grade were interviewed in small groups (four to six
participants). The interview began with pupils discussing their answers in the
questionnaire. Next, they were shown 20 pictures (see figure 1 for some
examples) and asked: 'Is there any energy here?' The ensuing discussion
proceeded in the interview-about-instances format described by Osborne and
Gilbert (1980).
IS THERE ANY ENERGY HERE?
Melting ice
A man eating A man in the snow
Figure 1.
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346 INNOVATIONS AND DEVELOPMENTS
Pupils' associations with energy
In the first task of the questionnaire pupils were asked to write down their first three
associations with the word energy and then to write three sentences, each one linking
the word energy with one of the associations. T he pupils' associations were classified
according to Duit' s (1981) categories:
1. Things: human beings, things or objects in nature, appliances, industrial
plants, equipment in physics laboratories.
2. Processes: physical or mental activities.
3. Phenomena: light, heat, electricity.
4. Physical concepts: units, formulae, terms like work, force, power, velocity.
5. Words: Additional words not covered in the categories above.
Table 1 shows the extent (percentages) to which the five different categories occur.
We see, for example, that 27% of the eleven-grade pupils' associations relate to
phenomena. The increasing number of physical concepts (category 4) referred to by
pupils after having studied physics is caused mainly by the large number of energy
types (i.e., electrical, kinetic, etc.) used by them.
Pupils' use of the conservation of energy principle
Question 4 shows how pupils relate to a mechanical process in which the
conservation principle is involved; the results summarized in table 2 show how they
solve the question and explain their answers. We see that the number of pupils who
answered correctly and made use of the energy concept or of the conservation
principle, increased after learning the subject. However, more than half the pupils
used their out-of-school ideas instead of using the energy concept, despite the fact
they were working on a 'questionnaire about energy'. Another remarkable finding is
the very small number of pupils who used the energy conservation principle in their
answers.
Table 1. Distribution of pupils' associations, by grades.
Category
Things
Processes
Phenomena
Physical concepts
Words
Table 2. Distribution of
Prediction of correct height
Use of energy in explanation
Use of energy conservation
in explanation
Associations (%) made
Grade 9
9
20
7
64
pupils' answers
percentages.
Grade 9
19
12
Grade 10
17
9
38
36
to question
Grade 10
47
37
26
in
Grade
27
53
20
4, by
11
grades, in
Grade 11
60
40
20
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TEACHING THE ENERGY CONCEPTPART ONE 347
Pupils' alternative frameworks on energy
The analysis of the pupils' alternative conceptual frameworks on energy was based
mainly on their descriptions of the different pictures presented to them during the
interviews. Their responses were classified according to the alternative frameworks
defined by Watts (1983):
(1) Anthropocentric: energy is associated with human beings.
(2) Depository: some objects have energy and expend it.
(3) Ingredient: energy is a dormant ingredient within objects, released by a
trigger.
(4) Activity: energy is an obvious activity.
(5) Product: energy is a by-product of a situation.
(6) Functional: energy is seen as a very general kind of fuel associated with
making life comfortable.
(7) Flow-transfer: energy is seen as a type of fluid transferred in some processes.
After making some changes in the definitions of the frameworks, 96% of the pupils'
responses were found classifiable. Framework (2) became:
(2a) The original 'depository' framework which is of a passive nature ('there is
energy in the battery. . . ' ).
(26) The 'active' deposit. The energy as 'causing things to happen', as 'being
needed' for some processes to occur ('The electric bulb needs energy in
order to light').
Framework (7) became:
(7a) The original flow-transfer framework (see above).
(7b) The accepted scientific concept: 'When two systems interact (i.e., when a
process takes place), something, which we name energy, is transferred from
one system to the other' (CDC 1978, p. 15).
The definition of one of the frameworks was broadened:
(5) The product framework in which energy is a product of some process and not
only a by-product of a situation.
The results are shown in table 3 which states the extent to which the pupils showed
combinations of alternative frameworks in their responses. The conclusions that
may be drawn from this, are:
(a) All pupils used more than one alternative framework in their descriptions.
(b) All pupils hold frameworks (1), (2b) and (5).
(c) Frameworks (1), (2a) and (2b) appear frequently, but the frequency of their
appearance decreases after studying physics.
(d) Frameworks (3), (6) and (7a) rarely appear.
(e) Frameworks (4) and (5) appear increasingly after studying physics.
(/) Framework (7b), the accepted scientific view, rarely appears, both before and
after studying physics.
To conclude, we see that pupils' responses to the associations task and the question
concerning the conservation principle show some success in learning. However,
since very few pupils adhere to the scientific framework (7b), there seems to be no
significant increase in the number of pupils relating to the energy concept in the way
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348 INNOVATIONS AND DEVELOPMENTS
Table 3. Distribution of pupils' alternative frameworks, by grades, in
percentages.
Alternative framework
Grade Pupil 1 la 2b 3 4 5 6 la 1b
9 1 20 20 35 10 IS 10
10
11
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
28
18
11
22
19
17
24
29
22
22
21
28
23
21
28
6
14
7
23
19
15
15
8
12
13
8
23
20
15
16
18
13
15
21
17
23
13
22
21
33
32
19
31
17
42
31
32
22
40
22
18
7
15
10
30
12
19
22
13
13
11
20
20
30
21
19
12
25
41
45
51
43
40
19

