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Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42

Eduardo F. Mortimer
Charbel N. El-Hani Editors

Conceptual Profiles
A Theory of Teaching and Learning
Scientific Concepts

Conceptual Profiles

Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education


VOLUME 42
SERIES EDITOR
Dana Zeidler, University of South Florida, Tampa, USA

FOUNDING EDITOR
Ken Tobin, City University of New York, USA

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Marrisa Rollnick, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Svein Sjberg, University of Oslo, Norway
David Treagust, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia
Larry Yore, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
HsingChi von Bergmann, University of Calgary, Canada
Troy D. Sadler, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA

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Eduardo F. Mortimer Charbel N. El-Hani


Editors

Conceptual Profiles
A Theory of Teaching and Learning Scientific
Concepts

Editors
Eduardo F. Mortimer
Faculty of Education
Federal University of Minas Gerais
Belo Horizonte
Minas Gerais, Brazil

Charbel N. El-Hani
Institute of Biology
Federal University of Bahia
Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

ISSN 1878-0482
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ISBN 978-90-481-9245-8
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Preface

This book is about the theory of conceptual profiles, which emerged in the literature
on science education in 1995, with the paper Conceptual change or conceptual
profile change? published by Eduardo Mortimer in Science & Education. Since
then many researchers have worked on this theme, mainly in the Brazilian science
education community (but also in the international community), dealing with major
structuring scientific concepts: matter, energy, and life.
The idea of a conceptual profile that people can exhibit different ways of seeing
and representing the world, which are used in different contexts was proposed by
Mortimer in the 1990s as an alternative to counterbalance a strong tendency that
conceptual change theories and models exhibited at that time: the commitment to
the idea that students should be led to break away with everyday knowledge, their
previous concepts, and even tenets related to their worldviews, treated only as
obstacles to science learning. Even though the theory began as an alternative model
to conceptual change, it evolved through the incorporation of a sociocultural
approach and pragmatist philosophy, becoming a theory of teaching and learning
scientific concepts. We will provide more details on the theory in the introduction to
this volume and in Part I, Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical, Epistemological, and
Methodological Bases of a Research Program.
It was with the support and collaboration of many authors who are signing the
chapters of this book that this theory was constructed. With their contribution, we
intend with this volume to present the theory and its implications to an international
audience. Our decision to publish a book in English on the theory of conceptual
profiles coincides with the reappearance of conceptual change in the science education scene, with new publications such as a special issue (July 2008) in Cultural
Studies of Science Education and the Routledge International Handbook of Research
on Conceptual Change (2008).
We are very grateful to the Institute of Advanced and Transdisciplinary Studies
of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (IEAT-UFMG), which granted Eduardo
Mortimer with a scholarship during the year of 2009 with the aim of writing this
book. We are also very grateful to the Federal University of Bahia, for the institutional support for Charbel El-Hani, and to the State University of Feira de Santana,
v

vi

Preface

the University of So Paulo, the Federal University of Ouro Preto, the University of
Leeds, and the Federal University of Minas Gerais, for the institutional support for
the other authors. We would also like to acknowledge the support of CNPq, CAPES,
and FAPESB, Brazilian Federal and State Agencies for funding research.
We dedicate this book to Phil Scott, whose death in July 2011 was a big loss for
us. Phil had an enormous energy for working but also for living and making our
lives enjoyable and easier.
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Salvador, Brazil

Eduardo F. Mortimer
Charbel N. El-Hani

Contents

Part I

Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical, Epistemological,


and Methodological Bases of a Research Program

Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological


Bases of a Research Program .................................................................
Eduardo F. Mortimer, Phil Scott, Edenia Maria
Ribeiro do Amaral, and Charbel N. El-Hani

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory .......


Charbel N. El-Hani, Waldomiro Jos da Silva-Filho,
and Eduardo F. Mortimer

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile


Research Program...................................................................................
Eduardo F. Mortimer, Charbel N. El-Hani, Cludia Sepulveda,
Edenia Maria Ribeiro do Amaral, Francisco ngelo Coutinho,
and Fbio Augusto Rodrigues e Silva

Part II

35

67

Empirical Studies for Building and Using Conceptual Profile


Models for Chemical, Physical, and Biological Ontoconcepts

Contributions of the Sociocultural Domain to Build


a Conceptual Profile Model for Molecule and
Molecular Structure................................................................................ 103
Eduardo F. Mortimer and Luiz Otvio F. Amaral

Building a Profile for the Biological Concept of Life ........................... 115


Francisco ngelo Coutinho, Charbel N. El-Hani,
and Eduardo F. Mortimer

vii

viii

Contents

Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life


Among University Students of Biology and Pharmacy:
The Use of Statistical Tools to Analyze
Questionnaire Answers ........................................................................... 143
Fbio Augusto Rodrigues e Silva, Eduardo F. Mortimer,
and Francisco ngelo Coutinho

Conceptual Profile of Adaptation: A Tool to Investigate


Evolution Learning in Biology Classrooms .......................................... 163
Claudia Sepulveda, Eduardo F. Mortimer, and Charbel N. El-Hani

A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity:


Characterising Modes of Thinking and Ways of Speaking
in the Classroom ...................................................................................... 201
Edenia Maria Ribeiro do Amaral, Eduardo F. Mortimer,
and Phil Scott

The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching:


An Example from a Teaching Sequence in Thermal Physics .............. 235
Orlando G. Aguiar Jr.

Part III

Recent Developments in the Research Program

10

Conceptual Profile as a Model of a Complex World ............................ 263


Cristiano Rodrigues de Mattos

11

Building a Profile Model for the Concept of Death.............................. 293


Aline Andra Nicolli and Eduardo F. Mortimer

Contributors .................................................................................................... 323


Index ................................................................................................................. 327

Introduction
Eduardo F. Mortimer and Charbel N. El-Hani

The idea of a conceptual profile that people can exhibit different ways of seeing
and representing the world, which are used in different contexts was proposed by
Mortimer in the 1990s as an alternative to the commitment of conceptual change
theories and models with the idea that, when learning science, students should be
led to break away from everyday knowledge, previous concepts, and tenets related
to their worldviews which could be obstacles to science learning. In the classical
paper by Posner et al. (1982), conceptual change was presented as a model to
explain or describe the substantive dimensions of the process by which peoples
central, organizing concepts change from one set of concepts to another set, incompatible with the first (Posner et al. 1982, p. 211). In a revision of the model, Hewson
and Thorley state that conflictive conceptions cannot be, simultaneously, plausible
for a person (Hewson and Thorley 1989, p. 543).
These first versions of the conceptual change model expressed a strong view of
scientific knowledge as a superior or even single form of knowledge that should be
recognized in school teaching. Although Solomon in 1983 already advocated that
there is no means of extinguishing everyday notions (pp. 3940), the optimistic
boom that followed the early developments of the alternative conceptions movement (Gilbert and Swift 1985) made conceptual change an almost paradigmatic
theory in the field of science education. These golden years gave way to several
critiques and alternatives to the model in the 1990s, partly as a result of the strong
resistance of the students everyday ideas, which challenged attempts to change them.

E.F. Mortimer ()


Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Av. Antnio Carlos 6627,
31.270-901, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
C.N. El-Hani
Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Rua Baro do Geremoabo, s/n,
Campus de Ondina, Ondina, 40170-290 Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
e-mail: charbel@ufba.br
ix

Introduction

The proposal of a conceptual profile emerged at that time (Mortimer 1994, 1995,
2000), initially inspired by Bachelards (1940) epistemological profile and his
central argument that a single philosophical doctrine is insufficient to describe all
the different forms of thinking that emerge when we try to expose and explain a
single concept. The idea of a conceptual profile is aligned with criticisms of the
conceptual change model we find in other tendencies, such as Coberns contextual
constructivism (Cobern 1996; El-Hani and Bizzo 2002). The general idea behind
the formulation of a conceptual profile is that of the heterogeneity of verbal thinking, which states that in any culture and in any individual there exists not one,
homogeneous form of thinking, but different types of verbal thinking (Tulviste
1991, p. 19). It expresses, thus, an acknowledgment that word meanings are often
polysemous, both in science and in everyday language.
The idea of conceptual profile was not the only one at that time to advocate that
concept use is bound to the context of utilization and that a form of conceptualization could not be seen as inherently better or more powerful than another one in
general or absolute terms, but only as more adequate and/or powerful in a given
context. This idea was also expressed in different ways by different authors in the
1990s (e.g., Linder 1993; Caravita and Halldn 1994; Ebenezer and Gaskell 1995)
and has become almost consensual nowadays. So, why could a book about
conceptual profiles be of interest to the science education community today?
Before answering this question, let us say what the book is about. The idea of
conceptual profile is an attempt to frame the problem of generating new meanings
in science teaching considering the interplay between modes of thinking and ways
of speaking. The basic assumption is that different modes of thinking that characterize the heterogeneity of verbal thinking are interwoven with different ways of
speaking. The idea of conceptual profile recognizes the coexistence, in the individual, of two or more meanings for the same word or concept, which are accessed in
the appropriate context. This coexistence is possible even within scientific concepts
in which the dissonance between classical and modern views of the same phenomena is a norm and not an exception. Although each individual has his/her own conceptual profile for each concept with different weights of each zone in the profile
and, if a zone has no weight at all in his/her individual thinking, with different
number of zones sociocultural theory makes it possible to assume that the concepts and categories available in all spheres of the world are held in a similar form
by a number of individuals inside the same culture, in a way that allows effective
communication. These collective representations (Durkheim 1895/1972) have a
supra-individual nature and are imposed upon individual cognition. Vygotsky drew
from this position (Kozulin 1990) when pointing to the social dimension of the
human mental process. According to his famous general genetic law of cultural
development,
any function in the childs cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First it
appears on the social plane, and then on the psychological plane. First it appears between
people as an interpsychological category, and then within the child as an intrapsychological
category. (Vygotsky 1931/1981, p. 163)

Introduction

xi

In distinguishing between sense and meaning of a word, Vygotsky also pointed


to the heterogeneous dimension of the word:
A words sense is the aggregate of all psychological facts that arise in our consciousness as
a result of the word. Sense is dynamic, fluid, and complex formation which has several
zones that vary in their stability () In different contexts, a words sense changes. In contrast, meaning is a comparatively fixed and stable point, one that remains constant with all
the changes of the words sense that are associated with its use in various contexts. ()
Isolated in the lexicon, the word has only one meaning. However, this meaning is nothing
more than a potential that can only be realized in living speech, and in living speech meaning is only a cornerstone in the edifice of sense. (Vygotsky 1934/1987, pp. 275276)

Thus, in the research program on conceptual profiles, we framed the theory in


connection with Vygotskys theory of psychological development. Due to the sociocultural nature of the modes of thinking available for the individuals during their
ontogenetic development, crucially including learning, we treat conceptual profile
as models of the diversity of modes of thinking available for individuals of a given
sociocultural context to use in different domains of their experiences. While conceptual profiles serve as tools for analyzing modes of thinking, Vygotskys theory
provides us with a basis for investigating learning. More details on the connections
between Vygotskys theory and conceptual profiles will be provided in Chaps. 1 and
3 of this volume.
Each zone in a conceptual profile offers a way of seeing the world that is unique
and different from the other zones. It is as if we looked at the world through lenses that
show reality in a specific way. Each conceptual zone corresponds to different mediational means, to different theories and languages that represent the world in their own
way. The world itself cannot be understood entirely from a single perspective but is
rather interpreted from different and even complementary standpoints. In Chap. 2, we
will discuss the epistemological grounds of the conceptual profile theory, striving for
showing that this does not lead necessarily to a relativistic position, since we can
frame the possibility of comparing the pragmatic value of different modes of
thinking in different problematic situations by appealing to pragmatist philosophy.
By assuming compatibility between Vygotskys theory and the theory of language of the Bakhtin circle, as shown by Wertsch (1991), we connect modes of
thinking and modes of speaking in our research on conceptual profiles. The
Bakhtinian notions of speech genres and social languages can help us find ways to
relate different zones of a conceptual profile with different ways of speaking.
Talking about what he called the languages of heteroglossia, Bakhtin claims that a
national language is not unique but composed of several different social
languages, which
are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words,
specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values. As such
they all may be juxtaposed to one another, mutually supplement one another and co-exist in
the consciousness of real people. (Bakhtin 1981, p. 292)

More details on how the Bakhtinian theory of language is put to use in investigations employing conceptual profiles are also provided by Chaps. 1 and 3.

xii

Introduction

Moreover, we conduct investigations on discursive interactions by using conceptual profiles as models for the analysis of the cognitive dimension of discourse and
Mortimer and Scotts framework for research into classroom communicative
approaches as a ground for analyzing the social and linguistic dimensions.
Using this set of theoretical-methodological frameworks, we inquire into science
learning and teaching in the classroom. In the conceptual profile theory, conceptual
learning is conceived as consisting of two interwoven processes: the construction of
new ways of thinking and modes of speaking new zones of a conceptual profile
and the dialogue between new and old zones, with a keen focus on the need that
students become aware of the very diversity of modes of thinking and the demarcation
between their pragmatic value in distinct contexts.
Any true understanding, or meaning making, is dialogic in nature because we lay
down a set of our own answering words for each word of an utterance we are in the
process of understanding (Voloshinov 1929/1973, p. 102). Assuming as theoretical
principles the heterogeneity of language, meaning, and verbal thinking and the dialogic nature of understanding and learning, we are in a position to define a research
program on how people learn scientific concepts and how these concepts can be
taught in terms of dialoguing with this heterogeneity. The basic tasks that should be
carried out in such a research program can be described as follows: (1) determining
the zones that constitute conceptual profile models for a number of central concepts,
(2) investigating how these zones appear in different people as a way of characterizing individual conceptual profiles, and (3) investigating the interplay between different ways of thinking and modes of speaking in real science classrooms.
This book is about this research program. It seeks to make a comprehensive and
coherent report of 18 years of research, in which we had a number of different collaborators and doctoral students working out the different aspects of this program.
We initially chose three basic concepts matter, energy, and life and filled out the
first task of the program for all these concepts, determining the zones that would
constitute conceptual profile models, as discussed in specific chapters of this book.
Our decision was to begin with the basic ontoconcepts (modified from Emmeches
(1997) notion of ontodefinitions) which define broad domains of natural sciences
chemistry, physics, and biology. Ontoconcepts can be thought of as very broad
categories such as matter, energy, life, mind, or society which denote huge phenomenologies in a relatively vague manner but also refer to some basic categories
of the modern scientific world picture. They belong to the metaphysical component
of a paradigm or disciplinary matrix in Kuhns (1970/1996) sense and are, thus,
very basic for the paradigmatic character of scientific activity. Although they provide a basic understanding and an explanatory narrative of the very nature of these
broad objects, they are not often considered by scientists, since they are typically
implicit in their disciplinary matrix.
In our research, the ontoconcepts at stake were unfolded into more specific concepts so as to make their study feasible. In the case of matter, we studied the concepts of matter, atom, and molecule (Chap. 4 of this volume); for energy, we studied
the concepts of heat (exemplified on Chap. 1), entropy, and spontaneity of physical
and chemical processes (Chap. 8); and for life, the concepts of life/living beings

Introduction

xiii

Table 1 How the three tasks of the research program are distributed over some central concepts,
presented in this book
The tasks of the research
program
Determining the zones
that constitute a
conceptual profile for
a particular concept
Determining how
conceptual zones
appear in a specific
population
Investigating the interplay
between the zones in
classrooms

Ontoconcepts
Matter
Molecule
(Chap. 4)

Energy
Heat (Chap. 1)
Entropy and spontaneity
of physical and
chemical processes
(Chap. 8)

Life
Life and living beings
(Chap. 5)
Evolutionary adaptation
(Chap. 7)
Life and living beings
(Chap. 6)

Entropy and spontaneity


of physical and
chemical processes
(Chap. 8)

Evolutionary adaptation
(Chap. 7)

(Chap. 5) and evolutionary adaptation (Chap. 7). The second task of the program,
namely, investigating how conceptual zones appear in different people as a way of
characterizing individual conceptual profiles, was worked out for the concept of
life/living beings (Chap. 6) and the third task, namely, investigating the interplay
between different ways of thinking and modes of speaking in real science classrooms, for the concepts of matter, energy (Chap. 8), and evolutionary adaptation
(Chap. 7). Table 1 defines the tasks and what we have done so far and are presenting
in this book. From the table, we can conclude that the chapters in this book cannot
have the same structure, as they describe different tasks of the research program.
Each of these tasks poses particular methodological problems. The diversity of
ideas and contexts that should be taken into account for determining the zones of a
conceptual profile model constitutes a dynamic way of dealing with concepts. The
aim is to present a particular concept as part of a process of human construction
which varies alongside the history of knowledge. The approach used to determine the
different zones that would constitute a conceptual profile model has its inspirations
in the approach proposed by Vygotsky to study the genesis of mental functions
including conceptual thinking in different domains. According to Wertsch (1985,
pp. 1415),
the three themes that form the core of Vygotskys theoretical framework are: 1) A reliance
on a genetic or developmental method; 2) the claim that higher mental processes in the
individual have their origin in social processes; and 3) the claim that mental processes can
be understood only if we understand the tools and signs that mediate them.

