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HAN05274 Using analogy to teach complex concepts in science: The true story of 'Ellie the Electron' Dr Yvette Hancock

Dr Andrys Onsman Monash University Abstract In this paper the role of analogy in science education is examined. Analogy uses the learners existing knowledge to generate new understandings in conceptually difficult areas of science. A fundamental requirement of the analogous process is the conscious maintenance of the essential integrity of the concept: the common ground needs to be truthful regardless of the complexity of the analogy. One of most conceptually difficult areas in science, quantum physics, is defined through statistical probabilities. Because we have no direct experience of the quantum world there is no other option but to describe it through analogy and metaphor. Generally, the verification of analogy depends entirely upon confirmation. In quantum physics no such verification is possible and therefore learning depends solely upon abstracted thought rather than direct observation. By articulating the systematic mapping of the analogous process this paper proposes a model of cognition that suggests the learning of science is likely to be context dependent rather than exclusively developmental. This paper argues that by using such a methodology even the most complex scientific concepts can be taught effectively. To exemplify this, the paper examines the teaching efficacy of quantum mechanics to pre-operational children through the example of Ellie the Electron.

Introduction The use of non-literal language to explain scientific concepts has been the subject of pedagogic research since the early 1960s (Kuhn 1962). It has often been at odds with the use of figurative language to express aesthetic ideas. Lynne Cameron (1996) suggests that the more prosaic use to which analogies are put in the sciences lies on a cognitive continuum that has their poetic use in the arts at the other end. This suggestion neatly accommodates Lakoff & Johnsons (1980) notion that we come to understand the world around us through the analogies we use. That principle applies also in science. Gibbs (1994) supports Cameron with the observation that not all analogies are creatively figurative but when used to instruct are often quite mundane, idiomatic and conventional. Churchland (1989) argues that both extremes of the continuum can co-exist even when the poetic is seemingly at odds with the prosaic. An astronomer can still

respond to the comparison of Juliet to the sun even though his day job is to study its flare-ups: it wont necessarily mean that he imagines she has spots. The usual purpose for using analogies in science is to elucidate and facilitate particular understandings; it neednt do so at the expense of other interpretations. Multiple understandings can coexist. Scientific concepts are consistently described as challenging to learn and difficult to teach. Secondary school teachers often resort to using analogies to facilitate understanding (Glynn, 1997; Venville & Treagust, 1997; Dagher 1995), an approach that has met with greater success than using literal explications (Yanowitz, 2003). Their use is noticeably less in Primary school (Glynn & Takahashi, 1998; Goswani, 1991) and is virtually indiscernible in early childhood education. The two most commonly given reasons for this is that young children are assumed to have a limited knowledge base and are therefore incapable of comprehending the analogy. Yanowitz (2003) demonstrated that third grade children can accurately answer inferential questions about a science concept that they had learnt analogically. Whilst that in itself is a long way from indicating that they therefore had a complete and exhaustive understanding of that concept, it does indicate that even young children can broaden their conceptual base and generate some inferences about it. Yanowitz study supports the notion that analogies used in instruction tend to work best when they make explicit the commonalities of the source concept and the target concept. Elaborated analogies tend to be more effective when explaining scientific concepts because they allow the learner to predict which as the basis of establishing causal relationships is one of the key scientific skills. Further, in this paper we propose that a fundamental requirement of elaborated analogies is that they have an essential integrity. By this we mean that its core commonality needs to be verifiably accurate regardless of the level at which it is pitched. Whilst at first glance this may seem to be a truism, it is in fact a cornerstone of most models of the analogical process (Gentner 1989). It allows the range of analogies used to teach a particular scientific concept to become increasingly more complex as the learner becomes more capable of understanding it more deeply. A simple analogy used to introduce a concept in early childhood education needs to have the same essential integrity as the most complex analogy used to explicate that same concept to post-graduates. In simple terms those post-graduates should be able to recognise such essential integrity in the analogy used by the pre-schoolers.