37
33
31
23
30
32
36
26
15
25
12
12
6
26
15
11
8
6
13
42
24
20
26
23
32
33
17

4
32

2
2
10
2

6
3
8

2
6
3
4
36
29
42
46
49
5
22
30
35
49
26
15
12
25
19
24
15
22
17
10
8
13
8
10
17
6
6
8
19
8
5
4
3
2
18
7
23
4
10
21
24
22
23
16
29
4
18
15
9
9
14
17
16
6
4
3
5
4
6
3
3
3
6
4
3
15
3

3
4

2
5
3
3

3
5

7
7

12
8

11

6
3
4
1
1
3
2
it is taught at school (energy transformations). In fact, pupils continue to adhere to
the same alternative frameworks held before studying physics. These results suggest
that the energy concept cannot be effectively taught without taking pupils'
alternative frameworks into account: these are mainly the anthropocentric frame-
work (1), the 'active' deposit framework (26) and the product framework (5), which
are held by all the pupils in this study.
This paper deals only with a strategy for changing the anthropocentric
framework. In the near future, experiences using an instructional strategy which
deals with the other two frameworks will be discussed (part two, in press); the
strategy enables pupils to build for themselves the appropriate scientific concept.
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TEACHING THE ENERGY CONCEPTPART ONE 349
Models of learning
In order to deal with these frameworks, a pupil/teacher dialogue process appears to
be necessary. As Champagne et al. (1982) claim:
. . . By participating in the dialogues which occur in Socratic teaching, the student is
forced to deal with counterexamples to proposals and to face contradictions in his or her
ideas. To overcome the attacks of adversaries in the dialogues, the student must
construct a new framework of ideas that will stand up to criticism.
In many cases, when there is a conflict between new and old concepts, a major
accommodation is necessary. Many researchers have claimed that conceptual change
occurs through cognitive conflict, in what Gilbert and Watts (1983) call a
revolutionary change process.
Alternative framework (1), the anthropocentric framework in which energy is
associated with human beings, is not an unacceptable framework conflicting with the
accepted scientific concept. Rather, it is limited, as we can see from the following
example in which a tenth-grade pupil described the picture of 'a man pushing a box
up a hill*.
It's like a football player, he moves his body, he's doing some activity, as a result, there is
some energy... He moves himself and he moves the box, he climbs up. He uses his
energy... When we do sports, we use our energy.
In this situation, we see how the pupil focused her attention only on the human
being. This contrasts with her description of the same event in which the man was
replaced by an electric motor:
There is kinetic energy as a result of the motor pulling up the box... and also potential
energy when the box is up.
In this case, we can talk about an evolutionary change which 'involves the facilitation
of extension in richness and precision of meaning for students' frameworks' (Gilbert
and Watts 1983).
Ausubel (1968) has described a process of 'meaningful learning' which results in
the 'subsumption' of new knowledge. In this process, the new knowledge interacts
with existing concepts and is assimilated into them, altering the form of both the
anchoring concept and the new assimilated knowledge (Novak 1978).
Following this approach, Hashweh (1986) proposed a model of conceptual
change (see figure 2). An alternative framework Cl is successful in the interaction
with some particular domain of the real world, Rl. It fails to describe a second part of
the world, R2. According to this model a pupil holding an alternative framework
faces two different conflicts (c.f. figure 2).
Hashweh states: 'It has traditionally been assumed that Conflict (1) is resolved by
adopting Conception 2, which better explains R2.' However, this does not explain
World of Alternative Conflict (2) Scientific
ideas framework (C1) -* # *- conception (C2)
Real world R1 R2 R3 R4
Figure 2. Hashweh's model of conceptual change.
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350 INNOVATIONS AND DEVELOPMENTS
why Conflict (1) existed. In addition, adopting Conception 2 forces the pupil to face
Conflict (2). Hashweh pointed out interesting and common cases in science, in which
Cl is a special case of C2. That is, Cl represents Rl and C2 represents R1+R2.
The anthropocentric framework, in which energy is associated with human
beings, is not a completely wrong framework. Rather, it is derived from limited
experience and may conflict with the scientific framework which is much more
general. Pupils holding the anthropocentric framework may face two major
difficulties during the learning process:
(a) Pupils may not identify the energy concept in situations where they do not
meet human beings or objects they perceive as having human attributes. For
instance, a ninth-grade pupil describing the picture of the 'melting ice' (see
figure 1):
I think that an inert object like ice, that doesn't breathe, has no energy. Only
something near it. . . for example, if someone is holding it, there is energy in
him. . .
(b) When pupils meet human beings, their attention may concentrate on them
only, as we saw in the previous description of 'a man pushing a box up a hill'.
In order to facilitate the acquisition of the scientific concept of energy, it was decided
to deal first with the anthropocentric framework. The goal was not to create a state of
conceptual conflict that would lead to a major accommodation; rather, thepupils
were expected to become aware of the limitations of their conceptual framework.
This can be defined in Hashweh's (1986) terms:
The alternative framework: energy is related only with human beings.