The methodology and the different instruments to study conceptual profiles,


elaborated over these 18 years, contemplate these three aspects. The analytical tools
for characterizing classroom discourse (Mortimer and Scott 2003), which were used
to analyze teaching sequences on the particulate model of matter, the concepts of
entropy and spontaneity, and the concept of adaptation allow for the study of the

xiv

Introduction

social interactions as well as speech genres and social languages in the science
classroom, which are related to the two last aspects of Vygotskian methodology. For
determining the zones of a conceptual profile, our methodology is inspired by the
first aspect, i.e., the proposition of a genetic or developmental method for analyzing
the human mental processes. Through emphasizing the process and not the product
of development, Vygotsky considered where and when these processes occur, trying to account for the development of the higher mental functions in all their phases
and in the different genetic domains phylogenesis, sociocultural history, ontogenesis, and microgenesis. The characterization of the zones of a profile and, thus, the
construction of profile models are based, accordingly, on several sources of information historical and philosophical studies, literature on alternative conceptions,
textbook analyses, and treatment of primary data on students views, gathered by
both questionnaires and interviews and on discursive interactions in science
classrooms. By using these sources, we can investigate three genetic domains
microgenetic, ontogenetic, and sociocultural. Vygotsky warns that no single factor
can be found to explain the development of higher mental functions in each domain.
Accordingly, the study of these different domains aims at giving a broad comprehension of the dynamics of conceptual development and not to show parallelism
between the different lines of development. Figure 1 illustrates how the different
genetic domains can be translated into different sources that can be used to determine the zones of the conceptual profile of a particular concept.
Following this general plan for the research program on conceptual profiles, the
book is divided into three parts, each containing several chapters. In Part I, Chap. 1,
Mortimer, Scott, Amaral, and El-Hani introduce the theory of conceptual profiles as
a theory of conceptual development and of teaching scientific concepts. In Chap. 2,
El-Hani, Silva-Filho, and Mortimer discuss the epistemological grounds of the
research program. In Chap. 3, Mortimer, El-Hani, Sepulveda, Amaral, Coutinho,
and Silva discuss the methodologies used to construct and employ conceptual
profile models in research on discursive interactions in science classrooms. There is
some redundancy between the content of Chap. 3 and the several chapters on Part
II, in which we present empirical studies for building and using profile models for
science concepts. Nevertheless, we consider that a chapter about the different methods used in the research program would be useful for those who are interested in
seeing how the three tasks of the program namely, (1) determining the zones that
constitute a conceptual profile for a particular concept, (2) determining how conceptual zones appear in a specific population, and (3) investigating the interplay
between the zones in science classrooms can be achieved through specific methodological design.
In Part II, we present empirical studies developed for building and using profile
models for chemical, physical, and biological ontoconcepts. Chapter 4, written by
Mortimer and L.F.O. Amaral, describes the construction of a conceptual profile for
molecule/molecular structure. In Chap. 5, Coutinho, El-Hani, and Mortimer discuss
the construction of a profile for the biological concept of life. In Chap. 6, written by
Silva, Mortimer, and Coutinho, another study related to the ontoconcept of life/
living beings is presented, concerning the evolution of conceptual profiles of life
among Biology and Pharmaceutical Sciences students. In Chap. 7, Sepulveda,

Organization of sets of
epistemological commitments

Introduction

xv

Sources from history of


science and
epistemological
treatments of the concept

Data of discursive
interactions in the
classroom

Literature on
alternative
conceptions related
to the concept

Data from questionnaire and


interviews with students and
professionals

EPISTEMOLOGICAL
MATRIX

Construction of
zones

CONCEPTUAL
PROFILE MODEL
OF A
PARTICULAR
CONCEPT

Fig. 1 Design of the first stage of the research program: the construction of a profile model of a
particular concept (Adapted from Fig. 7.1, in Chap. 7)

El-Hani, and Mortimer discuss the construction of a conceptual profile of adaptation


and its use in classroom discourse analysis. In Chap. 8, E. R. Amaral, Mortimer, and
Scott report studies on heat and entropy, as two dimensions to take into account
when constructing and using conceptual profiles of energy. In this chapter it is also
presented a classroom discourse analysis for these concepts development. Finally,
in Chap. 9, Aguiar discusses the implications of conceptual profiles for science
teaching, by considering a teaching sequence on thermal physics as a case in point.
Part III brings two reports of recent developments in the research program. In
Chap. 10, Mattos discusses the developments of his research group on conceptual
profiles as models of a complex world, with a number of new theoretical ideas to be
introduced in the current dialogue in the research program. In Chap. 11, Nicoli and
Mortimer report the construction of a profile model for the concept of death.
Although the book is structured in chapters with different authors, it is much
more an authorial than an edited book. The first reason is that most of the

xvi

Introduction

contributors have participated in the research program, which means that they have
been collaborating for many years. The second reason is that one or another of the
editors is coauthor in the vast majority of the chapters.

How Can a Book About Conceptual Profile Be Useful


to the Science Education Community?
We are now in a position to go back to our question: Given that nowadays there is
almost a consensus around the idea that concepts are heterogeneous and that concept
use is bound to the context of utilization, how can a book about conceptual profiles be
useful to the science education community? First, because we do not have a theory of
conceptual development or a theory of teaching scientific concepts that accounts for
this heterogeneity. Theories of conceptual development tend to assume this process as
an endeavor toward a rational, noncontradictory, and unique powerful scientific way
of conceptualizing, which can allegedly subsume all the other forms, considered as
inferior. By proposing a theory that holds multiplicity of meanings and dialogue as
basic principles, we try to position the science learner in a place much more coherent
with his/her pluralist condition of belonging to different communities and dealing
with different points of view, which constitutes the rule and not the exception in the
life of most of the secondary school students in the Western world.
Second, because the research program tries to build on at least three traditions
in the field of science education: the alternative conceptions movement and its
conceptual change theory of learning scientific concepts; the scientific literacy movement and its connections with the issue of multiculturalism in science teaching; and
the discursive turn in science education, which emphasizes the role of language in the
teaching and learning of science. In building this research program, we try to restate
the centrality of conceptual learning for the endeavor of teaching science at the same
time that we recognize the importance of culture, language, and context in this process.
Even if science curriculum development nowadays tends to be built around a thematic
and contextual and not a conceptual organization, learning scientific concepts is to be
found among the aims of any curricular proposal in science education and is still at the
core of the problematic nature of teaching and learning science.
In conclusion, this book reports the construction of a research program that tries
to be responsive to all the main developments in the field of science education. In
this sense, it also offers a model of research in science education to be discussed,
criticized, and developed.

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Introduction

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Hewson, P. W., & Thorley, R. (1989). The conditions of conceptual change in the classroom.
International Journal of Science Education, 11, 541553. doi:10.1080/0950069890110506.
Kozulin, A. (1990). Vygotskys psychology: A biography of ideas. New York, NY: Harvester
Wheatsheaf.
Kuhn, T. S. ([1970]1996). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: The University of
Chicago Press.
Linder, C. J. (1993). A challenge to conceptual change. Science Education, 77, 293300.
doi:10.1002/sce.3730770304.
Mortimer, E. F. (1994). Evoluo do atomismo em sala de aula: Mudana de perfis conceituais.
[Evolution of atomism in classroom: Conceptual profiles change]. Doctoral dissertation,
School of Education, University of So Paulo, So Paulo.
Mortimer, E. F. (1995). Conceptual change or conceptual profile change? Science & Education, 4,
265287. doi:10.1007/BF00486624.
Mortimer, E. F. (2000). Linguagem e formao de conceitos no ensino de cincias [Language and
concept formation in science education]. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG.
Mortimer, E. F., & Scott, P. (2003). Meaning making in secondary science classrooms. Maidenhead:
Open University Press.
Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gerzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66, 211227.
doi:10.1002/sce.3730660207.
Solomon, J. (1983). Learning about energy: How pupils think in two domains. European Journal
of Science Education, 5(1), 4959. doi:10.1080/0140528830050105
Tulviste, P. (1991). The cultural-historical development of verbal thinking (M. J. C. Hall, Trans.).
New York, NY: Nova Science.
Voloshinov, V. N. ([1929]1973). Marxism and the philosophy of language. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. ([1931]1981). The genesis of higher mental functions. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The
concept of activity in Soviet psychology (pp. 144188). Armonk, NY: Sharpe.
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Carton (Eds.), The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky (pp. 39285). New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
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Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.

Part I

Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical,


Epistemological, and Methodological
Bases of a Research Program

Chapter 1

Conceptual Profiles: TheoreticalMethodological Bases of a Research Program


Eduardo F. Mortimer, Phil Scott, Edenia Maria
Ribeiro do Amaral, and Charbel N. El-Hani

1.1

Introduction

Classrooms are complex social places, in which one teacher attempts to interact
with maybe 3040 students with the intention of supporting them in developing a
particular point of view, in the case of science education, the scientific story
(Mortimer and Scott 2003).1 Among other curricular objectives, a key goal is to
promote students understanding of scientific concepts (El-Hani and Mortimer
2007). In any classroom, there is an inevitable heterogeneity in modes of thinking
and talking. To put it differently, every classroom is multicultural. In order to build
a theory about teaching and learning, which allows us to intervene in classroom
dynamics in an informed manner, we need to model this heterogeneity of speech
and thought. There can be no doubt that this will be a model that can only be
P. Scott (deceased)
1

Mortimer and Scott (2003, p. 18) use the expression scientific story to designate the way the
scientific perspective is narrated to the students in the social plane of the classroom, so as to make
it accessible to them. They depart from Ogborn and colleagues (1996) claim that science teaching
puts forth an approach to natural phenomena that is expressed in ideas and conventions characteristic of the language of school science, so as to compose a kind of script, which is similar to a story.
E.F. Mortimer (*)
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais,
Av. Antnio Carlos 6627, 31.270-901 Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
E.M.R. do Amaral
Department of Chemistry, Rural Federal University of Pernambuco (UFRPE),
Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil
e-mail: edsamaral@uol.com.br
C.N. El-Hani
Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Rua Baro do Geremoabo, s/n,
Campus de Ondina, Ondina, 40170-290 Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
e-mail: charbel@ufba.br

E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_1, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

E.F. Mortimer et al.

projected into new situations if we gather information about specific teaching


contexts, given their complexity and contingency. We do not think, however, that
such complexity and contingency should make us cast aside the attempt to model
students and teachers modes of thinking and speaking. First, because even though
they will show much variation, they will not amount to purely individual idiosyncrasies, since their variation is constrained by the sociocultural circumstances. Second,
because if a model does not function properly when applied to a given classroom,
due to its particular characteristics, this is no fatal flaw, since it is a key feature of
modeling as an epistemic practice that models be applied and revised when we find
situations in which they do not seem to be adequate or sufficient.
In the mid-1990s, Mortimer (1994, 1995, 1996) introduced conceptual profiles
as ways of modeling the heterogeneity of thinking and speaking in science classrooms. The inspiration came at that point from Bachelards (1940) epistemological
profile, but some features were added to this philosophers idea in order to build
conceptual profiles for the investigation of science teaching and learning, such as
the characterization of the profiles on the grounds of both ontological and epistemological aspects, not only in terms of philosophical schools of thought, as in the original idea, or the attention given to students awareness of their own conceptual
profiles. In subsequent years, the philosophical bases of the conceptual profile theory moved away from Bachelards ideas.
Conceptual profiles should be conceived as models of different modes of seeing and
conceptualizing the world used by individuals to signify their experience. They were
initially developed as an alternative to Posner and colleagues (1982) conceptual
change model. In particular, they challenged one of the central ideas in this model,
namely, that students should be led to break away with their previous conceptions when
learning science. This challenge is shared with other approaches, such as Coberns
(1996) contextual constructivism, which also advocate the coexistence of different
modes of thinking and talking as a result of science learning (El-Hani and Bizzo 2002).
In subsequent developments, conceptual profiles were integrated into a theoretical
framework that treats science learning as learning the social language of school
science through classroom discursive interactions, analyzed from a sociocultural
perspective (Mortimer and Scott 2003). In this framework, the following theories are
integrated into a synthesis made coherent by several shared assumptions, characteristic of sociocultural approaches: conceptual profiles, as tools for analyzing modes of
thinking; the theory of language of the Bakhtins circle, as a basis for the analysis of
ways of speaking; Vygotskys theory of the development of higher mental functions,
as a basis for the investigation of learning; and Mortimer and Scotts framework for
research into classroom communicative approaches. Our focus in this book lies on
conceptual profiles, but we mention the more general framework in order to situate
this work into its broader theoretical and methodological horizon.
In this chapter, we will first discuss how concepts are understood in the conceptual profile theory. This will take us to the heart of the chapter, a treatment of
conceptual profiles as models of the heterogeneity of thought and language. Finally,
we will exemplify conceptual profiles by considering the modeling of a specific
concept, namely, heat.

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

1.2

What Is a Concept?

Roughly, we can find in the science education literature two different approaches to
concepts (Wells 2008; Mortimer et al. 2010, 2012). A common approach is to view
concepts as learners mental models of an object or event. In these terms, concepts
are or can become internalized mental structures or entities.
It may be the case, indeed, that some authors use expressions such as mental
models, schemes, and so forth, with no intention of proposing that they are
internal, stable mental structures that are read aloud by people when they use
concepts. However, it is not unusual to see this latter conception being used in
science education, as we can see, for instance, in the conceptual change literature
(for a discussion, see Wells 2008). Two examples will suffice to our arguments here.
Treagust and Duit (2008, p. 298), for instance, consider that
conceptions can be regarded as the learners internal representations constructed from
the external representations of entities constructed by other people such as teachers, textbook authors or software designers.

Novak and Caas (2008, p. 8), in a technical report about the theory and practice
related to concept mapping, refer to the brain as storing concepts and propositions,
which would be the principal elements that make up our knowledge structures
and form our cognitive structure in the brain. For them, knowledge gets incorporated into the brain in hierarchical frameworks, which match, in turn, the hierarchical structure of concept maps as representational tools.
Thus, even though this will not be true of all authors who refer to mental
models or schemes, we do find in the science education literature a view in which
learners are treated as having concepts in their minds, in the form of such models or
schemes. Moreover, this idea can also be found in philosophy, in the view that concepts are psychological entities, which takes as its starting point the representational
theory of the mind, according to which thinking occurs in an internal system of
(mental) representation. If one takes, as many advocates of this theory do, the mental representations as having internal structure, they will be composed of more basic
representations. For those who adopt the mental representation view of concepts,
concepts are identified with these more basic representations (Laurence and
Margolis 1999; Margolis and Laurence 2008).
These views imply, first, that concepts are relatively stable mental entities and,
second, that they are possessed by, or belong to, an individual. Conceptual change,
in this case, means the process by which these individual conceptions undergo some
form of modification. In the case of science education, this may involve the development by the learner of some form of the school science point of view.
The second perspective on concepts is quite different, conceiving them as
existing only as part of either a natural language or structured system of knowledge, such as science. In these terms, concepts are external linguistic entities or
structures. They exist in texts and languages, as social constructs. They do not
become learners mental models or schemes, if we take the latter to be entirely
internalized structures.