The analogical process in science education. According to Glynn (1991), at its simplest, analogy is the process of identifying similarities between different concepts. Certainly the analogical process could not be engaged unless some sort of similarity was perceived, but it tells us little about what the process actually is. Onsman (1989) argued that it is a cognitive process, procedurally consistent with other cognitive processes, which calls upon cognitively familiar aspects to be recast in unfamiliar roles. Whilst the effectiveness of learning new concepts when they are directly linked to existing knowledge has long been

accepted (Glynn & Takahashi, 1998; Harrison & Treagust, 1993), such a model of analogy assumes conceptualisation as a flooding rather than a linear process. For nearly fifty years (Oppenheimer, 1956) science educators have been concerned with how children use analogies to create new understandings in science. The vast majority of that interest and research has focused on empirical methods of analysis and understanding. This aligns with their positioning on Camerons cognitive continuum at the prosaic end. Harrison (2002) however points out that the ability of analogies to raise students interest levels is at times more important in the motivation for learning. Inherent in that notion is the suggestion that analogies matched to developmental levels are more likely to result in effective learning partially because they are more likely to be interesting and accessible to the learner. The purpose of analogy in science education is to effect conceptual change: specifically in terms of a new or altered understanding. For such a change to be effected the new understanding needs to be consistent with the existing cognitive framework (Gilhooly, 1986). Of course, not everything that is to be learnt or understood as a result of the analogical process will always pre-exist in the learners cognition. There will be occasions when new data needs to be processed for learning to occur. As Nersessian (1998) points out, conceptual change is rarely a sudden insight and most often the result of extended incremental resolutions of perceived gaps in understanding. For this reason, Glynn and Takahashi (1998) suggested that although it may be possible for sixth grade students to learn scientific concepts through analogies if they were taught how to the process works, as a teaching strategy it is problematic in the lower grades. They argue that at such an age children may not be developmentally ready to deep learn complex concepts, and often resort to rote learning individual instances rather than being able to transfer understanding to other situations. We disagree and draw attention back to the fundamental purpose for using analogy in science teaching: to effect a desired and planned change in cognitive, and even affective, behaviour. Given that linguistic development, cognitive development (assuming they are not the same) and conceptual development will limit the complexity of the learning in (theoretically) absolute terms and therefore temper the analogical process, we maintain that the process can be used effectively at any age. Theoretically, it is possible to teach pre-operational children the rudiments of quantum mechanics: as long as the essential integrity of the subject matter are maintained (i.e. whatever is taught has to be true) and the teaching strategy and material are accessible and meaningful to the child. To demonstrate how this might be done we need to first consider the two pre-conditions in some detail. What are the characteristics and assumed capacities for conceptual discourse (Widdowson, 1984) of a young child? What are the essential concepts of Quantum Mechanics that need to maintain integrity? We deal with these questions in some detail.

Learning and the pre-operational child.

Much of the current thought in developmental psychology can be traced back to Piagets observational studies and extrapolations: either as a progression of it or a reaction to it. The most contested aspect of his model is the existence of developmental stages, and yet however much contradictory evidence is presented, stages have become almost ubiquitous in the language of early childhood education. According to Piaget, children operating at the sensori-motor stage are conceptually limited to the present. Their responses to stimuli will remain purely reflexive until, through repetition, a mental loop is created that allows particular responses to be made without the stimulus being present as long as the loop has been accessed. In terms of conceptual development, it means that children can imagine doing something without actually doing it. Imagination is the threshold concept for the pre-operational stage that usually starts around eighteen to twenty-four months of age. Along with imagination, the development of prediction (the ability to remember past events and use them to speculatively verify potential outcomes) becomes apparent. Despite the acquisition of a rudimentary representational ability, pre-operational thought is limited to observation, rather than logic. Further it is uni-dimensional in the sense that the pre-operational child tends to think about a single aspect at a time. The often-cited water conservation test of the same amount of liquid in different width glasses is an indication of uni-dimensionality. Pre-operational children usually also have difficulty grasping that processes are reversible, and usually accept objects as static configurations. When these conceptual limitations are overcome, they are considered to have progressed to the concrete operational stage. Whilst there is much in Piagetian thought that has advanced our understanding of cognitive development, current notions of learning are most often based on theories that place the existence of mental schemata at the heart of cognitive development. In common with Piagets model, Schema theories argue that knowledge is constructed through an ordered system of schemes, concepts, and structures. But unlike Piaget, most Schema theorists see no evidence of stages. Learning occurs when new information is accommodated in the existing schemata or the new knowledge is such an aberration that the schemata themselves have to be altered. Schema theorists suggest that having such schema allows us to predict and consequently verify (or not) new knowledge. Verification indicates that the new information has been schematised, and thereby has become knowledge. Of course the reverse is that there may be times when an erroneous schema incorrectly influences our interpretation of new information, and we acquire unsubstantiated knowledge or simply misunderstand. Schema theorists assert that through their activities and interactions with the world children will construct mental precursors to schemata that will facilitate more and more complex interactions until they are capable of developing fully-developed concepts and (propositional) knowledge. Whereas initially everything is reflexive, when children becomes pre-operational, they become capable of constructing objective achieving strategies that they can transfer across a range of similar situations. In effect, actions have a certain logical structure to them that serve as a template for conceptual relations.

