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International Journal of
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Shifting sands: a case study


of conceptual development
as competition between
alternative conceptions
Keith S. Taber
Published online: 20 Jul 2010.

To cite this article: Keith S. Taber (2001): Shifting sands: a case study of
conceptual development as competition between alternative conceptions,
International Journal of Science Education, 23:7, 731-753

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INT. J. SCI. EDUC., 2001, VOL. 23, NO. 7, 731- 753

RESEARCH REPORT

Shifting sands: a case study of conceptual


development as competition between alternative
conceptions

Keith S. Taber, Homerton College, University of Cambridge, Hills Road,


Cambridge CB2 2PM, UK; e-mail: Keith.taber@physics.org; kst24@cam.ac.uk
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Conceptual change may be considered as a process of coming to view one theory or model as having
more explanatory power than others. Various theorists have described how an individual’s understand-
ing of a concept may be multifaceted; how conceptual frameworks develop in a cognitive ecology, and
are subject to selection pressures; and how alternative frameworks compete in terms of their explanatory
coherence. The present paper applies these ideas to a case study of learning in science. It is argued that
conceptual development may be described in terms of a gradual shift in which of several alternative
explanatory principles is the learners’ preferred choice. The case study illustrates the long-term nature
of conceptual change, as a learner comes to see the limitations of one explanatory framework, and the
scope for exploring and developing another.

Introduction

Conceptual change in science


Learning has been defined by Petri and Niedderer (1998: 1075) as ‘a change in a
cognitive system’s stable elements’. Such change may be usefully considered to be
of two types (Posner et al. 1982, Novak 1985, Duschl et al. 1992, Vosniadou 1992,
1994, Duit et al. 1998). One category concerns incremental changes that may be
see as minor modifications to accepted ideas. The more problematic category
concerns changes in the basic explanatory schemes applied by a learner. Various
terms have been used to distinguish these two classes of conceptual change, but a
number of workers have borrowed the Piagetian terms assimilation and accommo-
dation (Posner et al. 1982, Rowell and Dawson 1985, Dykstra et al. 1992, Pintrich
et al. 1993). This paper is concerned with the latter, more substantial, type of
conceptual change.

Manifold conceptions in individual cognitive structure


It has been suggested that learners may typically hold manifold conceptions for
scientific concepts (Taber 2000a). One college student, referred to as Tajinder,
used three distinct explanatory principles to explain chemical bonding during a
two year post-16 chemistry course. All three explanatory principles were used over
many months, and in a range of contexts. Tajinder sometimes moved between
International Journal of Science Education ISSN 0950- 0693 print/ISSN 1464-5289 online # 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals
DOI: 10.1080/09500690010006572
732 K. TABER

them during a single explanation. He came to recognize the three distinct prin-
ciples he would use to answer the interviewer’s questions and he considered that
they were valid alternatives which each had some explanatory worth. Taber
(2000a) argued that such ‘multiple frameworks’ (Pope and Denicolo 1986) should
be expected as a common feature of learners’ thinking in science.

Domains of knowledge, or epistemological profiles?


Driver (1983) popularized the notion of the pupil as scientist, pointing out that
there was a natural tendency for children to hypothesize about phenomena. It is
part of our evolutionary heritage to look for patterns, to make connections between
percepts, and to make predictions on the basis of those consequent mental models
that are reinforced through apparent confirmation. Formal science has more
sophisticated apparatus for making observations and more rigorous techniques
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for analysing data (Wolpert 1992) but has developed from this same human nature.
It is accepted that by the time pupils are faced with formal science teaching
they already have a wealth of ideas about scientific topics—much of which is not
consistent with curricular science (e.g. Driver, Squires et al. 1994). It is also well
accepted that there are several possible outcomes when this ‘children’s science’
interacts with the curriculum science presented in school (Gilbert et al. 1982).
Some commentators have suggested that the science met in the formal curriculum
is stored in a different domain of cognitive structure to children’s science
(Solomon 1992, Claxton 1993). Such a division may be useful when considering
learners’ intuitive ideas about, say, force and motion (Gilbert and Zylbersztajn
1985). It is less helpful when considering learners’ alternative conceptions about
science topics that are only likely to be met within the formal curriculum. So, for
example, learners hold alternative conceptions about atomic phenomena (Taber
1998a, b) that cannot readily be explained as part of Solomon’s ‘life-world’
domain.
It is suggested here that a more potent approach builds upon the idea of an
‘epistemological profile’. According to Bachelard (1968: 43), even professional
scientists often operate with multifaceted versions of scientific concepts that
draw upon the historical, as well as the currently accepted, understanding of a
concept. Bachelard thought that the earlier philosophical positions acted as im-
pediments to progress. He believed the epistemological profile ‘bears the marks of
the obstacles which a culture has had to surmount’.
This perspective assumes that the individual scientist holds several different
meanings for a scientific concept in cognitive structure, variously applied in distinct
problem situations. In a similar way, research suggests that whether science
learners apply the versions of scientific concepts taught in class, or their pre-
existing alternative conceptions, can depend upon the context in which their
knowledge is elicited (Driver and Easley 1978, Viennot 1985, Driver and
Oldham 1986, Dumbrill and Birley 1987, Bliss et al. 1988, Hennessy 1993,
Maloney and Siegler 1993, Russell 1993). Manifold conceptions may be consid-
ered as the conceptual tools available to the learner (Taber 1995a), who must make
a selection that is appropriate to a particular context (Linder 1993). One distinc-
tion between the professional scientist and the school pupil or college student is a
matter of the profile being more or less weighted towards the more recent scientific
version of a concept (Mortimer 1995). Conceptual development implies a shift in
A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 733

the learner’s epistemological profile, and the job of the science educator becomes
that of facilitating such a shift.