E.F. Mortimer et al.

An important ontological change in our understanding of the nature of the


learners engagement with concepts is involved in the move from the former to this
latter position: from thinking about concepts as mental entities, we shift to thinking
about mental processes of conceptualization, which are grounded on brain processes, but are not reducible to them, since to conceptualize means to engage in
dealing with concepts as social constructs. This dynamic process can be identified
with one of Vygotskys (1978) higher mental functions, namely, conceptual thinking. In these terms, conceptualization is an emergent process always produced
through an interaction between an individual and some external event or experience,
and the process of conceptualizing is, in this respect, social in nature. It is always
socially driven.
When we speak of individuals who have appropriated the meaning of a given
concept, this means that their conceptual thinking has been constrained by that
meaning, as a consequence of learning processes. They have reached some state
of stability in their thinking process, but they are not reading aloud more or
less stabilized mental/brain structures, which would correspond to concepts
(cf. Vosniadou 2008b).
From a sociointeractionist perspective, the fact that we think we possess
concepts in our minds is an indication of how powerful the process of socialization can be. The aspect of permanence in the process of conceptualization that
leads to this impression can be understood, in a Vygotskian sense, as a tendency
of conceptual thinking, when fully developed, to operate in a similar manner in
the face of experiences we perceive as being similar. The socially constructed
stability of conceptual thinking is a prerequisite for effective communication
through the signs of language. Conceptual thinking, as a process that emerges in
each interaction with experience, tends to repeat itself in features that seem central to us, and this is what makes it possible that we repeatedly use concepts in a
similar manner and, thus, think with concepts and communicate with each other
in a successful way.2
One of the bases for the approach to concepts developed here lies in Vygotskys
famous general genetic law of cultural development, according to which mental
functions first appear on the social plane, as interpsychological categories, and subsequently on the psychological plane, as intrapsychological categories (Vygotsky
1931/1981, p. 163). In these terms, individual thinking develops through the internalization of cultural tools made available by means of social interactions. From this
process of internalization, it follows that we all share concepts and categories that
can be used to signify the world of our experiences, but, since they are also
2

It is now widely entertained by many philosophers that it is possible, and thus acceptable, that one
can have propositional attitudes without having the relevant mental representations as mental particulars in ones head (as commented by Margolis and Laurence 2008). Daniel Dennett (1978)
provides an example when he argues that most people believe zebras do not wear overcoats in the
wild and a million other similar facts although they have never stopped to consider such matters
and, thus, cannot possess any mental representation of the belief inside their heads. According to
the view advocated here, we can say that they are led to believe so because these ideas are not
entertained by the language in which they have been brought up.

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

constituted through our experience, the weight each of them has in our cognition
fundamentally depends on the extent to which they were fruitfully used throughout
our development. And when we consider our own development, we should never
forget how multifaceted our experiences can be and how diverse we can be in the
construction of the perspectives from which we signify, speak about, and act in
the world.
Thus, even though each of us is a unique being, we are combinatorially unique in
the sense that we combine in ourselves several socially constructed modes of thinking and speaking about and ultimately acting within our experience, as talo Calvino
reminds us. In our inventiveness, we can always reorder our modes of thinking and
speaking but within the confines of what is socioculturally possible, within the constraints of what we can think and speak as sociocultural beings.
It is very important to understand what internalization means in this account
of the genesis of higher mental functions. After all, how to conceptualize the
relationship between external and internal is one of the most persistent and consequential problems in psychology (Wertsch and Stone 1985). One of the key
advances of Soviet psychology was to recognize and, thus, account for the
integral relationship between external and internal activity. As Leontev (1981,
p. 58) argues, internal activity, which has arisen out of external, practical activity, is not separate from it and does not rise above it; it retains its fundamental
and two-way connection with it. If we think of learning in terms of such a dialectical relationship between internal and external activities, it is neither the case
that concepts can be entirely internalized, nor that activities or practices can be
entirely externalized in the form of instrumental artifacts and structured actions
(see Lave and Wenger 1991, p. 51).
We can now refine our initial distinction between two views about concepts. In
the former view, concepts can be entirely internalized, while in the latter, they cannot be entirely internalized. However, if we focus on the cognitive aspect, learning
requires internalization in some sense. We should face the problem, then, of how to
interpret the notion of internalization in Vygotsky.
The two basic moves in the Vygotskian approach are the rejection of both the
idea that the structures of internal and external activity are identical and the idea that
they are unrelated. The relationship between internal and external is developmental
or genetic and does not consist in the mere transference of external activity to an
internal domain, but rather in a transformation of external processes in order to create internal processes (Wertsch and Stone 1985).
In order to avoid simply conflating Vygotskys discussion of internalization with
accounts in cognitive psychology that might seem at first quite similar, such as
Piagets, it is important to consider two premises that are unique to Vygotskys
work, as stressed by Wertsch and Stone: (1) internalization is primarily concerned
with social processes; (2) semiotic mechanisms, especially those related to language, mediate social and individual functioning. These semiotic mechanisms provide the connection between the external and the internal and the social and the
individual. These two premises can be named, following Wertsch and Stone, the
social origins and the semiotic mediation premises.

E.F. Mortimer et al.

We presented above Vygotskys general genetic law of cultural development in


social terms. However, it is important to consider it, also, in a semiotic reinterpretation:
in the process of development, children begin to use the same forms of behavior in relation to themselves that others initially used in relation to them. [] we could say that the
validity of this law is nowhere more obvious than in the use of signs. A sign is always originally a means used for social purposes, a means of influencing others, and only later
becomes a means of influencing oneself. (Vygotsky 1931/1981, p. 157)

It is on these grounds that Vygotsky states that the mental function of the word
cannot be explained except through a system extending beyond individual humans
(Vygotsky 1931/1981, p. 158). That is, to understand how the words function in
individual behavior, we need to consider how they function in social behavior.
This is the framework in which Vygotsky deals with internalization. Internal
psychological processes retain certain properties that reflect their social origins,
since they are internalized social relationships (Vygotsky 1931/1981, p. 164).
Their whole nature is social. There is, thus, a functional and structural relationship
between external social processes and internal psychological processes, as shown
by Vygotskys analysis of the role of egocentric speech in the constitution of an
internal plane of semiotic functioning based on a social, external plane. This does
not mean, however, that there is any simple isomorphism between them. Inner psychological processes are not identical with external speech. Internalization is no
transference at all. It transforms the structure and functions of the social processes
through which psychological processes are formed.
To show that there is no contradiction in this view, Wertsch and Stone (1985)
appeal to Vygotskys genetic analysis of semiotic functioning, considering a semiotic mechanism that plays a major role in his account of the formation of an internal
plane of functioning, namely, the emergence of control over external sign forms
(p. 167). This mechanism makes possible the cognitive development of the child,
since it leads her to recognize the significance of the external sign forms that she has
already been using in social interaction (see below).
When interpreting Vygotskys account of internalization, it is very important to
avoid losing from mind that his theory was built within a dialectical materialist
framework. It is crucial, thus, to keep consistency with the dialectical structure of
Vygotskys thinking when building such an interpretation. We consider that we can
do so if we think of internalization not as the mere generation of some internal
structure, located inside individual brains, which reproduces or represents some
external structure. In these terms, brain structures are not taken to be sufficient but
just necessary conditions for the emergence of mental functions, such as conceptual
thinking. This means, however, that some internalization should take place when we
learn something, while at the same time it is not the case that an internal brain structure is generated that might be taken as merely the reproduction of an external
structure. What we need, then, is a clear rendering of the nature of the brain structures that are necessary for conceptual thinking without abandoning the dialectical
framework of Vygotskys theory.
If we use a key concept when we examine the dynamics of processes, namely,
that of potentiality (as opposed to actuality), we will be able to provide such a clear

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

rendering. We interpret Vygotskys theory in terms of the idea that mental functions
are never internalized per se, but only their potentiality. That is, what is internalized
is the potentiality of the emergence of similar mental functions in a socially situated
kind of relationship between the brain, body, and environment. When mental functions, such as conceptual thinking, do emerge, what we observe is their transition
from potentiality to actuality. In these terms, we can acknowledge that there are
structures in the brain which are necessary for the emergence of mental functions,
but, since it is the potentiality of their emergence that is internalized, those structures cannot be treated as being just read aloud when we use a concept. Mental
functions are social in their genesis and remain social during our lives as psychological beings. They are never entirely internalized, and brain structures are not
sufficient to account for them (albeit they are necessary).3
Moreover, we should not lose from sight that Vygotsky rejected both the idea
that the structures of internal and external activity are identical and the idea that they
are unrelated. Thus, even though internal and external are interwoven with one
another in a dialectical interaction when we learn and when we think, it is important
to notice that, when we learn, i.e., when we are building an internal plane of functioning, we have only a limited control over the external sign forms that we are
using in our social interactions. This affects the nature of our internal plane of functioning, which tends, for instance, to be much closer to overt forms of language in a
communicative context.
By keeping the philosophical grounds of Vygotskys thinking in place, we can
interpret the construction of the internal plane of functioning during learning as a
dialectical process of internalization/externalization which is directed toward the
interior of the cognitive system, in a developmental relationship. In other words,
when building an internal plane of functioning, the dialectical process of internalization/externalization has an inwardly directed dynamics and is centripetal.
However, when we think with some concepts we already appropriated, i.e., when
we are dealing with sign forms we already controlled, the social plane of internal
functioning has a different dynamics: we tend to formulate our thoughts in a much
more cryptic manner, substantially distant from the forms that language takes in
communicative interactions.
If we now consider contexts of application of learned knowledge, of already
developed conceptual thinking, we can interpret the functioning of the internal,
intrapsychological plane as a dialectical process of externalization/internalization
directed toward the exterior of the cognitive system, in a relation of conceptual
interpretation, of using concepts. In this case, the dynamics of the dialectical process is centrifugal.
In sum, we are proposing that internalization should be always conceived in a
dialectical tension with externalization. This tension unfolds in different directions
3

It is consequential, thus, that we speak, in Vygotskys sociointeractionist view, about an internal


plane of functioning, instead of internal mental models or schemes. We are dealing here not with
mental structures to be read aloud but with dynamic processes that take place in between our brain
and body and the social activities and contexts in which we are engaged.

10

E.F. Mortimer et al.

in the development or construction of the intrapsychological plane of functioning,


when we are learning to think conceptually, and in the use of this same plane, when
we are interpreting experience with learned concepts. We construct our internal
plane of functioning by a dialectical interaction with the external plane of social
relationships, and we afterward interact with others by means of dynamic processes
that do not happen only inside our brain, but extend beyond our skin, taking place
by a mutual and continual interchange and interweaving of internal and external
processes. We internalize social and semiotic relationships through a process of
externalization, by communicating and interacting more and more, and deeper and
deeper, with others in our social environment. Afterward, we externalize ourselves,
in a constant flux of social and semiotic interactions, by engaging with an internal
plane of functioning which allows us to manage our relationship with others.
This view of mind as being always embodied, situated, and relational can be
clarified by means of an analogy: to have a mind is not the same as, say, having a
nose. While to have a nose is to have a particular entity in our face, to have a mind
is more similar to walking, i.e., it has the nature of a process, not of an entity.
Walking is a manner of relating our body with the environment. Similarly, we
understand the mind as a certain mode of relationship between our brains, bodies,
and environments. From this perspective, mental processes or functions are not
solely in the brain. They emerge in the brain-body-environment relationship.
This framework allows us to think about the stability of both concepts and conceptual thinking, but the stability of concepts is rather different from the stability of
conceptual thinking. Concepts are stabilized in a social discourse, by social processes that lead to their construction, change, and even demise. Conceptual thinking, in turn, shows stability as a recurrent process. That is, when our embodied
brains engage in relationship with situated experiences that we categorize as a kind
of experience we lived before, and with which we learned to deal with, the same
kind of conceptual thinking tends to emerge over and over again. This stability is so
remarkable that we even come to think that we read aloud some brain structure
when we think conceptually. In our view, if we read something aloud, it is not some
structure in our brains, but some structured form of interactional process involving
our body, brain, and (social) environment.
This account of conceptual thinking as an inherently social process takes both
Vygotskys ideas and situated perspectives on cognition as points of departure.
Even though this is not the place to develop in a full-fledged manner a synthetic
account of Vygotskys theory and a number of ideas stemming from situated
cognition,4 some points are worth advancing.
In situated cognition, three ideas are central (Robbins and Aydede 2009b):
(1) cognition is dependent on both the brain and the body (the embodiment thesis);
(2) cognitive activity exploits structure in the natural and social environment
4

Situated cognition is an influential research program in cognitive science. We refer interested


readers to some sources which are useful avenues to engage with this research program
(e.g., Clark 1997; Clark and Chalmers 1998; Wilson 2002; Anderson 2003; Robbins and
Aydede 2009a; No 2010).

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

11

(the embedding thesis) and becomes more and more efficient as more cognitive
load is transferred to the environment, which operates itself as a model (Brooks
1991) or outside memory (ORegan 1992) in cognitive tasks, in such a manner that
the cognitive agent does not need to keep internal representations of all the relevant
details about a given situation; and (3) the boundaries of cognition extend beyond
the boundaries of individual organisms (the extension thesis). Our treatment of conceptual thinking above is indebted to these three theses, even though the second one
is less explicitly considered and will not be much elaborated here.
From a situated cognition perspective, it is forcefully claimed that, without perception and action, thought cannot but be empty. The meaningfulness of thinking is
grounded, in these terms, on our actions and perceptions, and, thus, the body plays
a central role in cognition, given the sensorimotor basis of cognitive activity.
Nevertheless, cognition is not just a bodily but a fundamentally situated process,
since it is always the outcome of an interaction, mediated by perception, action, and,
crucially, language, between our brains, bodies, and (social) environments.
A dialectical view of the relationship between external and internal can also be
formulated in terms of the situated cognition framework. We can only understand
cognition, from this perspective, if we consider both the embodied and embedded
mind and the embedding world. As Robbins and Aydede (2009b, p. 6) put,
It seems natural to think of cognition as an interaction effect: the result, at least in part, of
causal processes that span the boundary separating the individual organism from the natural, social, and cultural environment. To understand how cognitive work gets done, then, it
is not enough to look at what goes on within individual organisms; we need to consider also
the complex transactions between embodied minds and the embedding world.