Schema theorists argue that whenever a child assimilates new information, it will insert its own ideas into what it perceives as reality. Accommodating new information happens readily when the childs existing schemata are more or less direct copies of reality. On the other hand, confronting discrepant ideas is absolutely essential for knowledge growth. If a child never experiences or hears information that contradicts the erroneous ideas that he or she has constructed previously, he or she is unlikely to develop more accurate conceptions later. According to Cognitive Flexibility Theory (Spiro & Jehng, 1991) effective learning has the ability to represent knowledge from different conceptual and case perspectives and then, when the knowledge must later be used, the ability to construct from those different conceptual and case representations a knowledge ensemble tailored to the needs of the understanding or problem-solving situation at hand. (Spiro et al, 1991, p24). In summary, because assimilation and accommodation are contradictory processes, only one can be the driver of any specific learning situation: either the child incorporates the new information into the existing schemata or it changes the schemata entirely. Schema theory often refers to two types of schemata: one for objects and one for events (events schemata are also referred to as scripts). In simple terms a schema is a mental representation of what all instances of something have in common, and as such they function to categorise experiences. Having the essential characteristics as a guide also allows reference to a specific schema being used as a predictor. A child could for example predict how an unknown dog is likely to act by referring to the stored information in the schema of dog. This process can be abstracted to the point where a wagging tail or an empty dog-bed can stimulate the thought of a dog, even when no dog is visible. Because repetition is generally considered to be the process whereby new schemata are created, it is unsurprising that teaching at the earliest stages is based upon the solving of many of the same type of problem until the penny drops or a schema has been formed. In a sense this is initially more akin to conditioning than meta-cognition, which seems to run counter to the assertion that schemata are formed through abstraction. Regardless, most Schema Theorists agree that because schema are at times forced to incorporate increasingly complex conceptual detail, infrequently accessed specifics are less readily available for recall. A further aspect of cognition that most Schema Theorists agree upon is that there exist personally relevant and meaningful relationships between what may be logically disparate ideas. Such links are constructed by each individuals experience, which in turn will filter what data is accepted as information to be internalised as knowledge: in simple terms, learners tend to most readily accept information that fits existing schema. According to Schema Theory, learners (subconsciously) select from received data. Because short-term memory is limited, the information once internalised becomes abbreviated or trimmed of non-essential excess. Whereas it was initially considered that the excess was simply lost, studies have shown that when pressed children can in fact recall accurate details. To explain this, Schema Theory introduced the notion of rather than losing detail, the more relevant specifics are assigned prominence according to the defining characteristics of individual schema. Memories arent so much distorted as they are assigned different prominences.

