H809: Week 4 and 5

March 2009

The first block of H809 has just finished, and I am currently recovering from completing the first assignment for the course earlier this week. For this we had to outline a research question, provide a rationale for the question based on the literature and discuss research methods. I will undoubtedly talk about this some more here at some point but for the moment I'll stick to the tasks for Week 4: to look at bibliographic tools and to read Roschelle, J. (1992) ‘Learning by collaborating: convergent conceptual change’, Journal of the Learning Sciences, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 235–76.

One great thing about the course is that it's forced me to take a proper look at bibliographic tools. At the start of the course I gave a variety a try including RefWorks and EndNote, settling on Zotero as my definite favourite, to the extent that I was a little bit puzzled as to why people would pay a small fortune for something like EndNote. I love being able to save PDFs and snapshots of web pages and it is handy being able to add notes. I've been using it in combination with the wonderful Dropbox and have had one or two synchronisation headaches, but since I've got into the habit of closing down Firefox, those are hopefully resolved. I almost got converted to Papers for the Mac several weeks ago. This looked really good at first glance,  but a combination of failing to work out how to create subfolders and not having a Mac at work (alas) means that I have resolved to stick with Zotero instead.

The Roschelle paper was an interesting read. It was a detailed study of two girls jointly working through a series of tasks related to velocity and acceleration using a computer simulation, showing how they jointly gradually came to a common understanding of the concepts. Roschelle referred to this process as 'convergent conceptual change'. The paper's thesis was the existence of this phenomenon rather than anything about how it might come about - indeed most of the others pairs in the class failed to end up with a 'correct' understanding of acceleration by the end of the set of tasks - so anybody hoping for implications for teaching would be disappointed.

The paper is written from a social constructivist viewpoint, although I'm not sure it need have been. One can have a concept of shared meaning without social constructivism, and the question under scrutiny is essentially just 'How can shared meaning come about?'. Roschelle suggests that convergent conceptual change is one way that this can happen, sitting alongside the Vygotskian idea of 'scaffolding by a more expert peer and appropriation by a less expert peer' and the Piagetian notion of cognitive conflict as a means of producing shared meaning.

This makes some sort of sense to me. I am sure that I am not alone in remembering occasions when I have collaboratively figured something out with somebody else and it being very much a joint effort with you each feeding off eachother. I would have enjoyed seeing slightly more discussion of the characteristics of conceptual change though and how you recognise when it is happening. The author essentially showed by example here, pointing out a few salient points such as the girls finishing eachother's sentences.

It's natural too to speculate as to what conditions would help incubate convergent conceptual change. I suspect trust or raport might play a vital role, but the odd spark of inspiration might also be needed to kindle the miniature chain reaction between the participants. How would one research this though? I suspect it would require examining lots of dialogues where this occurs and does occur and trying to spot patterns.

I was also struck by the the fact that the girls went through a series of concepts that were 'incorrect' before reaching the correct conception. Although a concept like acceleration is one that some people will instantly understand the first time they meet it, It's intriguing that maybe such a sequence of steps might be important in terms of helping somebody reach the stage of genuinely understanding an idea. The authors are clearly interested in how scientists go about their research and the behaviour of the girls seems to echo much of the way actual scientists work with 'figurative use of commonsense abstractions to constitute new theories'.

It was educational to see an example of a paper concentrating on such a narrow case study in such depth. I am intrigued too as to what future researchers have made of it - Google Scholar gives the paper 485 citations so I had better start reading!