Explanatory coherence and rational criteria for conceptual change


Gilbert and Watts (1983) considered alternative ways of thinking about conceptual
change. One perspective—which has been ascribed to William James (Calvin
1998)—is analogous to views of evolutionary (i.e. Darwinian) development and
has been applied to the historical development of scientific concepts. In this
model there is a continual generation of conceptions, some of which are selected
for (as they show greatest value in problem solving) and retained, whilst most are
discarded. The more ‘revolutionary’ changes in a learner’s thinking may be
explained if an existing notion is held until the point is reached where the benefits
of change outweigh the cost (Gilbert and Watts 1983, Boyes 1988).
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A number of commentators have emphasized that conceptual change should


be seen as having a rational basis (Posner et al. 1982, Hewson and Hewson 1984,
Strike and Posner 1985, 1992, Smith et al. 1993). While from a Piagetian viewpoint
the disequilibrated, perceived-as-inadequate, incoherent state of existing cognitive
structure may be seen as sufficient motivation for change (Dykstra et al. 1992,
Kitchener 1992), other authors have noted how the learner has to construct new
representational structures before being in a position to dismiss existing schemes
(Nersessian 1992, Thagard 1992).
Thagard (1992) sees the personal construction of models of alternative scien-
tific theories as a step in a rational process of paradigm shifts. Thagard’s approach
was primarily developed to analyse historical examples of conceptual change, but
he suggests that it also applies to contemporary learners of science. The scientist—
or young learner—holds one theory, but gradually builds up an understanding of,
and familiarity with, an alternative. A model of the novel alternative theory is
constructed ‘in the background’. If the alternative comes to be seen as having
greater ‘explanatory coherence’ then it will become the preferred theory with
which to operate.
Thagard (1992: 258) suggests that when children ‘are taught more about bio-
logical and physical mechanisms they consciously or unconsciously appreciate that
these accounts have greater explanatory coherence than their old theories and
therefore abandon those ideas’. However, time is needed to construct and explore,
or to read about and reflect upon, the arguments in favour of the alternative
theories, and to ‘use the new system enough to appreciate its power’ (p. 59).
Thagard considers this to be a process which may take years.
Strike and Posner (1985, 1992) have discussed the conditions that should lead
someone to rationally change his or her mind. These conditions involve judging
how well competing conceptions match empirical evidence, can explain experi-
ence, meet metaphysical assumptions about the form explanations should take, and
are consistent with other knowledge. They suggest that the learner must have
reason to be dissatisfied with existing conceptual schemes. They point out that
accommodation is unlikely if existing frameworks can be made to work with minor
adjustments. Secondly, the learner must have ‘minimal’ understanding of the new
conception, so that its potential for explanation may be explored. They suggest
(similar to Ausubel 1961) that this involves being able to relate the new concep-
tions to some existing part of cognitive structure, and to familiar examples from
734 K. TABER

experience. Their third criterion was that the new scheme should seem a plausible
alternative, because it can be seen to explain the apparent discrepancies in the
present scheme, and it meets metaphysical expectations. Finally the new concep-
tions should seem to be ‘fruitful’, in that they suggest the possibility of wider
explanatory scope (Strike and Posner 1985, Thorley and Stofflet 1996).
Similarly, Thagard’s (1992) analysis of historical case studies suggests a range
of criteria are used to determine the explanatory coherence of a hypothesis, and that
alternative explanations ‘compete’ on such dimensions as:
. How much does the hypothesis explain?
. Are its explanations economical?
. Is the hypothesis similar to ones that explain similar phenomena?
. Is there an explanation of why the hypothesis might be true?
The first of these criteria—‘the explanatory breadth of the new theory’—is con-
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sidered to be the most important factor (p. 248). However, greater familiarity with
the existing theory and its potential applications may act as a barrier.

The notion of conceptual ecology


This ‘evolutionary’ view of conceptual change is analogous to the natural selection
of species in Darwinian evolution. It is to be expected that the learner may well
have sets of competing conceptions for many science topics. This is a relativistic
view of conceptual development—the conceptual schemes that are selected are not
the best in some absolute sense, but will be those that are fittest within their
environment. The environment of interest here is the mind of the learner.
The teacher’s questions and cues will enter as elements of that environment,
where they will interact with the learner’s existing ideas and beliefs. Hewson
(1985: 153) refers to Toulmin’s notion of ‘conceptual ecology’ where ‘the varied
mental sets of individuals . . . are a function of their intellectual and physical
environment’. Strike and Posner (1985: 219) suggest that ‘understanding entails
finding a niche within a conceptual ecology’. A learner’s conceptual ecology struc-
tures learning, and is considered to include such features as anomalies, analogies
and metaphors, exemplars and images, categories, explanatory ideals, metaphysical
beliefs, motives and goals—and competing conceptions (Hewson and Hewson
1984, Strike and Posner 1985, 1992, Kitchener 1992, Pintrich et al. 1993).
Conceptual development may be considered as a long-term process of explor-
ing, developing and evaluating alternative explanatory models, and of gradual
shifts in which alternatives come to be relied on as being the best basis for certain
types of explanations and predictions. In Thagard’s (1992) terms, one conception
may be found to have more explanatory coherence, and may tend to be used more,
so be better understood and therefore seem more sensible and easier to apply. It
will be noticed that this process is circular: the successful use of a particular
explanatory scheme will provide positive feedback to reinforce the use of that
scheme. If the learner is provided with appropriate opportunities to explore and
discuss ideas that closely match those the science teacher is trying to advocate, then
the learner’s epistemological profile may shift towards the (current) scientific view.
Not all opportunities will readily provide successful use of the schemes the teacher
wishes to encourage. If the learner fails to successfully apply the ideas the teacher
puts forward then this will act as negative feedback, and these ideas will tend to be
A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 735

selected against. In Vygotsky’s (1986) terms, the teacher needs to scaffold activities
within the learner’s zone of proximal development.

Intermediate conceptions and conceptual trajectories


This perspective, that conceptual development involves a rational shift between
competing conceptual frameworks constructed within the learner’s cognitive
structure, makes it natural to view the learner’s alternative conceptions as the
resources for conceptual development. This is a position that has long been advo-
cated by a number of the major thinkers in the field (Gilbert et al. 1982, Watts et
al. 1982, Driver 1983, Ault et al. 1984).
According to Driver (1989, Driver, Leach et al. 1994), the building of bridges
between children’s science and formal science may involve ‘intermediate notions’
or ‘intermediate conceptions’, such that progression may follow a conceptual tra-
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jectory, defined as ‘a sequence of conceptualizations which portray significant steps


in the way knowledge within the domain is represented’ (Driver, Leach et al. 1994:
85). Examples of such learning pathways are now available in the literature (Smith
et al. 1993, Petri and Niedderer 1998, Stavridou and Solomonidou 1998).
Appropriate intermediate conceptions may be essential elements of a conceptual
ecology that provides a niche for key scientific models to gain a foothold within the
learner’s cognitive structure.

