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Studies on the Development of Conceptual Understanding of Energy in Different Contexts

The concept of energy is highly relevant in all scientific disciplines; the term energy is also ubiquitous in politics, society and everyday life. Accordingly, a solid understanding of energy is considered an important educational goal for all of these areas. German educational discourse requires giving students the ability to handle educational content competently. Competence, in this sense comprises both technical and practical, social and motivational components. In this case context dependency constitutes an essential aspect of the concept of competence. Thus, based on the energy concept competence among other things means recognizing its relevance in a variety of learning and application contexts and being able to use it effectively to solve problems.

As part of the doctoral project described here the attempt was made to get a detailed concept of the individual student’s conceptions of the normative science concept energy and thereby show how conceptual understanding can be promoted by a reflected range of learning contexts. The studies are based on the so-called Knowledge in Pieces approach by A. A. diSessa. It describes the individual conceptions of students with respect to a normative science concept as dynamic structures which consist of multiple individual knowledge elements. Activation of this knowledge is dependent on the particular learning or application context. Hence, a hypothesis was derived that stated thematically heterogeneous learning environments (various contexts not associated to each other) promote conceptual understanding of energy better than a homogeneous learning environment in a similar context. To investigate this hypothesis eight pairs of 10th and 11th grade students in an intervention study were videotaped for two hours while learning about energy in differently contextualized learning environments (somewhat homogenous vs. somewhat heterogeneous contexts - e.g. different power plants vs. power plant, photosynthesis, fuels). The energy concept competence had been evaluated before and after encountering the learning environment.

Moreover, a qualitative description of students’ knowledge elements applied processing the energy-related tasks in the different learning environments has been done based on video data. According to the available data, many of the knowledge elements used correspond to comparatively superficial heuristics that resemble the core ideas of the normative energy concept (e.g. "Energy cannot be lost"; "Heat always escapes"). Comparing learners with differing levels of expertise exemplifies how especially high achievers can integrate subject-specific concepts like force or electricity to their energy-related reasoning regarding and thereby successfully apply the concept in numerous contexts. Academically weaker students are not capable of integrating such concepts. This is reflected in varying quality of concept applications across different contexts.

In summary, we found that energy is a concept one can explain even on a basic level. It can help even young students describe numerous processes in their environment. However, complex advanced mathematical methods and the integration of other function-specific concepts are necessary to internalize the global, abstract and complex nature of the concept. Varied contextualized learning opportunities can facilitate this process while promoting flexibility in applying the energy concept in different thematic contexts.

 

Figure 1: Comparison of the intervention groups regarding transfer of conceptual knowledge to new contexts not addressed in the previously processed learning environments.