Where this occurs, the new knowledge is stored in existing schema, which is in effect an interpretative process. One of the drivers of this process is that existing schema allow unexperienced aspects to be completed. The schema dog allows the child to complete the dog even though only its tail is visible. Obversely, this also means that the child can be fooled by a fake tail. When such an event, whether through misinterpretation or deception, can be internalised through a different, unanticipated schema it often produces amusement or amazement. From the pedagogic point of view, of greatest interest is how schema change, because that, in essence, is learning. The accommodation of new information into existing schema is called accretion when it is simply adding a new aspect to a schema such as learning that vermilion is a shade of red and tuning when it involves changing a part of the schema such as learning that red as a colour has a distinct impact on the observer. Tuning is a larger, more structural change than accretion. Altering the entire schema is called restructuring, which as the name implies involves reorganising the entire set of schemata, mental relationships and associations that form a schema. Of particular interest to this paper is the restructuring that happens in the process of creating entirely new schema through analogies to existing schema. Using Piagetian terminology, restructuring occurs when perceived similarities are replaced by abstracted similarities as the defining characteristics of schema during the change from pre-operational to concrete operational. Whilst Schema Theory does not suggest that accretion, tuning and restructuring are mechanisms of developmental change, it is pedagogically interesting to understand that cognition can change in a number of ways. Schema Theory is the cornerstone of deep and surface learning. It suggests that learning is more effective when schema are purposefully changed; that is, when students are encouraged to form scripts. To do that, teachers should have students experience multiple versions of the same concept or event and assist the student to identify the common characteristics so that they can form rudimentary and propositional abstractions. If this can be done by reference to appropriate existing schema, learning will happen more quickly. Therefore students with more schemas are more likely to be able to refer to an existing schema for an appropriate blueprint for the new schema. Hence we have one of the principal reasons why learning through analogy is more likely to result in effective and long-term learning: it is one way in which existing schema can be accessed and used to internalise new information. According to this model, teachers can refer to existing schema when introducing a new learning objective. If the thing to be learnt is completely new, meaning that students cant be reasonably expected to have an appropriate schema, the teacher can use an advance organiser (an indication of how the learning objective is similar enough to a known referent) to stimulate analogical reasoning. Whilst not necessarily precise, it should allow a dialogue to occur. Electricity may not actually behave like water in a tap, but there are enough similarities to allow a conversation to happen. In summation, because it is based on the notion of learning as construction, Schema theory emphasises the role of repetition and practice as well as reflection and abstraction. The construction of knowledge and understanding is principally a connective process to existing schema. Conceptual knowledge acquisition is often a laborious process rather than a flash of insight, although both are accommodated by

the theory. Therefore it is imperative that the knowledge that is taught be fundamentally accurate (even at the pre-operational stage) because it will form schema into which future knowledge will be organised.

Purpose Even if it is considered possible to teach Quantum Physics to pre-operational children, it seems reasonable to ask why. We are principally university lecturers and researchers dealing with the most complex of conceptual understanding so why are we looking at pre-operational children? The answer lies to a great degree in what is being taught, in the sense that the answer ought to be because it is appropriate and beneficial to the child. There seems to us to be little value in facilitating learning that is of no value to the child. We need to enter a cautionary note at this point. It is a truism to say that words can shape thoughts and ideas. Quantum Physics deals with sub-atomic particles. Atomist Theory is, in Science, a cohesive approach to understanding. It is a systemic approach that incorporates facts and laws and tested hypotheses; accepted knowledge that will explain specific phenomena in various circumstances. In Education, Atomistic Education is generally seen as being in opposition to Holistic Education; an approach to learning that consists of separate, often disparate elements (Margetson, 2001). Atomistic Education has been described as alienating us from one another (Corcoran & Sievers, 1994). Quantum Physicists would argue that the entire universe and everything in it is interconnected at the atomic and sub-atomic levels and it is in fact difficult to see how that could be anything but holistic. The point here is not that scientists argue that educationists have got it wrong but that words have consequences. To delve a little further, Quantum Physics is generally considered to be beyond the grasp of most people, even if it is in fact the basis of our existence. There are, we suggest, several reasons for that. First, there is no direct correspondence between the observable world and the sub-atomic world. We will return to that point later in this paper. Second, the codification of the concepts that underpin Quantum Physics rely upon new meanings assigned to existing words, words that were coined to describe the observable world. Those words therefore have to work differently when used in Quantum Physics. Our argument is that if we can familiarise children with the extended meanings of those words then we are laying the groundwork for conceptual understanding. A current analogy might be the sign consisting of a triangle above a bar. It is found on most electronic gadgetry and indicates that by pushing on a button thus signed, you will cause something to be ejected. That sign represents a process that did not exist fifty years ago, even though the components, a bar and a triangle, did. Whilst the concept of ejection might be considered too complex to teach to pre-operational children, the sign needs to be familiar to them as soon as they need to eject DVDs, CDs or whatever amuses contemporary five year olds.