Investigating the shifting sands of conceptual development


through a case of learning science
The view of conceptual development outlined above sets a challenge for the edu-
cational researcher wishing to explore this field. It is not enough to collect brief
interviews, or answers to isolated exercises, in order to judge a learner’s current
conception in some area of science. Rather, any authentic account of conceptual
development in a science topic must derive from a database rich enough to eluci-
date the manifold conceptions used by a learner and to suggest their relative
weighting in the conceptual profile. Moreover, it is not enough to map the ‘carto-
graphy of cognition’ (Wandersee 1990) at one moment. Rather, the learner must be
followed for a significant period of time so that shifts in the landscape of cognitive
structure may be detected. An in-depth case study approach is required. This
paper considers evidence from such a case.
This case report derived from a longitudinal interview-based study of college
chemistry students: the ‘understanding chemical bonding’ project (Taber 1997).
The research was undertaken in a further education college in England, and
explored the developing understanding of the chemical bond concepts of students
during their two-year A level course. The A level (or, more fully, the General
Certificate of Education Advanced Level) examination is the traditional means of
qualifying for university entrance in England. Most university entrance candidates
take three subjects at A level. Within the English system students are able to select
from a wide combination of subjects, although many university course require-
ments stipulate necessary or preferred subjects. Tajinder—the student discussed
below—studied chemistry, geography and mathematics.
The research explored the developing ideas of a modest number (15) of indi-
vidual students. It used the findings as the starting point for exploring a wider
736 K. TABER

database to identify common patterns that might have wider pedagogic signifi-
cance. Common alternative conceptual frameworks were identified for chemical
bonding (Taber 1998a) and for nucleus-electron interactions (Taber 1998b), and a
general model of how A level pupils’ ideas developed during the course was devel-
oped (Taber 1999).
In order to move between the detailed studies of idiosyncratic conceptualiza-
tions, and a general model of value to teachers, a grounded theory approach was
used (Taber 2000b). As part of this analytical process, detailed case studies of
individual learners were produced (Taber 1997: 184- 199). Although the case
studies represent a preliminary stage in the process of producing general models,
they are the fundamental levels of analysis for exploring conceptual change. So, for
example, detailed case studies can provide insights into why different aspects of an
individual’s thinking about a concept area may be more or less labile (Taber,
1995b).
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The main data collection technique used was semi-structured respondent


interviews, using a variation of the ‘interview-about-instances’ technique
(Gilbert et al. 1985), with line diagrams as the foci for discussion (such as figures
1, 2 and 7). During some interviews, where it was deemed appropriate, the respon-
dents were asked to draw diagrams to illustrate their ideas (such as figures
3-6).
In a learner’s first interview three questions were used (or paraphrased) to
initiate discussion about each focal diagram presented:
(i) what was the figure meant to represent?;
(ii) was there any bonding in the species/substance represented?; and if
so
(iii) what type(s) of bonding was/were present?
However, once a dialogue was initiated, the student’s elicited ideas were then
followed-up, both at the time and in subsequent interviews. Some supplementary
data were collected in the form of student course work (such as concept maps and
relevant test scripts), and this also informed the interviewer’s questions (Taber
1997). Comments that had been made by other respondents also suggested poten-
tially fruitful areas to explore. Some of the students also undertook Kelly’s reper-
tory test (the ‘method of triads’) which provided another slice of data (Taber
1994).
Tajinder was interviewed on 23 occasions over his two-year course (indicated
as T1-T23) and supplementary data were collected—including 15 pieces of rele-
vant course work, responses to Kelly’s repertory test (on five occasions), and three
tape-recorded dialogues with other students about past examination questions
(Taber 1997: 399- 402). This provided the richness of data that enabled an authen-
tic analysis of conceptual development to be attempted.
A key feature of the case was that Tajinder used three explanatory principles to
explain chemical bonding. A previous paper (Taber 2000a) drew on this case to
demonstrate that mulitiple frameworks reported in the literature may be authentic
reflections of the plural nature of human conceptualizations: the individual learner
may simultaneously hold several alternative conceptions in cognitive structure.
In this paper the development of Tajinder’s concepts of the chemical bond will
be considered in terms of the shift in the extent to which he applied his alternative
explanatory principles for explaining bonding. Although space does not allow an
A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 737

exploration of the full complexity and subtlety of Tajinder’s thinking, it is possible


to provide an authentic account of how Tajinder’s conceptual profile shifted dur-
ing his course. As a college-level student Tajinder was often able to provide
extended explanations of his ideas, and this data has been drawn upon to support
the present author’s interpretations. Quotations have been ‘tidied’ to aid read-
ability—for example to remove repetition and hesitations—but otherwise repre-
sent the learner’s own words.

An overview of the case


The main features of Tajinder’s developing understanding of chemical bonding
may be summarized. At the beginning of his course Tajinder used one principle in
explaining chemical bonding:
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The octet rule explanatory principle:


. atoms are stable if they have full outer shells*, and unstable otherwise;
. an atom that is unstable will want [sic] to become stable;
. the unstable atom will form bonds such that it seems to have a full outer
shell, and thinks [sic] it has the right number of electrons.
Later in his course Tajinder applied two other explanatory principles—as
alternative frameworks for explaining boding:
The minimum energy explanatory principle:
. configurations of physical systems can be ascribed an energy level;
. lower energy is more stable than higher energy;
. physical systems will evolve towards lower energy configurations.
The Coulombic forces explanatory principle:
. there is always a force between two charged particles;
. similar charges repel, opposite charges attract;
. the magnitude of the force diminishes with increased charge separation;
. forces acting on particles may be balanced at equilibrium.
Although a physicist might see these two principles as closely related, Tajinder saw
them as distinct tools for explaining aspects of chemistry.
Over time Tajinder applied his Coulombic forces principle to an increasing
extent, but he nevertheless continued to apply his octet rule principle throughout
his course.
In other words there was a shift from ‘octet thinking’ to ‘electrostatic thinking’
during Tajinder’s course, but there was not a complete conceptual revolution.
Rather, Tajinder’s conceptual development may be described in terms of the
evolution of a conceptual profile in which electrostatic explanations were increas-
ingly dominant.
In attempting to understand this shift it is useful to bear in mind two com-
plementary questions (Hashweh 1986):
. Why did Tajinder adopt a new explanatory principle when he commenced
the course already holding an existing rationale for explaining chemical
bonds?

* The terms ‘octet’ and ‘full outer shell’ were used as if interchangeable.
738 K. TABER

. Why did Tajinder not shift to exclusively using his Coulombic forces ex-
planatory principle to explain bonding?
In other words why did conceptual change occur, and why was it only partial?
Analysis of the data collected suggests a number of features of the case which were
significant.