We can say, then, that both learning and thinking take place by means of a dialectical interweaving of the embedded mind and the embedding world. Just as we
argued above, it becomes difficult to conceive internalization as the creation of
some entirely internalized representation. It is more consistent with the general
framework assumed here to understand this process as the creation of an internal
plane of functioning through an inwardly directed developmental process by means
of which we internalize social and semiotic relationships by externalizing ourselves
in communication and social interaction.
Vygotskys (1934/1987) distinction between sense and meaning is useful to elaborate on how stability emerges in conceptual thinking. Vygotsky regarded the sense
of a word as the aggregate of all psychological facts that results in our consciousness
from entertaining the word. Sense was treated by him as a dynamic, fluid, and complex formation, with zones varying in their stability. While sense is, for Vygotsky,
context dependent, meaning is much more stable and repeatable. Meaning offers,
thus, the possibility of intersubjectivity, i.e., a situation in which two or more people
can share the meaning of a word, even though they vary in the senses they attribute
to it. All contracts of communication (Rommetveit 1979) are established on the basis
of these socioculturally constructed stable meanings.
Vygotsky also assumes that all concepts are generalizations. This explains why
a particular word for a young child can signify differently in relation to the same
word for an adult. As Wertsch and Stone argue, the child neither recognizes the

12

E.F. Mortimer et al.

significance of external sign forms nor has control over them. It is precisely in the
emergence of such recognition and control that we find the major semiotic mechanism involved in the formation of an internal plane of functioning, which will eventually lead to the emergence of generalized sign forms, under the control of the child:
children can say more than they realize and it is through coming to understand what is
meant by what is said that their cognitive skills develop. (Wertsch and Stone 1985, p. 167)

The word for the child does not have a generalized meaning, only a range of
senses. Since sense is dynamic and fluid, sense is quite particular, personal, and
context dependent. Each person has a different sense for a word, and, indeed, the
same person can construct different senses in different circumstances. If a child only
has a limited sense of a word, this word cannot mean the same as it means for an
adult. As the child grows up, she undergoes a process of enculturation in which she
faces many social situations in which she is going to use the same word, and it is
through this social process that the word gradually acquires a generalizable, stable
meaning, meanwhile the child is coming to fully recognize the significance of what
she is saying and, thus, can acquire increasingly greater control over the semiotic
mediators she uses in everyday interactions. From this perspective, the meaning of
the word can never be something purely internal to a person; rather, it is a social
construct in the sense of being socially developed.5
The concept and the meaning of a word are taken by Vygotsky to be synonymous, and meaning emerges in the relationship between thought and word:
The relationship of thought and word is not a thing but a process, a movement from thought
to word and from word to thought. Psychological analysis indicates that this relationship is
a developing process which changes as it passes through a series of stages. Of course, this
is not an age related but a functional development. The movement of thinking from thought
to word is a developmental process. Thought is not expressed but completed in the word.
(Vygotsky 1934/1987, p. 250)

For words belonging to everyday language that have concrete referents, like
table or dog, this process leads to relatively stable meanings, although these
words are open to a variety of meanings (such as referring negatively to somebody as
a dog). As outlined earlier, this stability is a consequence of the social nature of
conceptualization. It is because in language we have the word dog for referring to
several carnivorous mammals of the family Canidae that the concept dog acquires
this stability in individuals conceptual thinking. But for scientific concepts, things

In terms of the ontology of concepts, maybe the philosophical view that is more consistent with
the account of concepts as social constructs developed here is that of concepts as Fregean senses,
which is generally held by philosophers who are opposed to identifying concepts with mental
representations and takes concepts to be abstract objects, as opposed to mental objects and mental
states (e.g., Zalta 2001). Concepts are said, then, to be the constituents of propositions, and they
mediate between thought and language, on the one hand, and referents, on the other (Margolis and
Laurence 2008). It is necessary, however, to find a common ground between the Fregean notion of
sense to which philosophers such as Zalta appeal and Vygotskys distinction between sense
and meaning. This is, however, work to be done in the future, since this is not the space to go
deeper in the issue.

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

13

are more complicated, and we should read the texts of science before going to a
university class and teaching something like thermodynamics. If you go to this class
without any preparation, you will find yourself in difficulties, since some of the
things that are perfectly clear in the book might not be in the same state in your mind.
Indeed, when it comes to science teaching and learning, it is consequential to
recognize that we typically face the words of science as a child faces the words of
her mother language. We begin to use scientific terms without really grasping their
significance and without working with a generalized meaning, but only with fluid
senses, which keep varying from situation to situation. From this perspective, to
appropriate the meaning of scientific language is to recognize its significance and
acquire control over it as a semiotic mediator of the understanding of scientific
explanations, theories, and models.
We argued above for a perspective on concepts according to which they are not
brain structures that can be read aloud, but only exist in a stable manner as part of
socially constructed knowledge, as manifested in the form of social languages.
Conceptual thinking (or conceptualization), in turn, is more dynamic and can only
acquire stability, as a process, through constraints that act upon it. These constraints
are linked to the socially established meanings of concepts. According to this view,
it is due to the constraining influence of socially stabilized meanings over the process of sense making that we become capable of thinking conceptually in such a
repeatable manner that we end up conceiving of concepts as stable internal entities,
as if they could be simply found in our brains.
In the first approach to concepts set out at the start of this chapter, individual
conceptualizations and concepts are treated as one and the same thing. Moreover, in
that view, concepts are treated as being relatively independent of the context of use,
given their more or less fixed internal structures. These two characteristics of concepts a concept as an internal artifact, with a decontextualized nature are shared
by most of the authors in the conceptual change movement (see, for instance,
Vosniadou et al. 2008 and some other chapters in the International Handbook of
Research on Conceptual Change, Vosniadou 2008a).
According to the second position, concepts and conceptualizations are distinguished, and, from the heterogeneity of experience, heterogeneity of conceptual
thinking follows. The heterogeneity of conceptual thinking can be modeled by conceptual profiles, to which we turn our attention now.

1.3

The Conceptual Profile Theory6

A diversity of authors have argued that people can have different ways of seeing
and conceptualizing the world. Schutz, for instance, talks about a social world that
is by no means homogeneous but exhibits a multiform structure. Each of its
6

In view of the polysemy of the terms theory and model, it is important to make it clear
how we understand them here. Among the diversity of meanings ascribed to the term model
(e.g., Black 1962; Abrantes 1999; Dutra 2009), we conceive models here as constructs created by

14

E.F. Mortimer et al.

spheres or regions is both a way of perceiving and a way of understanding the


subjective experiences of others (Schutz 1932/1967, p. 139). Different ways of
knowing and forms of knowledge correspond to the realities of varied social contexts (Berger and Luckmann 1967). It can be argued, however, that the concepts
and categories available in all the spheres of the world are held in a similar form
by a number of individuals, in such a manner that effective communication
becomes possible. In the previous section, we have outlined this characteristic of
a concept.
These collective representations (Durkheim 1895/1972) are supra-individual
in nature and are imposed upon individual cognition. When Vygotsky pointed to
the social dimension of human mental processes, as he did in his general genetic
law of cultural development, he was drawing from this position (Kozulin 1990).
The fact that those collective constructions are imposed upon individual cognition
follows from the development of individual thinking through the construction of an
internal plane of functioning by means of cultural tools made available through
social interactions. As our social experience is diverse and multifaceted, we do
not share only one series of concepts and categories that can be used to signify the
world of our experiences. On the contrary, we have at our disposal a diversity of
stabilized meanings in different social languages, the weight each of them in our
personal way of thinking depending on the extent to which we had opportunities to
fruitfully use them throughout our development, in order to face challenges posed
by our experiences.
The conceptual profile theory is grounded precisely in the idea that people
exhibit different ways of seeing and conceptualizing the world and, thus, different
modes of thinking that are used in different contexts. Heterogeneity of thinking
means that in any culture and in any individual, there are different types of verbal
thinking, not only a single, homogeneous form of thinking (Tulviste 1991).
Conceptual profiles can be seen as models of the heterogeneity of modes of thinking available for people with a given cultural background to use in a variety of
contexts or domains (Mortimer 1995, 2000). Modes of thinking are treated here as
the scientific community in order to represent relevant aspects of our experience and/or systems/
processes assumed to exist in the empirical world (cf. Giere 1988; Gilbert and Boulter 1998). The
diverse meanings attributed to the term model capture distinct relationships between elements of
knowledge. In the above interpretation, models capture the relationship between a symbolic system (a representation) and aspects of our experience and/or natural systems and processes.
Theories, in turn, can be taken to be families of models which represent aspects of the empirical
world in a variety of systematic manners and play an important role in explaining and/or predicting
phenomena (van Fraassen 1980; Dutra 2009). From this standpoint, each conceptual profile built
is a model, and the conceptual profile theory is a family of such models. Needless to say, this theory has epistemological and methodological grounds, which guide the construction of conceptual
profile models. This also means that conceptual profile models should be submitted to the typical
cycle of test and revision that can lead to model improvement. Finally, it is important to assert that
the generality of a conceptual profile model depends on the sociocultural circumstances which are
involved in meaning making about a concept.

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

15

stable manners of conceptualizing a given kind of experience, by ascribing to it a


socially constructed meaning attributed to a certain concept. In our approach, each
mode of thinking is modeled as a zone in a conceptual profile, stabilized by
ontological, epistemological, and axiological commitments underlying meaning
making about a concept.7 Thus, we are not dealing only with an individuals
conceptual thinking, but with how it comes to be constrained by a set of socially
constructed commitments, which in turn grounds the ascription of particular meanings to a concept.
Conceptual profiles are built for a given concept and are constituted by several
zones, each representing a particular mode of thinking about that concept, related
to a particular way of speaking. Each individual has his or her own individual
conceptual profile. It is important to notice, however, that, according to the conceptual profile theory, it is only the relative importance (or weight) of the zones
that varies from person to person, while the zones or modes of thinking themselves are shared by individuals in a given sociocultural background, as maintained by sociocultural approaches to human action. Those differences in relative
importance depend on the individuals experience, which offered and offers more
or less opportunities for applying each zone in its appropriate contexts. For example, consider the concept of mass. The empiricist notion of mass, as something
that can be determined with a scale, is likely to have a greater importance in the
profile of a chemist who works daily in a chemical laboratory weighing samples
than a rational notion of mass as the relationship between force and acceleration.
The opposite holds true for a physics teacher who teaches Newtons laws every
year to several classes. In this sense, each individual has a different conceptual
profile for each concept, with different weights in each zone, depending on their
everyday, school, and work experiences.
An important methodological question is related to the fact that, while modes
of speaking can be accessed both socially and individually, we can only gain
access to modes of thinking in social but not individual terms. After all, ones
own mind is fundamentally private. We cannot know the contents of a persons
mind unless she tells us what she is thinking, and, in these terms, we are dealing
with speech, not with thinking directly. However, for consistency with the theoretical framework upon which we ground our approach, thinking and speech are
treated here as dialectically, inherently interrelated, and, thus, we can assume
that modes of thinking and speech are as interdependent in the individual as they
are in social languages. The interdependence of modes of thinking and ways of
speaking follows from Vygotskys idea that the internal and the external planes
of functioning are dialectically related to one another. This claim of a close
relationship between modes of thinking and ways of speaking is quite often

It is important to consider that the investigation of axiological commitments is a recent addition


to the research program (see Mattos, Chap. 10, this volume), which has not been incorporated to a
great extent in most of the empirical studies included in this book.

16

E.F. Mortimer et al.

named the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, stating that the modes of thought of a group
are functionally related to the structure of its language (Morrill 1975). It is interesting to see how this hypothesis has been stated by Whorf and Sapir:8
we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types
that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every
observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of
impressions which has to be organized by our minds and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this
way an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the
patterns of our language. (Whorf 1940, pp. 21314)
Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social
activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language
which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to
imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or
reflection. The fact of the matter is that the real world is to a large extent unconsciously
built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar
to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different
societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached.
(Sapir 1929, p. 209)

We can reach some conclusions about individual modes of thinking based on


modes of speaking, if we exercise caution in methodological terms. It is indeed the
case that the fact that the internal plane of functioning can only be accessed by
means of modes of speaking has methodological consequences. In particular, it
requires that, in order to build a conceptual profile, we consider a large variety of
meanings ascribed to a concept and a diversity of contexts of meaning making,
including at least three of the genetic domains taken into account by Vygotsky in
his studies about the relationships between thought, language, and concept formation, namely, the sociocultural, ontogenetic, and microgenetic domains (Wertsch
1985).9 What we seek in the data related to meaning making in these domains are
ontological and epistemological (and, more recently, axiological) commitments
8

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be framed in two different manners, committed to either linguistic
determinism or linguistic relativity, i.e., there are two different ways of interpreting the idea that
the language a person speaks is connected with differences in her conceptualization of the world.
Linguistic determinism is a strong version of the hypothesis stating that the language determines
thought, and linguistic categories both limit and determine cognitive categories. Linguistic relativity
is a weaker doctrine, stating that the language one speaks influences how one thinks (Margolis and
Laurence 2008), or, to put it differently, that differences in the way language encodes cognitive
categories influence thought. We do not need to subscribe to the too strong thesis of linguistic
determinism in order to support the claim of a close relationship between modes of thinking and
ways of speaking. The weaker thesis of linguistic relativity is enough to sustain this claim, since
from the influence of language on thought, a close connection can follow, without being a deterministic relationship.
9
We will not deal with the methodology of conceptual profile construction in detail here, but just
highlight some aspects relevant to the arguments at stake. We refer the reader to the Chap. 3 on
methodology in this volume.

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

17

that stabilize modes of thinking and speaking about concepts and, thus, allow us to
individuate zones in the construction of a profile. To uncover these commitments,
we use data from a variety of sources in a dialogical manner, striving to place them
all the time in interaction with each other. Among the sources that can be used, we
find the following: (1) secondary sources about the history of science and epistemological analyses of the concept at stake, which are particularly helpful to understand meaning making in the sociocultural domain and the establishment of
ontological and epistemological commitments that guide the process of signifying
a concept; (2) works about students alternative conceptions, which are useful to
understand meaning making in the ontogenetic domain; and (3) data gathered
through interviews, questionnaires, and recordings of discursive interactions in a
variety of meaning making contexts, mainly in educational settings, which give
access to the ontogenetic and microgenetic domains.10
To build the zones of a conceptual profile is more than categorizing written or
spoken discourse, although it typically involves this procedure. The necessity of
going beyond categorization becomes clear when we consider that the zones of a
profile are individuated by ontological, epistemological, and axiological commitments that structure different modes of thinking and speaking about a concept. Such
commitments are not typically given in an explicit manner in utterances or statements. One needs, so as to say, to probe deeper into the subjects assertions in order
to interpret them in terms of a repertoire of ontological, epistemological, and axiological commitments.
In this connection, it is also worth considering that the collection and interpretation of data are conceived by us as part of a dialogic process structured by the intentions and procedures of the researcher (Martins 2006). Therefore, we never think of
evidence used to build a profile as raw data, from which one could obtain categories and, subsequently, ontological, epistemological, and axiological commitments
by a merely inductive process. It is the active interpretation of the researcher, guided
by hypotheses provided by the dialogue between her sources, which allows her to
work out these commitments and individuate zones of a profile. Needless to say, it
is crucial to introduce in this approach several procedures to control the quality of
the analysis, in such a manner that conceptual profiles can be built with sufficient
rigor and coherence.
It is also important to say that we do not think of the conceptual profile research
program as developing along the same lines as the alternative conceptions movement, in the 1970s and 1980s. There is no true interest, in our view, in building
countless conceptual profiles, for each and every concept. Our aim is to build profiles for concepts that fulfill a number of requisites: (1) they should be central rather
than peripheral concepts in a given science; (2) they should be polysemous enough
for a conceptual profile to be worth building, since there would be no avail in doing
all the hard work needed to build a profile if very few distinct meanings, not to say
10

It is important to stress that we are not proposing the existence of biunivocal relationships
between genetic domains and sources of data, but only illustrating some relationships that have
been useful in previous investigations about conceptual profiles.