The new framework: human beings are energy 'agents' (they need energy and
they also provide it) in an ever-continuing process of energy transformations.
The alternative framework can explain situations involving human beings only. The
new framework is more general, it includes the alternative framework, but it can also
explain situations which do not involve human beings. Therefore, it was decided to
develop an instructional strategy based on Socratic-like dialogues introducing
comparative events or analogies.
Dealing with the anthropocentric framework
Rumelhart and Norman (1978) present a very comprehensive theory of cognitive
learning which sees the learning process as schematic transformations which occur in
long-term memory. They propose three different kinds of learning:
Accretion: the encoding of new information in terms of existing schemata.
Restructuring: the process whereby new schemata are created.
Tuning: the slow modification and refinement of a schema which occurs
through experience.
When physics concepts replace alternative frameworks, restructuring has occurred.
Rumelhart and Norman (1981) suggest two basic mechanisms by which restructur-
ing occurs:
Schema induction: learning by contiguity (the temporal or spatial co-occurrence
of events results in the formation of a new schema).
Patterned generation: a new schema is patterned on an old one. Restructuring
results from interactions with new knowledge, analogies, etc.
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TEACHING THE ENERGY CONCEPTPART ONE 351
The instructional strategy presented here should lead pupils to a restructuring which
occurs by means of a patterned generation. The new framework will be patterned on
the anthropocentric framework-common to all the pupils participating in this study.
This is what Strike and Posner (1982) call a small-scale and evolutionary change.
This change is achieved in two phases:
(a) First, pupils have to be aware of their own anthropocentric framework.
(b) Next, they have to create a new and more generalized framework, based on
the analysis of comparative events (analogies).
The first step in the instructional strategy was to make every pupil aware of his or her
own preconceptions:
(1) One week after the identification interviews, all the pupils (divided in the
original small groups) were presented with a protocol of their own
discussions about energy. Common to each protocol were the pupils'
description of the picture which showed a man pushing a box up a hill.
Excerpts from such a protocol, presented to one of the ninth-grade groups, follow.
A man pushing a box up a hill
Efrat: He uses the energy of his body to push the box.
Boaz: (If the box is empty) he uses little energy.
Anat: I've heard there is some relation between doing some physical activity... so,
calories, for example, are burnt. . . and it activates the body.
Dorit: I know this theory about burning calories or burning some materials in our
body. . . It shows a direct relation between energy and burning. . . Burning
some materials creates energy.
A man in the snow (see figure 1)
Anat: There is energy in the man's body. . . He is freezing.
Dror: First of all, his heart has to beat faster to heat the body. . . so his body uses
energy.
Dorot: The man is moving his muscles and uses energy to keep a constant body
temperature.
Liat: The man needs energy to heat his body; that means, energy comes from within.
Efrat: When the man has to heat his body, he is using the energy he has in it.
After eliciting the pupils preconceptions, they were presented with the first
comparative event:
(2) Pupils viewed a picture of an electric motor pulling a box up a hill and were
asked to describe it in terms of energy.
Two of the pupils in the ninth-grade group made a direct comparison between the
two events:
Boaz: Electrical energy was transformed to 'force' in order to raise the box.
Efrat: The electric motor uses its electrical energy in order to pull it.
Two other pupils added to their previous description some details which they did not
include when they described the picture of a man pushing a box up a hill:
Dorit: The electric motor uses its electrical energy in order to turn something else
which pulls the rope attached to the box. Besides that, there is some energy
coming up from the friction between the box and the surface... heating both of
them.
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352 INNOVATIONS AND DEVELOPMENTS
Anaf. There is some electrical energy, it makes the motor work and the motor pushes
the box. There is also the energy produced by gravitation which acts against the
motor.
In the third step of the instructional strategy, the pupils were presented with a
second comparative event:
(3) T he electric motor was 'replaced' by a steam engine and again the pupils
were asked to describe the picture in terms of energy.
At this stage, three pupils began to talk, for the first time, about something like
energy transformations, a concept they have never learned before:
Anaf. In every motor, there is some raw material. I don't know, electricity is not a raw
material, but there is some material being used. . .
Boaz: The material there is coal. . .
Dorit: I want to say something. In order to produce electricity, you burn coal or
something like that; in order to produce energy in your body, you burn some
materials in it; in order to heat water and produce steam to make the engine
work, you have to burn something to get that heat. . . Maybe the heat comes
directly from the sun, or from coal burning or electricity.
The following two steps belong to the 'generalization' phase in which the pupils were
expected to create the new framework by themselves:
(4) The pupils were asked to look for some properties concerning energy
common to the man, the electric motor and the steam engine.
Now, the pupils talk more clearly about the process occurring in the pictures. T he
accepted scientific framework (76) appears for the first time for a picture including a
human being:
Boaz: They are all energy producers. . .
Dorit: I don't agree with you because they do not produce energy. They use energy
also. . .
Boaz: But they produce also
Dorit: I think, energy is not something being produced, but something being
transformed. If you go backwards, for example, steam is produced by heat
energy that was produced by burning a match, this was done by a man using his
energy and the man got energy from food. . . You can never get to the beginning
of energy and you can never get to its end, that is, some processes lead to other
and so on. . .
Boaz: You're right. They don't produce, they transform it into another form of
energy. . .
Dorit: I think energy is something that never disappears, it's something being
transformed, something changing it's appearance.
Dror: I also think that energy is something being transformed. Here we can see
electrical energy being transformed into movement energy.
(5) The pupils, while talking in terms of energy, tried to identify some special
properties which distinguish the man from the motors, when all are
performing the same action:
Anat: The man produces energy and also transforms the energy he gets into other
forms of energy.
Dorit: His body uses the energy he gets in order to make some processes... A leaf acts
also like that, from the very beginning it 'knows' it has to use the energy of the
sun and to transform i t . . . The man also uses the energy he gets in very different
processes.
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TEACHING THE ENERGY CONCEPTPART ONE 353
It can be seen here that the pupils began to talk about the man being an energy 'agent'
in an ever continuing process of energy transformation, the new framework they were
expected to create.
Very similar discussions were held in all the groups participating in the case
study. In some of the groups, a third comparative event was presented. In one group,
pupils were presented with the picture of 'snow falling on a house with a burning
stove' and compared it with the picture 'a man in snow'. In another group, they were
presented with the picture of 'a car being filled with petrol and travelling away', and
compared it with the picture 'a man eating' (see figure 1).
Some of the pupils in the tenth-grade discussion groups discovered early on by
themselves, the purpose of the instruction which they stated very clearly.
Sagiv: (comparing the man with a machine) There is no difference... When a car is
travelling, it burns energy; when there is no more petrol, it stops. A man, when
he runs, burns 'liquids'... Now, if he doesn't drink something, he runs, dries up
and collapses.
We saw, in all discussions held during this study, that when pupils discuss
comparative events, most of them become aware that humans are energy 'agents'
involved in a process of energy transformations, like many other inert objects. Only
three of the pupils failed to abandon the anthropocentric framework and were only
able to change it for an anthropomorphic framework in some of their descriptions.
Conclusionsimplications for teaching
An increasing number of science teachers find recent work on children's alternative
frameworks interesting. However, they are less clear about how to utilize such
findings in their teaching. For most teachers, it may be rather difficult to begin
teaching the energy concept with a series of individual interviews. Questionnaires
like the one used in this study, which cover the full range of alternative frameworks
reported in the literature, could be very helpful.
While it is impossible to deal with every idiosyncratic framework, there is enough
common ground to enable a teacher to implement a constructivist approach to
teaching energy. The main purpose of the instructional strategy developed in this
study was to deal with the limitations of one of the most pervasive frameworks, the
anthropocentric framework about energy. By exposing pupils to comparative events,
they were led from their alternative framework (energy related only with human
beings) to a new framework (human beings as energy agents). We saw that the
instructional strategy was successful for most of the pupils. Pupils who more rapidly
reach the right conclusions are those who adhered to some aspects of the accepted
scientific concept, when describing machines at work.
The instructional strategy presented in this paper leads to an evolutionary
change, what Strike and Posner (1982) call 'small-scale' change or 'assimilation'.
Like the anthropocentric framework, alternative framework (2b), energy as 'being
needed' for some processes to occur, and (5), energy as being the 'product' of a
process, are also limited, representing only some parts of the real world. These two
alternative concepts, which are shared by all the students, can be used as 'building
blocks' in the teaching of the accepted scientific concept.
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354 TEACHING THE ENERGY CONCEPTPART ONE
Acknowledgements
I wish to thank John K. Gilbert and Joan Bliss for the permission to use their
pictures in this study. I also wish to thank Reinders Duit for generously supplying
his questionnaire and categories.
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Cor r espondence
Ricardo Trumper, Oranim, School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement, University of
Haifa, Haifa, Israel.
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