Tajinder had reason to consider his octet rule explanatory principle was
successful
At the start of his course Tajinder was confident that he knew why chemical
bonding occurred. He thought there were ‘two types of bonding, electrovalent,
covalent, . . . ionic or covalent’ (T1). He had a clear rationale for covalent bonding,
as in the case of the hydrogen molecule where,
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one electron is shared by each atom . . . hydrogen, to form a stable outer shell it needs
another hydrogen, and so as they have one [electron] each, they share both, so they
both think that they have two outer electrons. (T1)

This seemed to Tajinder to explain why the bond was formed, and he believed this
to be the accepted explanation that he had learnt at school. It was an explanation
that had been successful for him in the past, and which he was able to apply to all
the examples of covalent compounds he was (at that time) aware of. Similarly his
definition of the ionic bond as ‘where an atom loses its outermost electron, to
another atom which needs one electron in its outer shell to become stable’ seemed
robust (T1). This, again, was a well rehearsed form of explanation that Tajinder
brought with confidence from his school science. The only other type of bonding
Tajinder was aware of was metallic bonding, but he was ‘not sure what it is’
(T1).
Tajinder continued to apply the octet rule explanatory principle to his
two main categories of bond throughout his two-year course. In the case of
ionic bonding Tajinder had begun to apply an electrostatic perspective in his
first year, but even well into his second year would revert to his octet rule
principle:
for [a sodium atom] to become more stable than it already is, it can either gain seven
electrons or lose one electron, and the easiest, the more beneficial, is to lose an
electron. So by losing an electron it’s got one more proton than it has electrons so
it becomes [a] positively charged ion. Whilst in the case of chlorine, chlorine has seven
electrons in its valence shell, so in order to have a full octet it needs to gain an electron,
therefore there are more electrons than there are protons, so the whole thing is a
chloride ion which is negative, and when this occurs, [an] ionic bond is formed,
between sodium ions and chloride ions. (T17)

In the covalent case Tajinder continued to apply his octet rule explanatory
principle throughout his course. So in his final term he explained the bond in a
water molecule:
they do that to become more stable, which they are because hydrogen can either lose
one or gain one electron to have a full octet [sic], two electrons in the outermost shell
. . . and oxygen already has six and to gain another two it thinks it’s got a full octet
which is a noble gas configuration. So it does that. . . . that’s the answer to ‘why does a
bond form’. (T19)
A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 739

Tajinder did not integrate his minimum energy and Coulombic forces
explanatory principles
From the ‘curriculum science’ viewpoint energy and force are distinct but related
concepts. Tajinder’s basic physics knowledge at the start of the course included
concepts of energy, force and charge, but did not match the orthodox science
versions of these concepts. For example, Tajinder did not always clearly distin-
guish between the forces arising from charged particles interacting, and the
charges themselves. In an early interview Tajinder referred to ‘positive and nega-
tive forces’ and explained that ‘two positive forces repel one another and so do two
negative forces repel one another, but opposite forces attract one another’ (T2).
To appreciate the link between energy and force in understanding chemical
bonding it is useful to see forces as arising from systems of interacting bodies which
(where unbalanced) cause changes in the configuration of the system—leading to a
lower energy. Yet Tajinder conceptualized force as associated with a single body,
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such as an atomic nucleus. His understanding of the electrostatic interactions


within an atom reflected a common alternative conception labelled ‘conservation
of force’ (Taber 1998b), that is that an atomic nucleus has a certain amount of force
available, that depends upon the charge on the nucleus, and is shared between the
electrons. For Tajinder, the force from the nucleus was ‘spread over the number
of electrons there are’ (T7). In a similar way, Tajinder associated potential energy
with a single body, rather than being a function of a configuration: ‘potential
energy is like stored energy in a certain object’ (T2). Tajinder’s limited appreciation
of the scientific understanding of energy and forces would seem to be a key factor
in his failure to develop his minimum energy and Coulombic forces principles into
an integrated framework within his cognitive structure.

Tajinder did not have an explicit criterion for applying his minimum
energy explanatory principle
Tajinder’s minimum energy explanatory principle was used less than either his
octet rule or Coulombic explanatory principles. Indeed, it might be suggested
that Tajinder’s minimum energy explanatory principle was actually a pseudo-
explanation: something that took the form of an explanation, but actually lacked
inherent explanatory power (Taber and Watts 1999). Tajinder’s principle—based
on asking ‘would the energy be lower?’ (T3) required supplementary criteria
before a judgment could be made. In practice Tajinder’s octet rule explanatory
principle was often called upon to determine the answer. For example, he
explained that he thought lithium metal was at a lower energy than lithium
atoms because in the metal the lithium obeyed the octet rule explanatory principle,
‘because in [a] lithium atom, there’s one outer electron, so it’s not stable, [but] it
can gain a noble gas configuration if it loses an electron, and so it’s quite high
energy, so it wants to become lower energy’ (T3).
In the second year of his course Tajinder stated that ‘I think everything forms
bonds in order to become more stable, or at a lower energy’, but then went on to
explain this in octet terms in the specific case of the carbon- chloride bond, where
‘when CCl4 forms, all octet requirements are achieved for each species’ (T17).
When Tajinder attempted to give an explanation in terms of energy levels, his
use of the minimum energy principle was little more that tautological: ‘you can see
740 K. TABER

the chlorine is not stable as it is . . . it becomes more stable’. When asked to explain
this, Tajinder could only revert—once again—to an explanation in octet rule
terms:

I: Tell me about this in terms of stability. Why does that compound form?
T: It forms because when each individual atom is by itself it’s at a certain
energy level, and you can see [sic] the chlorine is not stable as it is, neither
is the carbon, not fully stable. So in order to become more stable it forms a
bond with something, in order to decrease the energy that it’s at, so it
becomes more stable, and that’s why species form bonds . . . .
I: Yeah? I’m going to push you a bit beyond that, if I may, and I’m going to
say why is that more stable than the separate atoms? Not just tell me the
answer ‘oh it’s a lower energy level’, but why is that at lower energy level
than the separate atoms?
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T: [after a pause for thought] It’s at a lower energy level because when
each individual species is by itself, as I said like chlorine has 7 elec-
trons in its outer shell, and the only way it can become more stable than
it is is to have a full octet, and that is to gain an electron to become a
chloride ion.
(T17)
(I: Interviewer, (KST); T: Tajinder)