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E.F. Mortimer et al.

modes of thinking, could be related to a concept; and (3) they should be used both
in everyday and scientific language, so that one can build a model of the heterogeneity of thinking and speaking that can be used in analyzing students classroom
discourse.
Assuming the existence of conceptual profiles as a manifestation of heterogeneity of thinking implies recognizing the coexistence of two or more meanings for the
same word or concept, which are accessed and used by the individual in the appropriate contexts. Science itself is not a homogeneous form of knowing and speaking
and can provide multiple ways of seeing the world, which may exist together in the
same individual and be drawn upon in different contexts. For example, the concept
of the atom is not restricted to one unique point of view. When explaining several
properties of substances, chemists deal with the atom as a rigid and indivisible
sphere, like the Daltonian atom. The structural formulae used by chemists also
represent atoms in this way, arranged in molecules. This model is not suitable, however, for explaining several phenomena, including chemical reactivity, where more
sophisticated models, including those derived from quantum mechanics, are used.
Furthermore, it is not only in science that we find heterogeneity of thinking.
Countless scientific words are also used in everyday experiences and, consequently, show several meanings other than those compatible with scientific points of
view. In a conceptual profile, this means that one or more modes of thinking which
are not compatible with the scientific ones will be present.
In the face of this heterogeneity, what does it mean to say that a student learns
about atoms at school? We argued above that the different meanings of a concept
that coexist in an individual and are modeled as zones in a conceptual profile can be
accessed in appropriate contexts. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that an individual indeed knows which meanings are most appropriate for which contexts. This
is something to be learned, and to learn this is to learn about the very heterogeneity
of thinking and speaking and the diversity of contexts in which we use our thoughts
and speech.
Accordingly, the conceptual profile theory conceives learning as involving two
interwoven processes: (1) enriching an individuals conceptual profile (a cognitive
process) and (2) becoming aware of the multiplicity of modes of thinking that constitutes the profile as well as of the contexts in which they can be applied with
pragmatic value (a metacognitive process) (El-Hani and Mortimer 2007). In science
teaching, the first process typically involves learning scientific modes of thinking to
which students generally do not have access by other means. In the second process,
it is necessary to give the students a clear view about how modes of thinking can be
demarcated from each other and, moreover, about which modes of thinking are
appropriate for which contexts.11 In both senses, we can speak of conceptual
11

To be entirely clear, we are not claiming that the conceptual profile approach has, in any sense,
solved the philosophical problem of demarcation. We are speaking here about demarcation as a
situated process, related to pragmatic reasoning in connection with particular problems, and also
as a hypothetical and ongoing process, in which people will choose some modes of approaching a
problem and use them, and the pragmatic value of modes of thinking will be increased or decreased

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

19

evolution in connection with the conceptual profile theory, but not as proposed by
Posner et al. (1982), to the effect that students break away with their previous conceptions, replacing them by scientific ideas.
For example, in a conceptual profile built for the scientific concept of heat or
heating (Amaral and Mortimer 2001; see below), we find a zone corresponding to
the scientific way of thinking about heat as a process of energy transfer between
systems at different temperatures and modes of thinking related to the everyday
concept of heat, which assumes heat as being substantive in nature and proportional
to temperature, so that we can speak about cold heat and hot heat. In the science
classroom, students should learn the scientific concept. This amounts to an enrichment of the conceptual profile of heat. In everyday life, they will find, however,
discursive contexts that reinforce the idea that heat is a substance and is proportional
to temperature. To put it differently, the pragmatic value of everyday language will
preserve meanings that are at odds with the scientific view. For instance, in a shop a
student will naturally ask for a warm woolen coat. This mode of speaking is far
more appropriate and powerful than the scientific discourse in that context, and, due
to the inextricable relationship between thought and language, it is likely to bring
with it a corresponding mode of thinking.12 After all, communication with the salesperson will only become more difficult if the student asked for a coat made from a
good thermal insulator, which prevents the body from exchanging heat with the
environment.
This example leads to two important conclusions: (1) scientific modes of thinking and speaking are not more powerful in all contexts of experience, but just in part
of them thus, science education cannot take as a goal the replacement of everyday
language by scientific language; (2) the usage of language is not inconsequential,
since it is closely and importantly related to modes of thinking and plays a central
role in how we deal with different problems in our everyday lives thus, one should
not undervalue the fact that everyday language or scientific language tends to be
used in different contexts, where each of them shows pragmatic value. One is not
really recognizing what is at stake if one says that when the student asked for a
warm woolen coat, she was just using a manner of speaking. All that is consequential in relation to this event concerns the fact that she used a specific mode of
speaking!
The usage of everyday language in contexts in which it shows pragmatic value
preserves meanings that are, at times, in disagreement with scientific ideas. Difficulties
for them, depending on how successful they deal with the problem by using a specific approach. It
is not inconsequential, thus, that we refer to demarcation by focusing on contexts of application.
12
Do we need to be committed to the idea that every time one says please, bring me a warm
woolen coat, one is thinking of heat as a substance and as being proportional to temperature? Not
really. Our claim is different, to the effect that it states that when one says please, bring me a warm
woolen coat, one is, often inadvertently, reinforcing that way of thinking, even though it may not
come to her conscious attention, and, even, it might be rejected by her, if she became conscious of
the implications, in terms of modes of thinking, of what she is saying. Nevertheless, she will continue to use that way of speaking and thinking, despite the moment of rejection, because it continues to fulfill some role in culture, properly functioning in an appropriate context.

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E.F. Mortimer et al.

in science teaching follow from this fact, particularly when we are speaking about
alternative conceptions that are resistant to change. The conceptual profile theory
faces this difficulty by emphasizing both the diversity of thought and speech and the
importance of demarcation between the proper contexts of application of different
modes of thinking and speaking. It is for this reason that the metacognitive goal of
becoming aware of the multiplicity of modes of thinking and their contexts of application is one of the greatest concerns in this approach. When a student understands a
profile of modes of thinking about a given concept, it is expected that she also comprehends that they are not all equally powerful when it comes to solve particular problems. From this perspective, to learn science is also to learn about the contexts in
which the scientific mode of thinking is the more appropriate and compelling choice.13
Coming back to the example above, suppose her teacher enters the shop by
chance and asks the student if the coat indeed has the property of being warm. The
student then answers that it is not the case that the coat is warm, but rather that it is
a good thermal insulator. One might be tempted to say that the teachers question
made the student differentiate between the right and the wrong answer. But this is
the same, in our view, as assuming that the scientific mode of thinking is the most
adequate in all circumstances, while the very fact that the student can communicate
more effectively with the salesperson by using everyday language can be taken as
evidence that the latter is indeed more adequate in that specific context. We interpret the event in a different manner: when the teacher makes the question, the student is immediately brought to the context of school science, and, in that context,
her answer is indeed more correct than assuming that the coat has the property of
being warm. This hypothetical student is, from our perspective, showing an awareness of the heterogeneity of modes of thinking about heat as well as of the demarcation between the domains in which different meanings can be fruitfully applied.
She can be regarded as a successful science learner and, more than that, as being
capable of aptly drawing on everyday and scientific ideas of heat in a complementary manner.
It is in these terms that the conceptual profile theory treats conceptual evolution in
terms of the coexistence of distinct conceptions, not as a process of breaking away
with ones own conceptions. Concerning pedagogical practice, the importance of
awareness of the conceptual profile as a goal of science education entails the key role
13

This does not mean that the students will necessarily opt for the scientific mode of thinking every
time they face a context in which scientific ideas are pragmatically powerful. We should remember
that choices about ways of thinking do not take place by means of rational appraisals only. Many
contextual and affective factors are involved in such choices, and if we neglect them, we will be
committed to a view of cold cognition, as we see in the first version of Posner and colleagues
(1982) model of conceptual change (see Pintrich et al. 1993). Nevertheless, we think it is important
to emphasize the rational element when addressing in science classrooms the metacognitive goal
of becoming aware of the multiplicity of modes of thinking and their contexts of application. This
does not mean that we should not consider the affective and contextual dimension of decisionmaking but rather that we need to strive to educate our students so that they are capable of judging
the reasons that may or may not justify a given choice of way of thinking about particular, concrete
situations. We agree with Smith and Siegels (2004) in that a capacity of justifying ideas (and decisions) is also a dimension of understanding, as a goal of science teaching.

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

21

of promoting in the classroom a diversity of contexts where scientific ideas can be


applied. Furthermore, it seems worth working also with contexts in which scientific
ideas show pragmatic value in everyday contexts, as well as contexts in which everyday language is valuable, with due attention being given to demarcation. After all, to
develop conceptual understanding in science, it is necessary to establish relationships
between scientific and everyday meanings for the same words. But this relationship is
not one of subsuming all other forms of knowledge into science, but rather of developing dialogues between different forms of knowledge in order to distinguish clearly
between them and among the contexts in which they can be best applied. In this sense,
nonscientific modes of thinking and meaning making are not treated as inferior but
as culturally adequate for some but not all spheres of life in which we act and talk.
This also entails that scientific views are indeed more adequate in a number of spheres
of life and, for this reason, should be appropriated by students if science education is
to socially and culturally empower them. Moreover, it is not that one should necessarily avoid being critical about common sense and other culturally based views but
rather that one is entitled to restrict the validity of these criticisms to the domain in
which science is valid. In criticizing, for instance, the common sense view that heat is
proportional to temperature and is the opposite of another form of heat called cold,
a teacher should insist that this latter view is different from the scientific one. She
should also recognize that it can be more convenient to speak about cold and hot
things in everyday life, since this approach has a deep cultural root, is part of our language, and allows for communication in most everyday situations. Nevertheless, in
other everyday life situations, the scientific view of heat as a process of energy transfer
is far more powerful than the common sense view of heat and cold as properties of
materials. Consider, for example, a situation in which one has to decide which type of
drinking vessel will be better to keep a drink cold on a warm day, one made of aluminum or one made of glass. The common sense view might lead us to choose the aluminum, since it is cold. The scientific view, in turn, helps us to understand that since
aluminum is a better thermal conductor than glass (and therefore feels cold to the
touch), the drink will get warmer quicker in the aluminum vessel than in the glass.
In this sense, the conceptual profile theory helps us to comprehend how a student
can come to apply a scientific idea in some but not all contexts of her daily life.
When we are in a shop looking for warm clothes, the common sense view is far
more convenient. But when we have to choose a type of vessel to drink a cold beverage, the scientific view is much more appropriate. If we help a student to become
aware of her conceptual profile of heat and temperature after learning the scientific
view, she can comprehend in which contexts of daily life this scientific view might
best be applied, and, moreover, at least part of the resistance that she might show in
applying scientific ideas is likely to be overcome.
The Bakhtinian notions of speech genre and social language are helpful in finding ways of relating different modes of thinking, as modeled in the zones of a
conceptual profile, with different ways of speaking. For this reason, we have combined the theoretical and methodological grounds provided by the work of the
Bakhtin circle with conceptual profiles in a single, integrated approach to classroom discourse analysis.

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E.F. Mortimer et al.

Speech genres and social languages are two forms of stratification of language
that ensure its heterogeneity. A social language is a discourse peculiar to a specific
stratum of society (professional, age group, etc.) within a given social system at a
given time (Holquist 1981, p. 430). All social languages are
specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific
world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values () As such they
encounter one another and co-exist in the consciousness of real people. (Bakhtin 1981, pp.
291292)

In Bakhtins view, a speaker always produces an utterance using a specific social


language that shapes what she can say. In turn,
a speech genre is not a form of language, but a typical form of utterance; as such the genre
also includes a certain typical kind of expression that inheres in it () Genres correspond
to typical situations of speech communication, typical themes, and, consequently, also to
particular contacts between the meanings of words and the actual concrete reality under
certain typical circumstances. (Bakhtin 1986, p. 87)

While a social language is related to a specific point of view determined by a


social or professional position, the speech genre is related to the social and institutional place where the discourse is produced. This is in agreement with sociocultural theories about human action, which, as discussed above, claim that we all
share modes of thinking and ways of speaking that can be used to signify the world
of our experiences. It is also in accordance with the idea that in science education,
students should learn the social languages of science and school science through
discursive interactions in which they and their teachers communicate through the
speech genre of classroom talk (Mortimer and Scott 2003).
Nevertheless, as outlined above, learning involves not only understanding the
scientific modes of thinking. We should also consider the metacognitive goal of
students becoming aware of the heterogeneity of modes of thinking and the demarcation between their domains of application. To become aware of such a multiplicity of meanings and contexts involves a dialogue between new and old zones in a
conceptual profile. Thus, we think of learning according to the conceptual profile
theory in terms of a Bakhtinian approach to understanding, according to which any
true understanding, or meaning making, is dialogic in nature because it depends on
laying down a set of our own answering words for each word of an utterance we are
in the process of understanding (Voloshinov 1929/1973, p. 102). From this perspective, understanding demands that we populate the discourse of others with our own
counterwords. In these terms, a student will only be able to understand and learn
scientific ideas by negotiating their meanings within her conceptual ecology, usually organized around nonscientific views.
The idea that a conceptual profile should be enriched through education and that
learning cannot therefore be taken as the substitution of one mode of thinking by
another can be grounded in James Wertschs (1991) notion of heterogeneity despite
genetic hierarchy. Wertsch assumes that different forms of thinking can be ranked
genetically (in the sense of development or generation), but latter forms are not
assumed to be more powerful. The development of new forms of activity gives rise
to new types of thinking. Nevertheless, since earlier forms of activity continue to

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

23

fulfill some role in culture, the old types of thinking employed in these earlier forms
are preserved and continue to function well in their appropriate contexts. According
to Wertsch (1991, p. 97), this position [] can be summarized by saying that
although some forms of functioning emerge later than others, they are not inherently better. These ideas can lead to charges of relativism. Nevertheless, we do not
see the conceptual profile research program as committed to relativism, but rather to
pragmatism, as discussed in Chap. 2, in this volume.
Finally, we should briefly consider how conceptual profiles fit into the analysis
of classroom discursive interactions. In order to do so, let us consider that discourse
analysis requires that we investigate discourse as a linguistic phenomenon, i.e., how
language is used in discursive interactions; a cognitive phenomenon, i.e., how discourse influences meaning making; and a social phenomenon, i.e., how discourse
mediates social interactions. Conceptual profiles provide a heuristically powerful
tool to analyze the cognitive dimension of discourse. They are located, thus, in one
pole of discourse analysis structured around the relationship between modes of
thinking and ways of speaking (Mortimer 2001): while conceptual profiles are powerful tools to analyze modes of thinking, ways of speaking can be fruitfully analyzed in terms of Bakhtins (1986) social languages and speech genres.

1.4

An Example of Conceptual Profile


Model: Heat and Temperature

The aim of this section is to discuss an example of conceptual profile model. In the
description of its construction, we will work with two different genetic domains,
addressed by two types of studies: the ontogenetic domain, exemplified by several
works dealing with teaching and learning of the concepts of heat and temperature,
and the sociocultural domain, exemplified by works in the history of science. We
will not deal with the microgenetic domain here for reasons of space, since this
would involve reporting results of classroom investigations, which would greatly
increase the size of this chapter. This domain was considered, however, in the construction of the conceptual profile of heat discussed here.
The concept of heat has already been addressed in several studies in science
education. These studies consider several aspects of the concept, such as the students informal ideas about heat and temperature, learning difficulties associated
with the teaching of these concepts, different teaching strategies to deal with these
difficulties, and the history of the concept (e.g., Albert 1978; Brook et al. 1984;
Erickson 1985; Cervantes 1987; Silva 1995; Barbosa Lima and Barros 1997;
Mortimer and Amaral 1998). There are also studies that consider the energetic
aspects of chemical reactions and address the difficulties that learners may have in
understanding the concept of energy (Duit 1984; Gilbert and Pope 1986; Ogborn
1990; Boo 1998) or, in particular, the abstract concept of chemical bond energy
(Cohen and Ben-Zvi 1992; Boo 1998). Here, we will draw mainly on the work of
Erickson (1985), who discusses students conceptions of heat and temperature;

24

E.F. Mortimer et al.

Silva (1995), who both discusses the different cognitive trajectories of students in
learning the concepts of heat and temperature and makes a historical report about
the development of these concepts; and Mortimer and Amaral (1998), who take
students ideas about heat and temperature as grounds for building a teaching
sequence on thermochemistry.