In general terms we are suggesting that introducing children to the extended meanings of words at the time they are formalising their language schema may reduce the confusions that can occur when discipline specific meanings are attached to general words. This, as Chomsky (1966) suggests, is not a new idea. If there is an interrelation between language and mind and language is the best indicator of mental processing, then conversely language will also have a defining effect on mental processing. A limited (discipline specific) lexicon will therefore mean limitations in understanding. There is general support to this argument. Fifty years ago mobile phones were generally thought to be an impossibility: now they are not only ubiquitous in the Western World, but accepted as a given by most. The rate of acceptance and normalisation of change has almost caught up to the rate of change itself. Although the technology that drives it remains a mystery to most, the fact that it works suffices as a driver of acceptance. The mystery, we suggest, is in part due to the fact that none but the developers were prepared for the technological change: schools in the mid 1950s didnt teach the language and basic concepts of radio-waves to young children because when it was considered at all, it was considered to be too complex and unlikely to be of benefit. It was best left to the boffins. We suggest that such a patronising attitude has now been shown to be detrimental. Instead, we suggest that in fifty years from now, Quantum Physics will have solved problems that we havent even encoded yet, and todays pre-operational child will be at the forefront of that development. Hopefully the language and basic concepts will have been familiar for a long time. A third reason for introducing the language and basic concepts of Quantum Physics as early as possible is that according to Schema Theory, adult schema tend to increasingly adopt exclusion as a barrier to change. In simple terms this means that children are generally more prepared to accept contradictory information than adults. This becomes manifest in set ideas and opinions, a reliance on stereotypes and even external cues. Curiosity as one of the defining characteristics of creativity is often thought to be limited in adulthood to artists (Adams-Price 1998; McCormick and Plugge 1997; Runco 1996). Conversely children are generally assumed to have it in spades. Neither of those statements are absolutes but according to Schema Theory they do indicate that in general adults may have more rigid schema than children. Children are thought to be more ready to accept curiosity, unconventional thinking, and tolerance of ambiguity as drivers for conceptualisation (Adams-Price 1998; Albert 1996). These are, we suggest, the exact criteria quantum physicists rely upon to conceptualise the sub-atomic world. The fourth reason why we believe it beneficial to introduce the language and basic concepts of quantum physics to pre-operational children is related to the third. Adults tend to develop and deal with increasingly abstracted concepts. Data processing tends to happen more in terms of matching defining characteristics than categorising observable data (Onsman 2004; Onsman 1989). Such categorisation processes tend to have a superficial default operating level: sense-making is only as deep as it needs to be to progress the data processing procedure. In Higher Education this is well known and contextual cueing is used regularly to indicate the level of conceptual complexity expected. In pre-operational children, there is no such tendency because most, if not all input is immediate and self-referential. Whatever is before the child will be literally accepted at face value regardless of whether it is contradictory. Unlike in

the adult world, an object can be two things at once without having to consciously suspend disbelief. In that way, the childs conceptual world is closer to the sub-atomic world than the adults. We argue that given that the data is tempered to match the childs learning capabilities and given that the data retains its essential integrity in scientific terms, the language and basic concepts of Quantum Physics are not only accessible but beneficial to the pre-operational child.

The Essential Concepts of Quantum Mechanics Storying, particularly with a driving narrative has long been assumed as an effective means of engaging pre-operational children because they are perceptually bound to physical attributes either observed or recognised. Our argument is that as long as the essential integrity is maintained (or in this case the rudimentary, underlying scientific principles are correct) then simple schema (i.e. one that can be tuned, rather than restructured, later) can be established. The Ellie the Electron stories written by Yvette Hancock aim to stimulate the childs imagination through the use of strong characterisation and story telling. At the same time, they are stories that encapsulate the essential physics of quantum mechanics. There are several examples of this throughout the books. In Figure 1, the area encompassed by the red line that signifies 90% probability (the probability circle) is (roughly) termed an electron cloud. Ellie the Electron, who is the main character of these books, is defined as a cloud with fuzzy edges. The description taken directly from quantum theory matches the one given in the book isomorphically.