Tajinder’s demarcation of the bond concept changed over time


One key aspect of Tajinder’s thinking is the exclusivity of his chemical bonding
concept. At the beginning of his course Tajinder had a clear conceptualization of
covalent bonds and ionic bonds—both categories which made sense to him in
terms of his octet rule principle—and a vague awareness of metallic bonding. As
Tajinder understood more about metallic bonding he was able to explain this in
terms of electrostatic interactions, but he would still rationalize the bonding in
terms of octets,
you have positively charged ions, and you have delocalised electrons which is like a sea
of electrons around the ions . . . the electron is allowed to move around in certain
orbitals, around each of the ions, so it becomes stable, because it forms an ion, and . . .
when it comes down to it, the ion’s formed an octet, so it’s more stable. (T17)

During his course Tajinder learnt about new categories of chemical bond—
hydrogen bonds, Van der Waals’ forces, solvent-solute interactions—which he
could not explain using his octet rule principle. Initially he had confidence in his
explanatory principle, and excluded such interactions from the category of chemical
bond. So, for example, he felt that there was ‘not actually bonding’ between mol-
ecules of iodine (T1), and that between water molecules ‘there’s a force, but it’s not
a bond’ (T1). So in solid argon ‘they wouldn’t have any like covalent, ionic, or
metallic bonding’, but ‘just the force of the attraction of one nuclei [sic], to the
other electrons on another atom, just holding it together’ (T3).
During his course Tajinder wavered over which interactions were bonds, and
which were ‘just forces’. His confusion is clear in his discussion of van der Waals’
forces from near the end of his first year,
A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 741

This is also a type of bonding, but it’s not, it’s actually a type of force, it’s not actually
a chemical bonding. What are we doing, chemical bondings, ain’t we? Yeah, this I
think could be counted as chemical bonding, but it’s not actually chemically linked, so
one molecule is not actually chemically linked to another molecule, it’s just a type of
force, that’s held in, holding them together. (T8)
By the end of the first year of his course Tajinder recognized that hydrogen
bonding was classed as ‘a type of bond’, albeit ‘not as strong as metallic or covalent,
[or] ionic bonding’ (T8). Yet even during the final term of his course Tajinder
distinguished between the intramolecular and intermolecular bonding in water as
‘an actual bond’ and ‘just an attraction’ respectively (T19).
Despite such references, Tajinder came to increasingly treat these interactions
as if they were bonds, even if he did not totally accept this use of the term. He came
to explain differences in melting temperature in terms of bond strength. So in
sulphur ‘the bond between one molecule and another’ was ‘harder’ to break than
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in chlorine or argon (T4). Later in his course Tajinder referred to the ‘type of
bonding’ in explaining deviations from Raoult’s law,
because the type of bonding between [molecules] in pure ethanol, and pure methanol
are quite similar, that when we mix them together, it’s supposed to be that the type of
bonding is the same so therefore it’s an ideal solution, and so it obeys Raoult’s law. . . .
then we have negative and positive deviation. And we have negative deviation when
we mix two liquids together, and the bonding is stronger than we predicted, which is in
the case of nitric acid and water, because when we add nitric acid to water it ionises
suggesting that there’s stronger bonding between the two, between the mixture. Or we
can have weaker bonding which is ethanol and water, because pure ethanol’s got
hydrogen bonding, and pure water’s got hydrogen bonding, but when we mix them
together, because of the shapes of the molecules the type of hydrogen bonding which
occurs is not as strong as it is in both the pure states, so therefore it’s got weaker
bonding, so it’s a positive deviation from Raoult’s law. (T16)
Yet these types of bond could not be explained in terms of atoms forming
octets, and so an alternative explanation was needed. Tajinder recognized the
electrostatic nature of these interactions. So in hydrogen bonding ‘there’s like
attraction between @‡ and @¡ on the molecules which are next to each other’
(T9). In his second year Tajinder recognized that van der Waals’ forces also had
electrostatic origins as the ‘plus charge in the middle is able to attract electrons
from other species’ which was ‘the same’ as in hydrogen bonding where ‘positive
charge is able to attract electrons . . . forming a force, or bond, known as hydrogen
bond’ (T16). Tajinder also came to recognize that solvation involved electrostatic
attractions, which he referred to as being ‘hydration bonds’ or ‘solvation bonds’
(T22).

Polar bonds were classed as covalent to fit the octet rule model
Another area of difficulty for Tajinder’s octet rule explanatory principle was that
of polar bonds. The idea of something being intermediate between the covalent and
ionic case does not make sense in terms of atoms ‘trying’ to fill shells.
By the second term Tajinder was talking of differences in electronegativity
being used to determine bond type, but in terms of an absolute distinction: a low
difference meant covalent, a large difference ionic (T2). As long as he saw bond
type as a dichotomy Tajinder was able to apply octet rule explanations. Even
though Tajinder demonstrated an awareness of polar bonding from early in his
742 K. TABER

course, he would often tend to classify polar bonds (e.g. aluminium-chlorine, T9


and T10; calcium-chlorine, T2; carbon-oxygen, T10; hydrogen-fluorine, T12;
silver-chlorine, T8) as covalent.
At the end of the first year Tajinder did not include polar bonds as a category
when asked to list the types of bond he knew about (T8). However, later in the same
interview he did refer to electrons in the carbon-hydrogen bond being pulled more
toward the carbon, and he referred to the bond in methane as covalent and polar.
He then reported that bonding in compounds was normally polar, which was
something in between ionic and covalent. The dual classification (of covalent
and polar) allowed the polarity to be considered as a secondary property of a
covalent bond—which could be defined in octet rule terms.

Adducts were not considered to be formed through bonding


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The formation of dative bonds presented a greater difficulty for Tajinder’s octet
rule principle, as a dative bond usually involves a species already having an octet
configuration ‘donating’ electrons to form a bond. Near the end of his first year
Tajinder described a diagram of an aluminium chloride dimer (figure 1) as ‘com-
pletely wrong’, as it showed chlorine atoms ‘forming two bonds, but that can’t
happen . . . because it’s already got seven [electrons] in the outer shell. It only
needs one more, so therefore it only forms bonds with one electron’ (T9).
Tajinder thought that ‘there is a certain type of attraction’ between the mol-
ecules, but that ‘they won’t be bonds’ (T9). An alternative representation (figure 2)
made sense to him, in terms of six covalent bonds plus ‘electrostatic forces’.

Tajinder did not readily recognize failures of his octet rule principle
Tajinder’s octet rule explanatory principle explained chemical reactions and bond-
ing in terms of the needs of atoms: which meant that the principle was only valid if
he assumed the interacting species were discrete atoms. Tajinder was so com-
mitted to the validity of his octet rule explanatory principle that he did not notice
that it relied on this assumption.