1.4.1

Ideas About Heat Emerging from Hot


and Cold Sensations

The most basic idea about heat emerges from the sensations of hot and cold.
According to Silva (1995), the first notions of heat resulted historically from the use
of fire. Used initially as a source of heat and light, fire soon became a means of
transforming different materials. Among the philosophers who searched for a
unique principle that could be the origin of everything, Heraclitus maintained that
fire could be the basis of the diversity of known materials and their transformation.
For him, flames could take a diversity of forms and represented the image of
diversity in nature (Vidal 1986; Silva 1995). In turn, Plato, in his account of the
geometric forms of the elements, presented fire as the most light and mobile element, corresponding to the smaller polyhedron, with power of destruction due to the
sharp edges of the figure. In his discussion of the systems of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Aristotle claimed that there is a common feature in all of them, for all
thinkers posit their elements or principles, as they call them; and, though they give
no reasoned account of these principles, nevertheless we find () that they are
really talking about contrasted couples (Physics, I, p. v). Aristotle maintained that
these antithetical principles needed something to work on, a passive principle, as the
nonantithetical subject on which the antithetical principles acted (Physics, I, p. vi).
The four elemental substances (water, fire, air, and earth) accounted for the constitution of all the sublunary bodies, but Aristotle stated that they cannot themselves be
accepted as the ultimate material, for they have antithetical characteristics and can
be transmuted into each other by antithetical changes (Physics, I, p. vii). According
to Aristotle, every material being was composed of a primary matter and form of
being. The antithetical principles corresponded to two pairs (heat and cold, dry and
humid), and each of the elements was constituted by a different combination of the
two pairs. Fire, for example, was constituted by the pair heat and dry.
Thus, the idea of heat is, from the very beginning, related to the idea of hot
things. In this way, the basic and first notion of heat in the conceptual profile model
is related to the thermal sensation of hotness. Barbosa Lima and Barros (1997),
considering the opposition between heat and cold in childrens minds, claim that hot
things and heat are synonymous for them. Erickson (1985) notices that children at
ages 23 begin to use the words heat and hot for describing their contacts with
hot objects. At ages 89, heat is used to refer to a state of hotness. With the
experience of touching several hot and cold materials, they begin to construct the
notion of a charge of heat, in which the existence of the environmental temperature

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

25

is not considered. The use of expressions such as the metal is cold and the cold
doesnt stick to the wood shows the view of temperature as an inherent characteristic of matter. These notions can be confirmed by the dictionary definition of heat
and cold (Barbosa Lima and Barros 1997). For example, the following definition of
heat is found in a well-known dictionary: a. The condition of being hot. b. A
degree of warmth or hotness (American Heritage Dictionary, electronic version).
According to Mortimer and Amaral (1998), secondary and high school students
normally tend to consider two kinds of heat, hot heat and cold heat. Both are proportional to the temperature, and while hot objects have and transmit hot heat, cold
objects have cold heat, which they pass on. According to Silva (1995), there is a
tendency among students to establish temperature as a property of bodies, an idea
that denies the existence of thermal equilibrium. In this sense, heat is the property
of hot objects and cold is the property of cold objects. Thus, it is clear that to experience the sensation of heat and cold does not produce necessarily a reflection on the
nature of heat. This idea of heat and cold as properties of the objects and the related
sensation of hot and cold constitute the first zone of the conceptual profile of heat.
This zone is extremely powerful, since it embraces all the common sense meanings which attribute heat to hot things. We use, in our everyday language, these
ideas to talk about hot and cold things. When we go to a shop and ask for a warm
coat, or when we ask someone to close the door in order to keep the cold out of the
room, we are just using heat in this sense.

1.4.2

Animistic Heat

Ideas about the nature of heat evolved throughout human history far beyond those
suggested by sensations. Leucipo and Democritus thought of heat as mobile atoms
which escaped from very hot bodies (Guaydier 1984). Schurmann (1946) presents
some of Platos ideas, as expressed in the Timaeus, where he distinguished between
fire, which penetrates matter, and its effect, heat, considered to be the motion of
small particles of matter.
Some of the ideas about the nature of heat attribute an animistic character to matter. Heat was considered to be an attribute of materials, and these materials could
have wishes related to its transference. The notion of heat and the processes of
heat and cold transfer can be related to the idea of heat as a substance with the
capacity of penetrating matter. Historically, this idea showed its power and, indeed,
endured for centuries in studies about heat. For Bachelard, animism had a remarkable role during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until the time when it was
overcome by nineteenth-century physics. According to this author, animism makes
use of a dazzling intuition which considers life as a clear and general fact
(Bachelard 1938/1996, p. 185). This makes any other principle weak when we can
evoke the vital principle: Life marks the substance it animates with an undisputable value (p. 192). Fire was regarded as a living substance, and this impregnated
the idea of an animistic heat.

26

E.F. Mortimer et al.

In childrens ideas about heat, Erickson (1985) describes that the dissociation of
heat from the sensations occurs in children at ages 56, when they are able to differentiate between the source of heat and the object it affects. At this age, consciousness of the processes of heating and cooling begins. To explain the movements of
heat, children tend to describe it as having an inherently driving force. Silva (1995)
also shows how children attribute animistic ideas to objects which would have the
wishes of giving or receiving in order to explain the processes of heating and
cooling.

1.4.3

Substantialist Heat

According to Silva (1995), even if Aristotle and Plato presented the idea that movement
produces heat and made the distinction between fire and its effect heat they ended
up relating heat to ether, giving to it a substantialist status. The idea of heat as a
substance has permeated all the scientific views since then. References to heat as
a substance can be found in Giordano Bruno, Pierre Gassendi, and Galileo. Around
1760, Joseph Black advanced the notion of latent heat, a clearly substantialist idea that
is still used to the present day. In 1793, Lavoisier and Laplace, in a joint publication,
presented the definition of specific heat that is still accepted as valid. In this publication, they alternated between a mechanical and a substantialist view of heat and
attempted to reconcile them (Schurmann 1946). Lavoisier included the caloric the
weightless and substantialized heat as one of his elementary substances.
If we now consider childrens ideas, heat is understood by many of them as
a substance, a species of fluid which has its opposite the cold (Silva 1995).
Erickson (1985) also identifies this idea among children and adolescents, who
think about heat as a body or substance released by a heat source. Even when
treating heat as a process of energy transfer, some students tend to consider it as
a substance by using expressions like smoke, rays, or waves to refer to it.
These expressions emerge from the observation of diverse phenomena, such as
the smoke driving out from an electric toaster or a heat wave emerging from
the road (Erickson 1985).
According to Chi (1992), there are some students ideas related to basic concepts
in science that belong to the ontological category of material substance, although
for scientists they belong to another ontological category, for instance, events or
processes. Accordingly, students tend to use behaviors and properties of matter to
interpret the behaviors and properties of an event. By examining the literature, Chi
concludes that there are four concepts that are treated in this manner as material
substances: heat, light, force, and electric current.
The importance of substantialism resides in the fact that, although it is not anymore an accepted scientific view, it still survives in the subtleness of the language
and the practices of many technologies that deal with heating and cooling processes.
People who install air conditioner and heat systems, for example, always deal with
hot and cold sources as releasing a substance that contains hot and cold qualities.

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

27

This idea is powerful, showing such a pragmatic value that many technologists
continue to use it, although it is at odds with the currently scientific view of heat.
Sadi Carnot, one of the pioneers in the study of thermal machines, being regarded
as one of the founders of thermodynamics, described the heat engine by analogy
with water mills. In his analogy, Carnot used the idea that heat was a fluid without
mass which flows from a hot source, thermally higher, to a cold reservoir, thermally lower. This shows how this mode of thinking about heat showed pragmatic
value in the very history of scientific ideas.
Substantialism constitutes, then, a good example of how the different zones in a
conceptual profile can be interpreted as distinct ways of thinking and speaking
about the world. Given that the substantialist form of talking and doing is so pervasive, it finds its way of surviving in the scientific and technological culture. It would
be absurd to consider this way of thinking and speaking, as found in textbooks
devoted to heat technology and among thermal engineers, as misconceptions,
although they still confound students. As a subtle system of thought that has its
domain of pragmatic efficacy, substantialism no longer belongs to the accepted scientific culture, but it has not disappeared altogether, since it is still a powerful way
of speaking about the world in order to solve a range of situated problems.
Animist and substantialist forms of thinking constitute two different zones of the
conceptual profile model, with distinct ontological commitments: animist ideas can
be related to heat treated as a living substance, while substantialist ideas refer to
heat as an inert one (Chi 1992).

1.4.4

Differentiation of Heat and Temperature

The attempt to differentiate heat from temperature is an ancient enterprise. Galeno


believed that the human body has a mixture of heat and cold which determines,
among other things, the state of health of the patient. He proposed the measurement
of body heat and cold by means of a scale of numeric grades. When his treatises
were translated into Latin (in the eleventh and twelfth centuries), the idea of a mixture of heat and cold was translated by the word corresponding to mix, temperare,
whose past participle is temperatus. Thus, the idea of temperature is attributed to
Galeno and originated in an attempt to establish the measure of the mixture of heat
and cold in the human body, which became popular among Western physicians
(Crombie 1985). However, the development of a thermometer which was capable of
measuring temperature with precision was a consequence of the work of Daniel
Fahrenheit. In 1741, Anders Celsius constructed a thermometer using a scale with a
hundred divisions between the melting and boiling point of water. This scale was
adopted and promoted by the Commission of Weights and Measures created by the
French Revolution in 1794. The improvement of the construction of thermometers
allowed scientists to do experiments, such as the one performed by Joseph Black
who, in 1760, established the differentiation between heat and temperature. With
this differentiation, heat became empirically different from the sensation of hot,

28

E.F. Mortimer et al.

implying a change in its ontological category (Chi 1992). This empirical differentiation
was a cornerstone in the construction of a theory of heat. However, that temperature
was not anymore included in the category of sensation did not imply that heat was
taken as being different from a substance.
Related to ontogenesis, the differentiation of temperature from the sensation
of heat and cold has a clear consequence for childrens ideas, since it demands
an explanation. This explanation made by the children normally consists of the
perception that hot objects contain substantialist heat and cold objects do not
(Barbosa Lima and Barros 1997). Temperature, although different from a sensation, continues to be the measure of body heat, and heat continues to be associated with high temperatures. Although the substantialist view about heat
persisted, measurements of heat obtained by thermometers brought about an
empirical approach that progressively contributed to change the way of thinking
on this concept.

1.4.5

The Scientific Concept of Heat as Being Proportional


to the Difference in Temperature Between Two Bodies

The caloric theory was not abandoned with the advent of thermal machines, since
James Watts invention could be well explained by a theory of heat as a substance.
The difficulties for this theory resulted from the fact that nobody could determine
the weight of the substance heat contained in bodies. Several famous experiments
were done to determine this weight, including, for instance, George Fordyces
attempt, in 1785, to determine if ice weighed less than the corresponding quantity
of water. Benjamin Thompson, Count of Rumford, a North American engineer
exiled in England, repeated this experiment and concluded that all attempts to determine the effects of heat over weight were useless. In 1798, he reported the first
empirical evidence on the nature of heat, when he pointed out that a huge amount of
heat was produced by canons. He treated heat as energy, not substance, since he
attributed the heating that took place during the drilling of metallic pieces to the
mechanical energy used (Hudson 1992).
The acceptance of a mechanical theory of heat by Lord Kelvin and Clausius was
decisive for the elaboration of the principles of thermodynamics and for overcoming a substantialist theory of heat. The development of thermodynamics was
inspired by the book of Sadi Carnot in which he explained heat engines (Laidler
1993). In this book, as we already said, Carnot treated heat as a weightless fluid
that flows from higher to lower temperatures, producing mechanical work. William
Thomson, who later became Lord Kelvin, reframed Carnots work and presented
the idea that heat was a form of energy which was converted into another form,
mechanical work.
As Laidler (1993) discusses, the nature of heat was much discussed in the
seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle,
Isaac Newton, and other thinkers considered heat to be a form of motion.

1 Conceptual Profiles: Theoretical-Methodological Bases of a Research Program

29

However, in the eighteenth century, the substantialist theory of heat as an


imponderable fluid gained popularity with the work of Carnot. In 1840, Julius
Robert Mayer observed the interconversion of heat and work, regarding them as
different forms of nondestructive forces. At the same time, James Prescott Joule
started his investigation on the interconversion of heat and work, based on the
experiments of Michael Faraday. His careful way of conducting the experiments
attracted the attention of William Thomson, who in 1851 presented a study in
the Edinburgh Royal Society in which he established a dynamic theory of heat,
addressing the work of Mayer and Joule, and used his theory to reanalyze
Carnots work on thermal machines. In 1854, Rudolf Julian Emmanuel Clausius
published a paper presenting a detailed analysis of the Carnot cycle using the
mechanical theory of heat (Laidler 1993).
Once the mechanical theory of heat was established and the substantialist theory
abandoned, it was possible to develop the idea of heat as a kind of energy related
to the kinetic movement of microscopic particles and the mathematical treatment
of heat as a dissipative energy associated with molecular motion. The idea of temperature was associated with the mean speed of molecules, and this allowed the
establishment of a new scale of temperature, the Kelvin scale, dealing with absolute temperature.
Silva (1995) found among students the idea of heat as an internal process which
results from friction between particles. Erickson (1985), in turn, found that some
students at the age of 16 described heat in terms of energy, when they were asked
what heat is. Chi (1992) interprets the change of heat from substance to energy as
a categorical ontological change. With the idea of heat as a form of energy, this
concept comes to refer to a process, i.e., a coordinated sequence of events, an ontological category which is different from that of substance.

1.4.6

The Conceptual Profile of Heat

With this brief presentation, we have given just a small example of a conceptual
profile model for a specific concept, with some indications about its construction.
We worked with two different genetic domains ontogenetic and sociocultural
and were able to find different modes of thinking and speaking about heat that are
still alive not only in our common sense culture but even in technological cultures,
as shown by the substantialist meaning of heat. Moreover, we argued that the concept of heat shifts from one ontological category to another as we move through this
profile; from sensations to properties of living creatures, when we move from hot
and cold sensations to animistic heat; or from matter to energy, when we go from
substantialist heat to the modern concept of heat as a process of energy transfer. All
of these meanings have their place in everyday language, and some of them still can
be found in some technological cultures. To be aware of all these meanings and to
know in which context each one can be more powerful is a difficult task that the
conceptual profile theory successfully addresses.

30

1.5

E.F. Mortimer et al.

Concluding Remarks

In this chapter we have discussed the issue of heterogeneity in talking and thinking
in science classrooms. In doing so, we have drawn upon several related theoretical
perspectives, culminating in the conceptual profile theory. We have also addressed
a particular concept heat in order to exemplify how we draw from ontogenetic
and sociocultural domains in establishing the zones that constitute a particular conceptual profile model. We see the kind of discussion presented here as being important not only in terms of the theoretical analysis but also in relation to the potential
for developing greater clarity in understanding social interactions and learning in
real classrooms, as well as for planning more effective instruction.