Figure 1- Probability plots for a hydrogen electron are shown in (a). Note the area represented by 90% probability. The point of highest probability for a hydrogen electron occurs at about 0.053 x 10-9m from the nucleus (b) (

How are children likely to interpret the description presented in the books? If our concern with essential integrity is to become manifest in the childs understanding we might reasonably expect to be able to observe specific outcomes in how they

conceptualise Ellie. During the preliminary investigation, a child, when asked to draw a picture of Ellie after reading the text of the book, drew Figure 2.

Figure 2- a drawing of Ellie the Electron made by an 8 year old child

In the drawing the child demonstrates an understanding of a number of the key concepts pertaining to the physics description given in this book. Ellie is drawn as a cloud, and further has added arrows denoting that she is spinning in one direction only. In the book Ellie says that she only spins one way, and an understanding of this complex concept is readily evident in the drawing. Further preliminary work done with children four and five years of age indicated they had learnt some basic language of Quantum Physics. For example they were able to say the words electron, spin and other quantum physics terms introduced in the story. They demonstrated an understanding of the size of the quantum (atomic) world. Furthermore, they were able to begin to rationalise specific constructs. One child wanted to know how old the electron was. Is it five years old?, he asked. No, another little boy said. It cannot be five years old as it is very, very small. Such conceptualisation of size being related to age can be argued to be an example of rudimentary and personally relevant abstraction. This is an important aspect because the stories engage the children with quantum theory by means of transporting the child into another world; the world of the very, very small. The childs engagement is maintained through the characterization in the book. Ellie appears to be a regular little girl, with a personality she gets up to mischief, however her world is different to ours and runs on different rules that of quantum theory. Uncertainty is a defining feature of where she lives, which is another of Quantum Physics essential truths: as figure 1 indicates, the quantum world is probabilistic. The fact that children play with the ideas in the Ellie the Electron series is part of the learning process. The books are not didactic texts: they are not science textbooks. Rather they are storybooks: dialectic, suggestive, informative, encouraging responses, stimulating imagination and co-incidentally preparing the child for future discoveries in the field of quantum theory. The books are designed to entertain but that is not to

say that because of that, they contradict the principles of the scientific process. Using either descriptors or representations, scientists build models to codify their understanding at any given stage. As understanding changes, these models are altered. The books mimic the scientific process. As the child develops, their ideas on quantum theory will evolve in order to accommodate an increased understanding of the topic. They will operate increasingly less in the imaginative process as a more rigorous understanding of the theory develops. In developmental terms, their schema will be accreted and tuned as they need to accommodate more complex models and conceptual understandings, and vice versa: as their schema become more finely tuned they will be able to develop more complex models and conceptual understandings. This model of cognition aligns with the Dynamicist Theory which sees cognition as a multidimensional space of all possible thoughts and behaviors that is traversed by a path of thinking (Van Gelder & Port, 1995). Ellie introduces a language base for quantum theory. It is reasonable to expect that words such as spin, cloud and hop are familiar to the child. However, the books elaborate on their standard meaning and add a sub-atomic aspect to them. These words are genuine Quantum Physics terms, and familiarity with their extended meanings will prepare the child for future understandings. Our argument is that with familiarity with the language and ideas will come a more intuitive and deeper understanding of Quantum Physics. The question we have posed is whether pre-operational children can learn sophisticated science concepts and what benefit that would have. We have posited the notion that as long as the essential integrity of the scientific concepts is maintained and the material is presented in such a way that accommodates the childs learning capacity, children can learn the basic concepts and language of the most complex scientific concepts. The benefits to the child are manifold; facilitating a familiarity with Science that may go some way to preventing the often reported disenchantment with the discipline that becomes evident in late primary and early secondary school children. We have argued that such a negative attitude towards Science can be changed all we need to do is spin it the right way.

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