Conceptual Change by Metaphorical Change

Gemeinschaftsprojekt mit der Leibniz Universität Hannover und der Curtin University of Technology Perth

Teaching scientific conceptions and competences is the main focus of science educators and researchers in science education. Based on conceptual change research, several theories have been developed describing teaching and learning of different scientific phenomena. Additionally, within conceptual change research the epistemological role of metaphors and analogies came into the focus of researchers in science education in the recent years.
Results of former studies dealing with metaphors in science education show ambivalent results. The planned research project aims on a reanalysis of studies using imagination in the form of metaphors and analogies for teaching science. The project aims to use a cognitive metaphor theory to evaluate if and how principles for successful metaphors in teaching science can be found. Therefore, the perspective of experientialism is used to reanalyse the results of different studies with a theoretical approach. In a concluding article about metaphors and analogies in science education Harrison and Treagust (2006) raise the question: Who and what decides about when an analogy or metaphor becomes fruitful in the process of teaching science? This question leads the structure of this research project.
Based on the cooperation between the working groups of Harald Gropengießer (Hannover, Germany) and David Treagust (Perth, Australia), who are acknowledged as leading experts for the role of metaphors in science education, we intend to show how metaphor analysis can be implemented into the conceptual change research.

Theoretical background

Conceptual change is a basal framework in science education

Research on students’ and teachers’ conceptions and their roles in teaching and learning science has become one of the most important domains of science education research during the past three decades. Findings from many studies show that students come into science classes with pre-instructional knowledge or beliefs about the phenomena and concepts to be taught. Students already hold deeply rooted conceptions and ideas that are often not compatible with the science views or do not provide sufficient information to explain a certain biological phenomenon adequately. These alternative conceptions are mostly rooted in everyday-experience and informal learning settings. Five theoretical approaches shape the conceptual change framework: epistemological (Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982), ontological (Chi, Slotta, & de Leeuw, 1994) and a socio-affective conceptual change (Pintrich, 1993) as well as the model of framework theory and content theory (Vosniadou, 1994, 2002) and the theory of conceptual change as striving for coherence (diSessa, 1993; diSessa & Sherin, 1998).
The term conceptual change is ambiguous from a theoretical and empirical point of view: Conceptual change as being an exchange of pre-instructional conceptions for scientific concepts is a perspective that is not compatible with the state of research in science education and educational psychology. The term conceptual reconstruction seems more appropriate to emphasize the process of construction in the acquisition of scientific adequate knowledge (Duit & Treagust, 2008; Kattmann, 2008; Niebert, 2010).

Conceptual change is merely successful in teaching science

In many recent studies it became obvious that after instruction students’ conceptual progress towards understanding and learning science concepts and principles quite frequently turned out to be limited (Duit & Treagust, 1998). There appears to be no study which found that a particular student’s conception could be completely extinguished and then replaced by the science view (Duit & Treagust, 2003). Indeed, most studies show that the old ideas stay alive in particular contexts. Usually the best that could be achieved is a ‘peripheral conceptual change’ (Chinn & Brewer, 1993) in that parts of the initial idea merge with parts of the new idea to form some sort of hybrid idea (Gilbert, Osborne, & Fensham, 1982) or they open up new synthetic conceptions (Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992).
Thus conceptual change research seems to be very fruitful in explaining how learning science is fostered or hindered by certain factors. But it often misses the technical facets of a theory: Creating successful learning environments.

Metaphors are a relevant factor in science education

In addition to classical conceptual change approaches, the role of metaphors and analogies in teaching and learning science has been evaluated in recent years. Much of the research to date has focused on how teachers understand and use analogies (Marsch, 2009; Treagust, Duit, Joslin, & Lindauer, 1992), however, students’ interpretation of teaching analogies deserve equal attention (Dagher, 1995; Gick & Holyoak, 1983). Thus Harrison and Treagust (2006) raise a further question about metaphor research: “Do students see, interpret and apply analogies in the way intended by teachers and textbook writers?”