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Chapter 2

The Epistemological Grounds


of the Conceptual Profile Theory
Charbel N. El-Hani, Waldomiro Jos da Silva-Filho,
and Eduardo F. Mortimer

2.1

The Conceptual Profile Theory and the Charge


of Relativism

Let us begin by considering an idea that plays an important role in the conceptual
profile theory, namely, the notion of heterogeneity despite genetic hierarchy, proposed by Wertsch (1991). Wertsch assumes that different forms of thinking can be
ranked genetically (in the sense of development or generation), but more recent
forms are not assumed to be more powerful. Based on the notion of spheres of
life put forward by William James (1907) in his description of where common
sense, science, and critical philosophy may be adequate and appropriate, and on
the activity-oriented approach outlined by Tulviste (1991), Wertsch claims that
the development of new forms of activity gives rise to new types of thinking, but,
since the earlier forms of activity continue to fulfill some role in culture, older
types of thinking are preserved and continue to function well in appropriate contexts. This idea can lead to a charge of relativism. Although we do not consider this
to be a fair criticism of either Wertschs or our position, it is indeed necessary to
build a case against this interpretation. The goal of this chapter is to directly face

C.N. El-Hani (*)


Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Rua Baro do Geremoabo, s/n,
Campus de Ondina, Ondina, 40170-290 Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
e-mail: charbel@ufba.br; charbel.elhani@gmail.com
W.J. da Silva-Filho
Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Philosophy and Human Sciences,
Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), Salvador, Brazil
E.F. Mortimer
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais,
Av. Antnio Carlos 6627, 31.270-901 Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_2, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

35

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C.N. El-Hani et al.

this criticism, discussing whether or not the conceptual profile theory is committed
to relativism. We will argue that this theory is not relativistic, offering an alternative
stance as its philosophical ground. More specifically, we will appeal to objective
pragmatism, as advocated by Peirce, Dewey, and other thinkers, to build such a
position, instead of a Jamesian, more subjective pragmatism, which influenced
Wertschs argument. But, first, let us briefly come back to the nature of learning in
the conceptual profile theory.
Assuming the existence of conceptual profiles as a manifestation of the heterogeneity of thinking implies recognizing the possible coexistence in an individual of two
or more meanings for the same word or concept, which can be accessed and used in
the appropriate contexts (or not). In the face of this heterogeneity, learning is conceived
in the conceptual profile theory as involving two interwoven processes: (1) enriching
an individuals conceptual profile and (2) becoming aware of the plurality of modes of
thinking that constitutes the profile and the contexts in which they can be fruitfully
applied (El-Hani and Mortimer 2007). In science teaching, the first (cognitive) process
typically involves learning scientific modes of thinking, while the second (metacognitive) process demands that the students acquire a clearer view about which modes of
thinking are appropriate in which contexts. This view is compatible with Wertschs
notion of heterogeneity despite genetic hierarchy, albeit we stress that, even though
modes of thinking are not inherently better, some modes can be pragmatically better
than others, depending on the problem posed to the individuals.
It is important to consider that students can be in a cognitive developmental state
in which they master a scientific idea but are not yet aware of how it fits into the
heterogeneity of their own thinking. As Vygotsky (1934/2001, p. 229) argues, the
existence of a concept and the consciousness of this concept do not coincide, either
in the moment of their emergence or in their functioning. That is, the analysis of
reality grounded in concepts appears much earlier than the analysis of concepts
themselves. Thus, the application of knowledge to concrete and authentic situations
should be always given a central role in science teaching, since this will prepare the
students to understand in the future that knowledge is to be applied in solving problems, and, thus, that we can differentiate between ideas more applicable to some
kinds of problems than to others.
To come back to an example discussed in Chap. 1, a student can become aware
that the scientific concept of heat, as a process of energy transfer between systems
at different temperatures, is complementary to her everyday concept of heat, which
assumes heat as being proportional to temperature. However, there are contexts in
which one of the meanings is more appropriately used than the other. In the science
classroom, students should learn the scientific way of understanding the concept.
But the pragmatic value of everyday language will preserve meanings that are at
odds with the scientific view. For example, to ask in a shop for a warm woolen
coat is far more appropriate than asking for a coat made from a good thermal
insulator. Nevertheless, if the students know that the warmth of the wool is conceived from a scientific perspective as being due to the warmth of our body as the
wool isolates it from the environment, they will show a conscious awareness of this
profile, being capable of drawing on everyday and scientific ideas of heat in a
complementary and appropriate manner.

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

37

The conceptual profile theory stresses the need of dialogue between scientific
and everyday meanings in order to develop conceptual understanding in science,
clearly distinguishing between different forms of knowledge and the contexts in
which they can be best applied. It is not that nonscientific modes of thinking and
meaning making should be devalued, as if they were inherently inferior, but that
they have to be recognized as culturally adequate for some but not all spheres of life
in which we act and talk.
Is this view about learning committed to a relativist stance about knowledge
appraisal? To obtain a clear view about this issue, we should consider the meaning
of relativism and its counterpart, rationalism, in order to provide an explicit account
of how we understand these terms, since they have been and are still used in a variety of ways. For the purpose of our arguments, we will also introduce pragmatism
as a putative via media between rationalism and relativism.

2.2

Rationalism and Relativism

The debate about rationalism and relativism mostly concerns theory appraisal and
choice but is also related to the problem of demarcation between science and nonscience. A rationalist thinker claims that there can be atemporal and universal
criteria to evaluate the relative merits of rival theories. For a Popperian falsificationist,
for instance, such criterion would be the degree of falseability of theories that
have not been falsified yet. Falseability or refutability also provides a criterion of
demarcation. For Popper, the solution to the problem of demarcation between the
scientific and nonscientific (which includes a broad set of beliefs from metaphysics
to ideology and common sense) lies in the refutability, since to be classified as
scientific a proposition or system of propositions should be capable of entering into
conflict with possible or conceivable observations (cf. Popper 1962/2002). Against
dogmatic intellectual attitudes, which intend to either impose a theory to the
world or assume that the world somehow offers us the best theory, Popper advocates
a critical attitude (a critical rationalism). This critical attitude can be described
as the conscious effort to submit our theories and conceptions to rigorous logical
and empirical tests. In Poppers view, the goal of the scientist is not to discover
absolute certainty but to create increasingly better theories, which have more and
more content (as a consequence of their growing degree of falsifiability) and are
capable of being submitted to more and more rigorous tests. It is only through the
establishment of the falsity of our conjectures that we can, in fact, learn about reality
(cf. Popper 1972). We can see, thus, how Popper is committed to the idea of an
atemporal and universal criterion to evaluate the relative merits of theories, i.e., that
Popper is a rationalist. In these terms, it is assumed that, when choosing between
two or more theories, a scientist would act in an entirely rational manner, using
universal and ahistorical criteria, a set of clear and unambiguous rules to determine
theory choice.
It is also common that a rationalist takes theories that are in accordance with the
universal criteria for theory choice as increasingly true, or approximately true, or

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probably true, despite the problematic nature of the notion of truth. Truth, rationality,
and science are closely related in a rationalist stance, and, on the side of values, they
are also seen as intrinsically good.
It is quite clear that such a rationalist stance cannot fit together with the conceptual profile theory. The alternative is a relativist account of knowledge appraisal, or
so it seems. This is not the space to discuss all aspects involved in the idea of a relativist philosophical position with regard to knowledge. This is indeed an intensely
debated theme.1 We are only interested in emphasizing some consequences of the
relativist denial of the existence of universal and ahistorical rationalist criteria that
might guide our judgments and decisions about what theory to choose among a
diversity of rival theories. In the absence of such criteria, it seems, at first, that what
is better or worse with regard to scientific theories varies from individual to individual and/or from community to community. Indeed, we find in many relativists
the idea that the goal of knowledge construction will depend on what is regarded as
important or valued by the individual or community at stake (Chalmers 1993). In
these terms, accounts of progress in knowledge and the choice of criteria to judge
the merits of theories will be always relative to individuals or communities. Most
importantly, the relativism which interests us here amounts to the thesis that the
criticism against universal criteria of demarcation or theory appraisal has, as a necessary consequence, the conclusion that for this reason we cannot evaluate our
beliefs (cf. Swoyer 2003; Heise 2004).
This is the problem of equal validity, which follows from a claim such as the
following: There are many radically different, yet equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them (as discussed by Boghossian
2002, p. 2). This position is not a straw man. Rather, it became particularly strong
in the work of some contemporary philosophers and social scientists (e.g., Unger
1979; Margolis 1991; Bloor 1992; Lynch 1998; Winch 2007), who directed a
fierce criticism against the pretense of truthfulness and universal validity of
science, as a way of defending the diversity of ways of knowing, produced in
different cultures.
This view is also strong in science education. Many advocates of multicultural
science education assume this brand of relativism, arguing that Western modern
science is just one example of a number of equally valid sciences built by mankind
throughout its history (e.g., Pomeroy 1992; Ogawa 1995; Kawagley et al. 1998).
Ogawa (1995, p. 588), for instance, claims that any rational perceiving of reality
can be called science. But if we assume that rationality is plural and that there are
many styles of reason, produced in different sociocultural circumstances, i.e., that
all humans should be recognized as rational beings, then all cognitive human
activities will count as science, according to Ogawas rendering of the term. Or take
the argument that science is a way of knowing and generating reliable knowledge
about natural phenomena. Other cultures have generated reliable knowledge
about natural phenomena, therefore reason invites exploration of the possibility
that other cultures may have different sciences (Pomeroy 1992, p. 257). In this
1

For a general treatment of the debates about relativism, see Kirk (1999) and Boghossian (2002).

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

39

manner, each and every reliable knowledge about natural phenomena counts
as scientific.2
If we do not take the epistemic criteria used in science into accountas well as
the epistemic criteria found in other forms of knowledgewe will not be able to
comprehend and stimulate our students to comprehend the differences between
diverse ways of knowing. And, as the conceptual profile theory intends to make it
clear, it is important to be aware of the distinctions between the different modes of
thinking that populate our social experience. Precisely because thinking is heterogeneous, we should strive for building a more systematic and organized view of this
heterogeneity, in such a manner that polysemy does not degenerate into unbridled
ambiguities and conceptual confusions. Moreover, as El-Hani and Bandeira (2008)
argue, we gain nothing by conflating the meaning of the term science with the
meaning of another word we already have to speak about the diversity of human
ways of knowing, namely, knowledge. If we do so, we will only lose a term whose
meaning we are striving to clarify, science, in order to obtain just one more
synonym.
Some could advocate, however, that since science is highly esteemed in our
modern societies, and so many times regarded as hierarchically superior to any
other form of knowledge (from a scientistic perspective), to call other ways of
knowing science can be justified as a way of stressing their value. But it is worth
considering arguments to the effect that to include other ways of knowing into a
broad concept of science may contribute to their devaluation rather than to their
legitimacy (Cobern and Loving 2001; El-Hani and Bandeira 2008). In this manner,
they lose their distinctiveness and, also, their epistemic value in terms of their own
validation criteria. By calling them science, we can inadvertently set the stage for
them to be submitted to the criteria of modern science, instead of being valued by
their own merits. This is a game they are bound to lose, since they would have to
compete where [modern science] is strongest technical precision control, creative
genius, and explanatory power (Cobern and Loving 2001, p. 62).
The equal validity approach has tended to a naturalization of truth and reason,
and, often, it came to mean the end of general criteria that might establish a reasonable distinction between belief, on the one hand, and true belief, on the other, as
much as between acting and rationally acting. Validity could be taken, in this case,
to mean merely the agreement with cultural and social conventions established in
the process of organization of a human community.
This was supposed to oblige us to accept the criticism of any form of realism or
belief based on rational reasons and justifications.3 Rather, our knowledge would
2

For a broader discussion of the (robust) multiculturalist arguments for broadening the concept of
science and their relationship with the conceptual profile theory and a related conception of the
goals of science teaching, see El-Hani and Mortimer (2007). El-Hani and Bandeira (2008) discuss
the multiculturalist account of science in relation to Indigenous knowledge.
3
This movement suggests that we should accept the incommensurability of beliefs, since all symbolic regimes define in their own domain different criteria of truthfulness and fulfillingness, imposing their own forms of rationality and acceptability. All these regimes would deserve the same
dignity, with no judgment stemming from a Tribunal of General Reason. It became evident to those

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C.N. El-Hani et al.

amount to the construction of narratives and interpretations which are, in turn,


symbolic systems that organize and categorize experience. These narratives and
interpretations are, moreover, plural; they depend on diverse modes of construction
and exhaust themselves to the same extent that they correct and renew themselves.
With this linguistic-pragmatist-hermeneutic turn, the place of epistemology and
metaphysics was occupied by a world without substances or essences, a truth
with no correspondence to reality, and an ethics without principles (Rorty 1999).
Now speaking of science, in particular, the kind of relativist position sketched
above entails that all we can do in order to comprehend scientists theory choices
is to investigate their values and how these values guide their choices. Thus,
theory choice would no more be an epistemological issue, but a topic for psychological investigations and, given that no choice is really individual, but depends
on the social circumstances in which one is embedded, also of sociological investigations. The relevance of epistemology is thus denied, and, not surprisingly,
this has paved the way to science studies, in which epistemological, sociological,
and historical issues are all treated together, and any normative intention in
epistemology is under suspicion. We see no problem with this merging of fields,
since to understand science we do need to account for the interdependence of the
epistemological, historical, and sociological dimensions. But there is no need to
bring relativism together as unchecked luggage. Or else, there is no need to
devalue epistemology. In this scenario, we need some via media between relativism and rationalism.

2.3

Pragmatism

As a philosophical doctrine, pragmatism traces back to the academic skeptics in


classical antiquity and developed in the history of Western thinking under the influence of a variety of philosophical doctrines, ranging from Kants idea of pragmatic
belief to moral agency (Margolis 2009). Despite the many varieties of pragmatist
philosophy, a basic common theme in the tradition of pragmatism is a strong
emphasis on the practice- and discourse-embeddedness of any human cognitive

that inherited the language games (Winch 2007), ontological relativism (Quine 1969), and
world-versions (Goodman 1978) that our knowledge does not consist in an unmediated mirroring of external things. This does not mean, however, that rampant relativism is to be accepted.
Quines naturalism, for instance, advocates that we cannot think or speak of an object (such as a
number, a natural being) outside a conceptual scheme or language, since there is no absolute
object, absolute position, and absolute value. Ontology is relative to the natural process of belief
formation. However, Quine does not claim that any conceptual scheme can be accepted or that all
of them can be equally valid. As belief formation is a natural process, taking place, thus, in our own
immersion in nature, certain beliefs can be better than others, to the extent that they guarantee more
explanatory success (Quine 1969). This position points to a via media, such as that one offered by
objective pragmatism.

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

41

construction (Pihlstrm 1996; El-Hani and Pihlstrm 2002).4 It is due to this


emphasis that we think that pragmatismin some of its formscan be integrated
with the conceptual profile theory, providing the necessary epistemological basis
to this research program on teaching and learning.
If we focus on the epistemic concern for meaning and truth, philosophical pragmatism is characterized, generally speaking, by the idea that efficacy in practical
application provides a standard for the determination of the truth of statements
(Rescher 1995). It is not that pragmatists simply reject the notion of truth as some
relation of correspondence between belief and reality; rather, their intention is to
clarify what we mean by such a relation by appealing to actions, even though there
is substantial variation among pragmatists about how to carry out such practical
clarification (Hare 1995). From a pragmatist standpoint, one advocates that the cognizable world and any explanation, description, and observation we build about it
are necessarily conceptualized through our practices of predication and inquiry
(El-Hani and Pihlstrm 2002). Since our knowledge about the world is necessarily
shaped, in part, by concepts that we, humans, bring to the task of describing and
explaining the world, no simple mirroring relationship between knowledge and
world can ever obtain (Pihlstrm 1996; Mitchell 2003). Knowledge is simultaneously illuminating and limiting, since it cannot perfectly capture all the features of
the world. This recognition of the double nature of knowledge as creating possibilities and, at the same time, posing limits to our understanding is taken by pragmatists
as a ground for claiming that knowledge must be judged, at least in part, in terms of
their usefulness. We need not restrict usefulness, however, to practical applicability,
in some utilitarian sense. After all, knowledge can be extremely useful for many
other things than practical applications, for instance, as a thinking device (Lotman
1988, quoted by Wertsch 1991, pp. 7374), that is, an instrument for generating
novel meanings.
Thus, for a pragmatist our ontological commitments, epistemological assumptions, and bodies of knowledge should be assessed entirely or partially in terms of
their pragmatic efficacy. But if we consider that a limited number of ideas can be
successful in dealing with a given problem, we can understand that it is never the
case that anything goes when we strive for using knowledge to decide about how to
act in specific circumstances. We can judge the pragmatic efficacy of different ideas
and concepts for addressing concrete problems in specified circumstances.
Moreover, they can also be challenged and critically assessed from the point of view
of other frameworks. In these terms, we will have grounds for choosing what knowledge, what theory to accept, by critically considering and verifying its consequences
for practice. This is what we mean when we refer to the pragmatic power of
4

A thoroughgoing historical account of pragmatism with a comprehensive bibliography is Thayer


(1980). Pihlstrm (1996) offers an extensive review of pragmatic realist positions. Regarding
pragmatist works, one should consider both classical pragmatists such as Peirce, James, and
Dewey and neopragmatists such as Margolis, Putnam, and Rorty. In this paper, we mainly focus
on the contributions of two classical pragmatists, Peirce and Dewey. An interesting reflection
upon the conflict among interpretations about the contribution of pragmatism to epistemology is
found in Mounce (1997).

