The Conceptual Change Process: What Is It? When & How Do I Use It?

By | First Published: | Last Updated: 29 September, 2021

John Hattie lists conceptual change programs as having the potential to ‘considerably accelerate student achievement’. Hattie, originally based this claim on a meta-analysis of conceptual change texts. But it also applies to the broader conceptual change process.

It has an average effect size of 0.99, which is quite large.

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But what is the conceptual change model, and how can you use it?

Students Are Not Blank Slates – They Often Have Misconceptions

Your students are not blank slates. When you teach them about a concept, they often already have beliefs about that concept. These beliefs can be misconceptions that interfere with what you are trying to teach them.

For example, some common misconceptions students have are that:

  • Mass and weight are always the same
  • Multiplying two numbers always creates a larger number
  • Friction always hinders motion
  • Vikings’ helmets had horns

The Conceptual Change Process

The idea of helping your students to connect new learnings to their prior knowledge is powerful, but it is hardly new.

However, telling your students that their prior beliefs may be wrong is not as common. Yet, that is the first of 4 steps in the conceptual change process.

  1. Identify misconceptions
  2. Create cognitive dissonance
  3. Explain the correct conception
  4. Have students engage with what you have told them

Step 1: Identifying Misconceptions

Before you start to teach a new topic, you should take a little time to learn about common misconceptions students hold about it. A quick Google search is a good starting point. For example, see the Top 10 Misconceptions In Biology. However, you then need to check whether some of the students in your class hold these misconceptions.

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Step 2: Creating Cognitive Dissonance

If they do, you move to the second step in the cognitive change process – creating cognitive dissonance. Or in other words, you help them realise that their prior beliefs were wrong or inadequate. You can start by telling them so, but you must also explain why they were wrong (or inadequate).

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Step 3: Explaining the Correct Conception

Once you have highlighted the problems with students’ prior beliefs, you simply explain the concept correctly. Teachers do this all the time, but the power here comes from completing Steps 1 & 2 first.

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Step 4: Student Engagement

Explaining the concept correctly is essential. Yet, students are more likely to take it on board if they actively engage with what you have told them. Again, this is not a new idea, but it is important to help make new beliefs stick.

  • Ask them questions – for example, justifying whether a given statement is true or false based on what you have just explained
  • Get them to compare their old and new beliefs
  • Ask them to write down, what they already knew that was correct, what new information they have learned, and what old beliefs they have had to change/discard

Conceptual Change Process: An Example

For a more detailed example of the conceptual change process in action, see – Using the Conceptual Change Process When Teaching Fractions.

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(MEd., MLead.)

Shaun Killian (me) is an experienced and passionate teacher, as well as a past school principal. After a heart transplant and having both my legs amputated, I am not yet capable of returning to work. Yet, my passion for helping students succeed has led me to use my time to research teaching and associated practices. I then share what I find in practical ways through this website. The greatest compliment I have ever received from a past student was I never left any student behind. That is mission of most teachers and I hope you find the information on this site useful.

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