Metaphors are more than linguistic phenomena

Most of the studies dealing with the relevance of metaphors and analogies in science education conceptualise metaphors and analogies as teaching tools. But since the mid-twentieth century, philosophers have shown that metaphors and analogies permeate all discourse, are fundamental to human thought and provide a basis for mental leaps (Johnson, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Similarly, the potential contribution of metaphor and analogy to cognitive learning has attracted the attention of the science education research community (Gentner & Stevens, 1983; Gropengießer, 1999, 2007). The first important revelation is that metaphor is not merely a linguistic phenomenon. It also is a fundamental principle of thought and action.
The terms metaphor and analogy are used in a variety of ways in the science education literature, sometimes interchangeably. Usually analogies are distinguished from metaphors in the sense that in metaphor, A is said to be B but in analogy, A is like B. Experientialism does not distinguish between metaphors and analogies, thus both rely on imagination as the cognitive process employed.

Cognitive linguistics: Metaphors are crucial in understanding science

From Lakoff’s and Johnson’s perspective of experientialism thought is embodied: Our basic categories and conceptions arise out of perception, body movement, and experience with our physical and social environment. Experiences like i.e. up-down, center-periphery, front-back, inside-outside are conceptualised in schemata. For instance, our conception of “up-down” is organized as the up-down-schema which is grown directly out of our orientation on the vertical plane. There are several other schemata like container-scheme or source-path-goal-scheme (see also Lakoff, 1990), which are conceptual structures grounded in bodily experience that is understood directly. For concepts, which cannot be experienced directly – and this involves most of the scientific concepts – we need to think in an imaginative way to explain them. We employ, for instance, metaphors and analogies.
Thus, experientialism distinguishes between embodied conceptions and imaginative conceptions. The latter are not directly grounded in experience, but they draw on the structure of our experience: They use our embodied schemata to explain abstract phenomena. Thus imagination can be seen as building a bridge from our experience to abstract phenomena. We employ conceptions from a source domain (i.e. the container schema) and map it onto an abstract target domain (i.e. atmosphere) to understand abstract phenomena. Thus the use of metaphors and analogies can be defined as a source-target mapping, a mapping of experience on non-experience-able phenomena (Gropengießer, 2007, p. 267; Lakoff, 1990).

Metaphors in Conceptual change: Finding appropriate metaphors

Several studies (z.B. Amin, 2009; Brookes & Etkina, 2007; Gropengießer, 2001; Marsch, 2009; Mathewson, 2005; Niebert & Gropengießer, 2010; Riemeier & Gropengießer, 2008) show that experientialism is a productive contribution to conceptual change research: Students as well as scientists employ metaphors to understand and explain abstract phenomena. These metaphors can be used as a basis for fruitful learning. Recent researchers in science education on the roles of metaphors and analogies call them “two-edged swords” because the appropriate knowledge they generate is often accompanied by alternative conceptions. Experientialism shows that it is not a question to use metaphors in teaching and learning science. It is a question of how to use metaphors and which metaphors are appropriate.