Figure 1. A focal figure of Al2 Cl6 considered to be ‘completely wrong’.

Figure 2. An alternative focal figure of Al2 Cl6 considered to make sense.


A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 743

Figure 3. Tajinder’s figure of AlCl3 —a stable species having 6 valent


electrons.
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Figure 4. Tajinder’s figure of PCl5 —a stable species having 10 valent


electrons.

Early in his second year Tajinder explained the reactivity of fluorine and
chlorine—‘they’re really reactive’—in terms of their not having stable electronic
configurations (T10). Although Tajinder ‘knew’ these elements existed as diatomic
molecules—‘You’ve got F2 ’—which were stable by his octet rule criterion, he
explained the reactivity in terms of discrete atoms that ‘need an extra electron to
gain a full outer shell’.
By this time Tajinder was also meeting instances of molecules that should not
have been stable by his criterion, but he seemed ‘blind’ to these counter-examples.
Tajinder described how an atom in period 3 needed eight or 18 electrons in its
valence shell to be stable (T10), but in the same interview he drew ‘stable’ mol-
ecules where the period three atom had six (AlCl3 , figure 3), and ten (PCl5 , figure
4) such electrons.
Despite being made aware of these counter-examples (he acknowledged that,
in figure 4, ‘phosphorus which I just said a minute ago should have eight or 18
[valence electrons], has got 10, and it’s stable’), Tajinder continued to use his octet
rule explanatory principle in the following interview, a few days later. He was
asked to draw a molecule of each of hydrogen and chlorine. He thought that
hydrogen and chlorine could react, and he added to his diagram the hydrogen
chloride molecule that would result (figure 5).
Later in the interview Tajinder was referred back to his diagram and asked
why there should be a reaction between the hydrogen and chlorine molecules he
had drawn. His response was based upon his octet rule explanatory principle,
744 K. TABER

Figure 5. Tajinder’s diagram of hydrogen and chlorine molecules that


‘want to gain a noble gas configuration’.
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They want to gain a noble gas configuration, or stable outer shells, and as hydrogen
has got an electron which it can get rid of, and the chlorine has got a shell where it can
accept an electron, they’ll both combine forming an ionic [sic] bond, where the
hydrogen electron is taken by the chlorine. (T11)

Tajinder’s explanation only made sense if the reactant species did not already
have ‘full outer shells’. At first he confirmed that this was indeed the case, until he
realized that the reactant molecules he had drawn already satisfied the octet rule
criterion for stability.

Ionic bonding acted as a critical test for Tajinder’s octet principle


Tajinder’s understanding of the ionic bond was a critical case in considering how
his ideas developed. At the start of his course Tajinder had defined the ionic bond
as ‘where an atom loses its outermost electron, to another atom which needs one
electron in its outer shell to become stable’ (T1), and later in the term he drew a
representation of an ‘ionic bond’ in line with such a definition (figure 6).
He recognized that figure 7 was meant to represent sodium chloride, which
would have ionic bonding: ‘where the sodium atom loses the electron to the chlor-
ine atom, then they have stable outer shells’ (T1). However, Tajinder considered
that the diagram showed ‘a group of molecules’. To the extent that the focus of
Tajinder’s thinking about ionic bonding was ion pairs (‘molecules’) formed from
individual atoms by electron transfer, his explanations seemed successful, and
apparently he had not been required to extend his explanations beyond such a
focus in the science he had previously studied in school.

Figure 6. Tajinder’s representation of the ionic bond early in his course.


A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 745

Figure 7. Focal diagram of an ionic lattice considered to show ‘a group


of molecules’.

However, this definition of ionic bonding in terms of electron transfer led to


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Tajinder concluding that the number of bonds an ion can form depends upon the
number of electrons transferred to or from that ion. So in sodium chloride, where a
sodium atom was considered to transfer one electron to one chlorine atom, each
sodium ion could only be bonded to one chlorine ion. If each ion is only bonded to
one other, then the ionic bonding cannot explain the integrity of the ionic lattice.
(From the perspective of curricular science, this is the very thing that ionic bond-
ing should explain.) Tajinder explained the structural integrity in electrostatic
terms, but did not identify this with the bonding,
one chlorine is only bonded to one sodium, because a sodium atom can only lose one
electron, so, therefore . . . it can only gain one bond, but the thing is holding itself
together because there’s positive and negative charges. (T1)

Tajinder fitted his understanding of the ionic bond to the nature of ionic solids
by supposing that the ions were equally attracted, though not equally bonded, to
their neighbours. During his course Tajinder gradually explored ways to ‘square
this circle’, to explain how the ions could be equally bonded to several neighbours
whilst defining the bond in terms of electron transfer (T8). He suggested, in turn,
that:
. it was not possible to tell ‘which sodium gave which chlorine it’s electron’,
and therefore the bonds were ‘equal’;
. each ion formed one bond, but ‘the bond can move around’;
. the donated electrons were ‘able to move around’ between different anions.
When each of these possibilities ran into logical difficulties, Tajinder then, tenta-
tively, considered the possibility that the bond was the electrostatic attraction
between ions:
is it because sodium has formed positive ions, and chlorine formed negative ions
’cause they’ve gain an electron, and sodium has lost an electron, and it’s not clear
which chlorine the sodium donates its electron to, but because this is negative and this
is positive there’s a certain amount of attraction between them and therefore this is
why there’s a bond, electrostatic, er, dunno. (T8)

After discussing the ionic bond in a material formed through double decom-
position (where it might be thought to be obvious that electron transfer has not
occurred between the ions in the precipitate), he eventually accepted the elec-
trostatic definition of the bond. Indeed, even in this case, Tajinder initially
746 K. TABER

considered the ionic bond in the precipitate to be due to electron transfer between
the ions in the solid. From his perspective the electron transfer events that had
given rise to the ions in the reacting solutions had been reversed so that new
electron transfers could take place to form the new ionic bonds. Tajinder had no
difficulty in accepting such reversals in principle, but was not fully satisfied with
this scheme as he questioned whether there had been time for the reactant ions to
return the electrons to reform atoms again before the new reaction.
Even after this ‘critical thought experiment’ Tajinder still seemed to need to
justify how an ion could bond to several others by talking of how a sodium atom
doesn’t know which chlorine it gives its electron to, and doesn’t really care where it
goes to; and how the chlorine which gains an electron doesn’t care where it came
from (T9).
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Tajinder gained increasing confidence in using electrostatic ideas in other


contexts
During his chemistry course Tajinder used electrostatic principles to explain a
range of phenomena. At the beginning of his course Tajinder explained that
‘because this nucleus is positive, and these electrons are negative, they attract
one another’ as ‘there’s always an attraction between positive and negative’ (T1).
Another area where Tajinder learnt to apply electrostatic principles was in
explaining patterns in ionization energies. He explained that ionization energies
concerned,
how much force the atom has at attracting that electron, . . . how strongly for keeping
the electron to itself. So that’s to do with Coulomb’s law, the distance from the nuclei
to the outermost electron, and core charge, so they will determine how strong, how
much energy is required to remove that electron. (T5)
With practice Tajinder became adept at applying the electrostatic model in the
context of ionization energies, as for example when recognizing that the ‘repulsion
between these two electrons’ in the helium atom would reduce the ionization
energy ‘compared with the helium ion which had just one electron’ (T7). By the
end of his first year Tajinder was also using electrostatic ideas to explain the shapes
of molecules. So in tetrachloromethane ‘the chlorine would stick out where they
have the least repulsion between the four, so where the repulsions equal out’ (T9).

Tajinder acquired new concepts which supported electrostatic discussions


of bonding
During his college chemistry course Tajinder acquired a range of new concepts.
Two of these are of particular significance when considering his developing under-
standing of bonding. These key concepts were electronegativity and electron den-
sity. Tajinder was able to relate these ideas to other recently acquired concepts
such as electron orbitals and core charge. In his second term Tajinder used difference
in electronegativity as a criterion for the type of bonding between atoms (T2). By
his third term Tajinder was using the concept of electron density and was distin-
guishing between the overall pattern of electron density and the instantaneous
pattern: so he could explain why neutral neon atoms would attract each other (T3).
A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 747

By the end of his first year Tajinder was able to relate these new concepts to
underlying electrostatic principles. He explained that ‘you can work out the elec-
tron density, how much the electrons are attracted to one side’. The result could be
‘ionic bonding because the electrons are attracted to one side more than an other’.
Alternatively, when bonds were formed between ‘the same type of atom, they have
equal pull on the electrons, showing the electron density is smeared out equally,
showing it is covalently bonded’. However, Tajinder now recognized that ‘nor-
mally compounds are polar, which is something in between’. This occurred as
electronegativity values were ‘similar, but not the same’, showing that ‘one has a
greater attraction to pull in the electron’ (T8). So, for example, in the bond
between lithium and iodine,
the electrons are free to move around the lithium and the iodine, but they’re closer
attracted to the iodine, than they are to lithium, but the electrons are not completely
removed from the lithium . . . iodine has got a higher high electronegativity value so it
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attracts the electrons more than lithium . . . the iodine has got a much greater core
charge. (T9)

Tajinder related the notion of electron density to his developing knowledge of


atomic orbitals. He recognized that full sub-shells implied a spherical pattern of
electron density. In an s-orbital ‘the electrons when they spread out they form a
sphere shape’, and in a species such as neon ‘that has filled up all its p-orbitals,
then the six electrons it contains in the p-orbitals also form a sphere, because the
placement of each, if you smear it all out, it forms a sphere as well’ (T5).
Tajinder explained that some atoms do not have a spherical pattern of electron
density, e.g. fluorine was ‘missing an electron’ and the other electrons could not
move over to make up for this ‘because they’re placed in a certain orbital’ (T5).
Tajinder considered the electron density in these cases to manifest ‘gaps’, through
which the ‘the attraction from the nucleus can attract electrons’ from other species
(T9). He also recognized that van der Waals’ forces would act in a similar way, due
to ‘certain gaps’ that would appear for an ‘instant’ (T9).
As Tajinder became more familiar with the notion of electron density he
started to think of chemical reactions as leading to changes in electron density
patterns. When he was unable to explain why chemical reactions should occur in
terms of his octet rule explanatory principle, he experimented with the modified
idea that the atoms desired more electron density. So to explain the interaction
between the hydrogen and chlorine molecules in figure 3, Tajinder suggested that
whereas in the chlorine molecule there was ‘the same amount of electron density
around each chlorine’, what the chlorine atom ‘wants really is to gain more of the
electrons to itself . . . So the chlorine reacts with the hydrogen so therefore it can
pull in more electrons towards itself, and therefore feel more stable’ (T11).
This first attempt was not related to any underlying physical mechanism.
However, whereas explaining reactions in terms of a desire for full shells did not
pertain to physical causes, notions about changes in electron density could be
related to electrostatic concepts such as core change. For example, Tajinder
described how the electron density around a hydrogen atom ‘instead of being
spherical it’s being changed’ when the atom was part of a water molecule. This
was ‘due to the influence of the oxygen’ atom which had ‘the ability to pull more
electrons towards itself . . . due to electronegativity value, because it’s got a large
nucleus, with more positive things in it’ (T19).
748 K. TABER

Talk of atoms ‘needing’ electron density could act as a bridge between viewing
chemistry in terms of desires and using electrostatic ideas. Even anthropomorphic
or teleological explanations in terms of electron density gave Tajinder opportu-
nities to practice the language of forces:
in the chlorine atom there are seven electrons in its outermost shell, so there’s like a
gap where another electron should be placed to have perfect spherical density around
the nucleus, so as there’s an electron missing there’s sort of a gap that appears, and
that gap is where an electron should [sic] be, so due to the electronegativity of chlorine
if another electron from another species appears, somewhere nearby, and can fill that
gap, then the chlorine would pull it in to have spherical density, or so it thinks it’s got
spherical density. (T17)