Preliminary work

The applicant’s previous studies (Niebert & Gropengießer, 2009, 2010) focused on students’ and scientists’ conceptions on the greenhouse effect and the global carbon cycle and the interpretation of these conceptions based on experientialism (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). He analysed which experiences scientists and students refer to when understanding these two topics.
It was shown that students’ and scientists’ conceptions are very different, but that they relate to the same schemata which are rooted in experience. Even if their conceptions on global warming refer to the same schemata, they conceptualise them differently in the target domain “carbon cycle” and “greenhouse effect”.
Using this schemata, the applicant developed learning environments focussing on reflecting those imaginations that students use to understand climate change. He brought the employed schemata into existence and thus made it possible for the students to reflect upon how they might use the ideas within this domain of climate change.
Based on the applicants’ theoretical approach guided by experientialism he was able to define learning about global warming not as conceptual change but as conceptual reconstruction: Students do not change their conceptions, but they reconstruct on the source-target mapping of the schemata on which their conceptions are based . Riemeier (2005) made the hypothesis that reflecting students’ own conceptions can facilitate conceptual change. This hypothesis was supported by the applicants’ data: The reflection of the conceptions’ source domains can lead to scientifically adequate conceptions.
In his studies the applicant was not able to support the claim of Vosniadou (2009) that learning based on metaphors is not effective, because students do not recognize metaphors and thus cannot reflect them. Indeed the applicant was able to show that reflecting about the metaphors source domain guided by a teacher can induce an ontological change in argumentation on biological issues to a scientific conception.
The applicants’ results (as well as other results basing on experientialism) show that experientialism can be a fruitful addition to research on conceptual change: Students and scientists employ imagination to understand abstract scientific issues. A theory based development of metaphors and the reflection of the metaphors’ source domain helps learning science (Niebert & Gropengießer, 2010, accepted).

Aims of this research-project

The applicants’ working group has obtained very optimistic results in the use of theory-based development of metaphors for conceptual change (Niebert, 2010; Riemeier, 2005; Zabel, 2009). Other studies give a ambivalent picture: The majority of metaphors and analogies teachers use to explain scientific topics are not adopted by their students (Harrison &> de Jong, 2004) or not understood in the anticipated way (Harrison & Treagust, 2006).
The ambivalence of these data will be interpreted based on the theory of experientialism (Gropengießer, 2007; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Based on the theory of experientialism we assume that metaphors have to have a experiential basis to be effective for understanding biological topics. Thus we hypothesize that the metaphors which teachers employed in the studies of the host do not refer to a source domain that students understand directly. We assume that the source domain to which the ineffective metaphors refer have no experiential basis in the students’ conceptual system.
Based on a combination of the approaches of the host and the approaches of the applicant, experientialism as a theory of metaphor will be integrated into conceptual change research. We aim to bring the role of experience and imagination for fruitable learning in science to the attention of science educators. The theory-based development of metaphors for teaching science will be especially emphasised.

Research questions

  1. Which metaphors are effective in learning certain biological issues? Which metaphors are ineffective in learning certain biological issues?
  2. Which source domains are used by scientists and students to understand selected biological issues?
  3. How is the choice of the metaphor’s source domain connected to success in learning?


The group of the applicant as well as the group of the inviting institute has conducted research about students’ conceptions and metaphors of several biological issues. The essence of the study is a reanalysis of existing studies of metaphors in science education. Therefore the data from both working groups will be analysed from the perspective of experientialism.
The focus of the project lies on analysing the source domains of the metaphors that students, teachers and scientists use to understand a specific issue. In the context of the applicants’ and the host’s material (interviews, transcripts of science lessons), we want to clarify if the metaphors which teachers employed in teaching science fit to the experience that students need to understand these metaphors. The methodology will be guided by metaphor analysis (Schmitt, 2005, 2007). For the reanalysis, biological topics are chosen that refer to the following criteria:

  1. results published in peer-reviewed journals,
  2. results based on data that can be interpreted by experientialism (interviews, classroom observations, teaching experiments lessons transcripts etc., written texts from students etc.),
  3. available results of scientists’ metaphors in the relevant topics.

Host and applicant agreed on choosing the following topics for a reanalysis:

  1. microbiology: physiology and anatomy of cells and cell division (Riemeier & Gropengießer, 2008; Schneeweiss & Gropengiesser, 2010; Treagust, et al., 1992; Venville & Treagust, 1996)
  2. dynamic equilibriums in systems (Niebert & Gropengießer, 2010; Treagust, Chittleborough, & Mamiala, 2003; Venville & Treagust, 1996)

Previous to the research visit in Australia the projects will start with a metaphor analysis of the data published in the relevant studies.