Discussion
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In this paper some key aspects of Tajinder’s case have been identified. It is sug-
gested that Tajinder’s developing understanding of the chemical bond concept
may be largely explained in terms of a transition between the use of two explana-
tory principles. Tajinder commenced his college chemistry course with his octet
rule explanatory principle which had its origins in ideas he had studied in school.
He was familiar with the application of this principle, and confident in its power to
explain chemical bonds. Indeed, it was a principle of considerable simplicity,
which he was able to apply to a wide range of covalent and ionic bonds that he
had considered to this point in his studies. Tajinder found his octet rule principle
provided the basis of a framework for thinking about bonding which would seem
to him to be consistent, parsimonious and comprehensive.
The study of college level chemistry changed the conceptual ecology in which
Tajinder’s octet rule principle had to operate. During the two years of his course
Tajinder was exposed to many hours of teacher-talk, as well as discussions with
peers and interaction with various textual materials. His impressions of these
experiences would have contributed to the cognitive resources he had available
at various times during the course, and his teachers’ explanations would have acted
as models for his own answers to chemistry questions. Tajinder’s conceptual ecol-
ogy would have evolved during the period that the case study was undertaken.
New examples of stable molecules were met (such as PCl5 ) that did not satisfy
the octet criterion for stability. New categories of bond (e.g. dative, hydrogen-
bonding) were discussed which did not make sense in terms of his extant expla-
natory principle. A focus on the molecular or ionic nature of rectants led to an
awareness of species satisfying the octet criterion but still being reactive (e.g. F2 ).
He discovered there were new properties of bonds (such as polarity) to be
explained, where the octet principle was of no value. Tajinder had reasons to be
dissatisfied with existing conceptual schemes.
A focus on the relationship between structure and properties led to an aware-
ness that Tajinder’s conception of the ionic bond did not explain the structural
coherence of the ionic lattice. Tajinder experienced cognitive dissonance when he
tried to define the ionic bond as electron transfer and to explain how an ion could
bond equally to several neighbours. He met similar problems when trying to
explain how ionic precipitates form. Tajinder’s re-description of the ionic lattice
in anthropomorphic language (atoms not knowing or caring where electrons had
moved from and to), like his notion of atoms desiring more electron density, may be
A CASE STUDY OF CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT 749

considered to exemplify Taber and Watts (1996) notion of weak anthropomorph-


ism (where understanding begins at a descriptive level, and the anthropomorphic
language acts as a temporary scaffolding for the description until more causal
understanding is in place).
Collectively the novel categories of bond type, new properties to be explained,
and examples of stable species not satisfying the octet principle (and reactive
species that did follow the rule) provided a new niche in cognitive structure for
a novel form of bonding explanation to evolve.
At the same time Tajinder came to use the familiar notion of electrostatic
forces in a range of novel contexts such as explaining patterns in ionization energy
and molecular shapes. He was also introduced to a range of new ‘conceptual tools’
(Taber 1995a) that were used in college chemistry. Electronic orbitals, and related
ideas (such as quantum shells and sub-shells) provided a new way of looking at
atomic structures, and provided a basis for reconceptualizing electrons as clouds of
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electron density. The concept of ‘core charge’ provided a way of conceptualizing


atomic structure which made a Coulombic analysis simpler. The notion of elec-
tronegativity could explain bond polarity, whilst being itself explainable in elec-
trostatic terms. These changes in Tajinder’s conceptual ecology provided fertile
‘ground’ for the development of his Coulombic forces explanatory principle.
Tajinder was able to explore this new conceptual ‘landscape’, and try out new
forms of explanation. So, for example, when explanations in terms of atoms striv-
ing for octets were inadequate, he would try out alternative conjectures, such as
atoms striving for more electron density. Although such ideas were formally incor-
rect, they had greater potential for being developed into explanations in terms of
physical forces: i.e. they were able to act as intermediate conceptions on an appro-
priate conceptual trajectory (Driver, Leach et al. 1994).
The successful use of electrostatic explanations in other aspects of chemistry
(atomic structure, ionization energies, molecular shape), the exposure to electro-
static discussions of bonding in class, the acquisition of new conceptual tools which
could be understood in electrostatic terms (core charge, electronegativity), and the
presence of an increasing range of problematic bonding questions (categories of
bond, and examples of chemical species and reactions that did not fit the existing
explanation) provided the niche in which Tajinder could try out his new
Coulombic forces explanatory principle for bonding. Tajinder had plenty of
scope to relate electrostatic notions of bonding to existing areas of cognitive struc-
ture, and to familiar examples.
Tajinder soon found that the Coulombic forces explanatory principle was
successful in explaining types of bond, such as van der Waals’ forces, that made
little sense in octet terms. The new principle could also explain such ‘discrepan-
cies’ as why an ion forms bonds with several neighbours, how a bond could be
intermediate between ionic and covalent, and why a species with an octet might
form a dative bond.
As he became experienced and confident using such explanations, Tajinder
found that his new explanatory principle could encompass examples that did fit his
octet principle as well as those that did not. Having gradually built up an under-
standing of, and familiarity, with an electrostatic basis for explaining ‘problematic’
instances of chemical bonding, he was able to see this principle as an alternative
way of thinking about more familiar examples.
750 K. TABER

In terms of Strike and Posner’s (1985, 1992) criteria for accommodation to


occur, Tajinder had reason to be dissatisfied with existing conceptual schemes, he
had ‘minimal’ understanding of the new conception from its use in other contexts
(so that it’s potential for explanation was able to be explored), the new scheme was
seen to explain the apparent discrepancies in the existing scheme, and the new
conceptions were ‘fruitful’, in the sense that they suggested the possibility of wider
explanatory scope.
Tajinder’s Coulombic forces explanatory principle had considerable explana-
tory breadth, and its explanations were economical, being based on a simple physi-
cal law (Coulomb’s law). The principle was also fundamentally the same as that
used to explain other, similar, phenomena: e.g. why atoms held together, patterns
in ionization energies, molecular shapes. According to Thagard (1992) the alter-
native explanation will become the preferred theory with which to operate, if it
comes to be seen as having greater ‘explanatory coherence’. In this case this pro-
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cess was not complete, but was well on course. Tajinder had started to ‘consciously
or unconsciously appreciate that these [new] accounts have greater explanatory
coherence’ (p. 258), and to ‘use the new system enough to appreciate its power’
(p. 59). One might expect that Tajinder would have undergone a substantial con-
ceptual revolution. However, this was moderated by the initial familiarity with his
existing notions, the consequent reluctance to abandon what had been perceived as
a successful explanatory principle, and his failure to integrate notions of energy
states into his Coulombic framework. As Thagard comments, a full conceptual
revolution takes years. During Tajinder’s (2 year) college chemistry course the
revolution was not completed. There is, however, clear evidence of a significant
shift in the profile of his bonding explanations.
The notion of a conceptual ecology is metaphorical, but fertile. This in-depth
case study of science learning has provided evidence to show how a learner may
simultaneously hold manifold explanatory conceptual schemes for a particular
topic area (Taber 2000a). In the present paper, evidence has been presented to
show why one of Tajinder’s explanatory principles (minimum energy) failed to put
down deep roots, and how, over time, the topology of Tajinder’s cognitive struc-
ture came to favour the growth of a new alternative scheme (Coulombic forces)
over the ‘native species’ (octet rule). This on-going conceptual revolution did not
involve a gestalt-shift between the competing conceptions, but rather a gradual
process of succession within the shifting sands of the conceptual ecology.

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