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C.N. El-Hani et al.

different zones of a profile. It is in this sense that the conceptual profile theory is not
committed to relativism or, at least, to radical forms of anything goes relativism.
Indeed, a first contribution of assuming pragmatism as a philosophical ground for
the conceptual profile theory is that it moves us away from other philosophical positions that might be associated with it, such as some radical forms of anything goes
or rampant relativism.
The work of C. S. Peirce, widely recognized as having turned pragmatism into a
substantial philosophical doctrine, offers ideas that are helpful to our purposes, such
as his pragmatic maxim, according to which the meaning of any concept that has
application in the real-world amounts to the habits of action it produces:
To develop its meaning [of a thought], we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits
it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a
habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are
likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may
be. (CP 5.400)5

The pragmatic maxim can be conceived as a rule for clarifying the meaning of
concepts and hypotheses based on ascertaining the experiential consequences our
actions would have were the hypotheses true (Hookway 1995). Every real distinction in thought or meaning should consist in a possible difference in practice.
This is closely related to the idea that distinct modes of thinking, as modeled in
a conceptual profile, have different meanings and domains of validity, since this
distinction is grounded on the pragmatic consequences that these modes of thinking
have for both ways of speaking and ways of acting. The pragmatic maxim offers,
thus, an adequate philosophical background for the conceptual profile theory.
However, as Rescher (1995) discusses, when Peirce referred to the practical
consequences of accepting an idea or statement, he initially meant the consequences
for experimental practice, but he also moved beyond this, treating pragmatic effectiveness as a means for the quality control of human cognition. Nevertheless, Peirce
focused once again on the scientific praxis and a standard of efficacy based on predictive success. Truth was, for Peirce, the ultimate outcome of a self-correcting process
of inquiry conducted by a community of researchers endowed with a number of settled
habits of action (Peirce 19311935, CP 5.407). Nevertheless, this was an abstracted
community of ideally rational agents. It is necessary, then, to come to grips with the
reality of communities of human agents that are far from being entirely rational.
A possible movement toward this, so as to say, down-to-Earth pragmatism can
be found in Jamesian pragmatism. William James was also highly influential in the
history of pragmatism, since he was directly responsible for calling the attention of
the scientific and philosophical community to the doctrine built by Peirce (e.g.,
James 1907). There are important differences, however, between Peircean and
Jamesian pragmatism.
Peirce developed his pragmatism as a move toward impersonal and objective
standards. James, in turn, treated pragmatism in a more subjective manner. Not that
James pragmatism is entirely subjectivist, as influential philosophers argued,
5

We will follow here the scholarly practice of citing from the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders
Peirce (Peirce 19311935) by volume number and paragraph number, preceded by CP.

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

43

such as Bertrand Russell (1910) and George E. Moore (1922). Moore and Russell
substantially contributed to the reading of James as entirely subjectivist and, more
than that, as a second-rank thinker, when they associated James with the idea that
everything goes provided that a belief brings some sort of satisfaction or is somehow useful to someone, despite any demand of objective verification or even the
existence of the objects to which the belief refers. As Sprigge (1997) argues, these
criticisms were devastating at James own times, despite his attempts to clarify his
ideas, particularly in The Meaning of Truth (1909). This author argues, also, that
the interpretation of James as an entirely subjectivist philosopher does not hold
with a careful reading of his works. Indeed, in several passages of his works, James
considered the requirement of objective verification (e.g., James 1907, Lecture
VI). There are, thus, both subjectivist and objectivist aspects in James philosophy,
as he himself argued (James 1909; a detailed discussion is offered by Pires 2013).
It is also true, however, that James included much more subjective elements in his
philosophy than Peirce. Indeed, these elements are the most controversial issue in
James philosophy, following from how he associates truth and satisfaction (including
personal, individual satisfaction). Instead of considering the practical consequences of
concepts or statements for abstracted and rational agents, as Peirce, James highlighted
the use of pragmatic criteria by particular and plural flesh-and-blood people, emphasizing the role of personal ideas of efficacy and success, which can be idiosyncratic
and highly subjective.
Even though James also took into account objective judgments in his philosophy, his version of pragmatism is not as objective as Peirces, who treats pragmatism as a manner of validating objectively cogent standards, which he conceives as
a consequence of habits of action followed by an abstract community of rational
agents. James, in turn, ascribed an important role in his pragmatism to the judgment about what proves to be effective for the satisfaction of a particular person
(or group). To our purposes here, we need something between Peirces appeal to an
abstract community of rational agents and James more subjective account of a
community of individuals assessing the efficacy of ideas in terms of their own
satisfaction. It seems to us that pragmatic efficacy should be formulated as a criterion used in judgments made by communities of flesh-and-blood people, not by
rational agents abstracted away from the fuzzy relationships of real life. Yet, it
should be also treated in such a manner that these judgments can be, in some sense,
objective. How could this be done?
Among the pragmatist philosophers, a helpful source in this attempt is John
Dewey, who takes Peirces logical theory as a starting point to develop an account
of logic as an inquiry into inquiry which is particularly illuminating regarding our
arguments. Accordingly, we will expand on Deweys ideas in the following
paragraphs.6
6

As we use pragmatist ideasparticularly, Peirces and Deweysto a great extent to formulate


the epistemological grounds of the conceptual profile theory, and we are also strongly inspired by
Vygotskys and Bakhtins theories, it is important to consider, even if briefly, the prospects and
possible contradictions involved when we try to use both of these sources of ideas together.

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In his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, published in 1938, Dewey proposes that
logic, as an inquiry into inquiry, should derive all logical forms from the operations
of inquiry, and, in turn, these logical forms, once derived, make it possible that
inquiry is controlled so that it yields warranted assertions. Or, to put it differently,
the principles of inquiry are formulations of conditions established in the course of
inquiry itselfand postulated in formal statements by inquiry into inquirywhich
further investigations must satisfy if they are to yield warranted claims. These ideas
are familiar to us in certain fields, such as art and law, where subject matters of
everyday experience are transformed in historically developed logical forms that
render certain product objects of fine art, just as certain aspects of transactions
between human beings are transformed into legal rules. Nevertheless, they were,
at the time Dewey wrote his Logic (1938), unfamiliar in logic and philosophy of
science.
After the historicist turn of the 1960s, they became certainly more familiar, but,
yet, Deweys claims need to face a predictable criticism, related to the fact that
logic, as conceived by him, becomes a circular process, not dependent upon anything extraneous to inquiry (Dewey 1938, p. 20): since inquiry can be better or
worse and is criticized and evaluated by logical standards, how can inquiry, which
has to be evaluated by a reference to a standard, be itself the source of the standard?7
If we simply say that inquiry cannot be the source of standards to guide itself, it will
immediately follow that the logical requirements that inquiry should meet in order
to reach valid conclusions must be imposed from without. It is curious to see that
The first thing that comes to our mind when we ponder about this issue is that Marxist and pragmatist
tendencies have been involved in dialogue during the twentieth century, as discussed by Reisch
(2005) and, thus, do not seem to be entirely at odds with each other. More importantly, it is not the
case that we need to simply assimilate Vygotskys, Bakhtins, Peirces, or Deweys frameworks as
a whole. Just to mention two examples, many of the statements made by Vygotsky about language
in apes cannot be currently accepted, to our understanding, in view of the subsequent developments in research on the topic, and we also do not follow Deweys way of distinguishing between
scientific inquiry and common sense, based only on differences in their subject matters, problems
of interest, and the objective consequences they are concerned to achieve. A further example
concerns Deweys attempt to equate the sign with the tool, treating the tongue as the tool of tools,
which is explicitly rejected by Vygotsky (1978, p. 53). That we can proceed in building connections between these authors, but not assimilating their entire frameworks, is illustrated by the fact
that the idea that sign and tool could be equated is of no consequence at all to the Deweyan theses
we use to formulate epistemological grounds for the conceptual profile theory.
7
Or, to put it differently, if we should derive from historical cases the standards that will control
inquiry, what criteria shall we use to identify the exemplars of good inquiry from which to derive
those canons? Obviously, we cannot use these very standards to select the cases, since this would
commit our position to fatal circularity. Other criteria should be used to identify the cases of good
inquiry that can lead to standards. In the main text, we will just follow Deweys argument. Let us
add, however, that we do not see reasons to doubt that such criteria can be available: we can use,
for instance, criteria related to heuristic power, success in explanation and prediction, technological outcomes, and so forth to select the cases worth studying in order to derive norms or, at least,
values, logical principles that good inquiry can tentatively obey. And we can in a safe position
regarding our possible mistakes, since the very criteria to guide inquiry should be, as Dewey
argues, open to revision, tentatively accepted, and self-correcting.

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

45

Dewey was facing two decades earlier a problem that would challenge the historicist
turn in the philosophy of science, which claimed that norms for scientific research
should be derived from historical studies about science. It is both interesting and
informative about Deweys position to verify how he meets this question:
The problem reduced to its lowest terms is whether inquiry can develop in its own ongoing
course the logical standards and forms to which further inquiry shall submit. One might
reply by saying that it can because it has. One might even challenge the objector to produce
a single instance of improvement in scientific methods not produced in and by the selfcorrective process of inquiry. (Dewey 1938, p. 5, emphasis in the original)

His idea is, thus, that the very history of science and its methodsto take a
well-developed example of inquiryillustrates that the logical forms that control
scientific investigations have been produced by the very self-corrective process of
inquiry. Inquiry generates not only new knowledge but also new canons that control knowledge production. The logical forms of inquiry are themselves evolved;
they change through time, as previous research establishes the criteria to which
future research is to be submitted.
The methods have been not only tried but also tried out during the developing
course of science or, generally speaking, of humans endeavor to produce knowledge. As methods are tested and eventually fail, the history of inquiry leads to modified methods that yield more dependable results. The improvement of methods
follows from the fact that not only conclusions were found to be inadequate in previous investigations, but they have been often found to be so because of the methods
employed. Thus, the methods themselves have been modified and even replaced by
methods that produced results that stood the strain of further research better and,
more than that, by methods that tended to be self-rectifying. Indeed, one of the central elements of Deweys theory, inspired by Peirce, is the idea that a good method
of inquiry should be self-correcting. Such a method does not appear out of logical
canons imposed from without, but in the course of the history of inquiry, through the
evolution of methods themselves.
It is clear, then, that Dewey is not talking about a rigid scientific method, as in
what has become known as the myth of the scientific method (Bauer 1994). The
method that Dewey is talking about is not a rigid construct, but changes throughout
historical times, to the extent that it is not established a priori, based on logical operations only, but follows from actual practice. The logical forms considered by him are
not fixed and eternal, but change with transformations in both the habitual ways in
which inquiry proceeds and the consequences ensuing from it. There is a dialectical
relationship between logical forms guiding inquiry and inquiry itself: those logical
forms originate out of experiential material and, when established, introduce new
ways of operating with prior materials, but, as these ways develop, they modify the
materials out of which the logical forms arise (Dewey 1938, p. 103).
Another important conceptual elaboration made by Dewey, in relation to our
articulation of the conceptual profile theory, regards his explanation of what he
means by situation. Problematic situations and ways of solving them appear to
human beings in a manner which has, for Dewey, no precedent among organisms,

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due to the nature of our social lives (Dewey 1938, p. 43). But what he means by
situation and in what circumstances are situations rendered problematic?
Dewey uses the word situation to refer to a contextual whole which makes it
possible for us to experience and form judgments about objects and events
(Dewey 1938, p. 66). A situation is a qualitative existential whole which is
unique (Dewey 1938, p. 122). And a situation is problematic when it is indeterminate, i.e., when it is not clear what kinds of responses the organism shall give
in its interactions with environing conditions (Dewey 1938, p. 107). Thus, problems that are chosen to be investigated should grow out of actual situations;
otherwise, we will be engaged in nothing but dead work (Dewey 1938, p. 108).
Moreover, we need to establish in the very course of inquiry what problems are
presented by a problematic situation to be inquired into. Thus, a first step in
investigating an indeterminate situation is to ascertain what are the problems that
we need to deal with to turn it into a determinate situation, i.e., a situation in
which we know, even if provisionally, how to answer to the environing conditions and how to act.
All our experiences, judgments, thoughts, etc., are pragmatically embedded into
objective situations, and it is in connection with them that we can make decisions
about what and how to think, say, and act. This pragmatic grounding of our modes
of thinking and speaking underlies, in the conceptual profile theory, the learning
goal of students acquiring a conscious awareness of the diversity of ways of thinking and speaking about a given concept and their differential application to distinct
problematic situations.
In the process of inquiry, we analyze the situations, since every situation is, in
Deweys terms, extensive (Dewey 1938, p. 122), in the sense that it contains
diverse distinctions and relations which form, despite their diversity, a unified qualitative whole. Such an analysis is taken by Dewey as a crucial, critical stage of inquiry,
since it leads us to identify singular objects and events, which should be always
treated as occurring within a situation, and provides means of considering the situation in reference to the problem set to inquiry and how we act regarding it. When we
speak of this or that organ, rock, atom, or whatever, we are always talking about a
discrimination or selection made for a purpose, or for the sake of some objective
consequence we need to deal with in our attempt to turn, through inquiry, an indeterminate into a determinate situation (Dewey 1938, p. 123).8
Although this is not the place to explore this putative relationship, Deweys
emphasis on the fact that we live and act in connection with a whole environmental
situation, not in connection with isolated objects, leads him to a criticism of the way
psychology interpreted at his time the act of perception, which takes him to a path

All these ideas are quite consequential to authentic science experiences in the classroom (Roth
1995; Buxton 2006; Tytler et al. 2008; van Eijick and Roth 2009) or more to the point of this volume, to the way a teacher may work with situations in order to teach students about how modes of
thinking and speakingincluding scientific onescan provide solutions to problematic situations: How can we analyze the situation? What are the objects and events we should consider?
What is problematic about the situation? What concepts can we bring to bear on it?

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

47

that can come close to the situated cognition research program in current cognitive
sciences (see Chap. 1, this volume):
When the act and object of perception are isolated from their place and function in promoting and directing a successful course of activities in behalf of use-enjoyment, they are
taken to be exclusively cognitive. The perceived object, orange, rock, piece of gold, or
whatever, is taken to be an object of knowledge per se. (Dewey 1938, p. 67. Emphasis in
the original)

No object can be, from this standpoint, an isolated object of knowledge in an


ultimate and self-sufficient manner. It should be always interpreted in pragmatic
terms, i.e., as part of a whole environmental situation in relation to which it can be
known in order to provide guidance regarding the course of behavior, so that the
situation can be dealt with in a manner conducive to some adaptive response.
It is in connection with the establishment of courses of behavior as a consequence of inquiry that Dewey introduces the concept of warranted assertibility as
a substitute for truth:
If inquiry begins in doubt, it terminates in the institution of conditions which remove need
for doubt. The latter state of affairs may be designated by the words belief and knowledge
I prefer the words warranted assertibility. (Dewey 1938, p. 7, emphasis in the original)

Dewey saw inquiry (both scientific andin his wordspractical) as a selfcorrective process that required evaluation of procedures and norms through the test
of experience. He emphasized that knowledge is gained as a result of this ongoing,
self-correcting process of inquiry. Inquiry begins with problematic situations and,
when it is successful, terminates in reaching that which is settled, namely, a settled
objective state of affairs, which eliminates hesitancy to act.
For Dewey, inquiry is, in its most highly generalized conception, the controlled
or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the
original situation into a unified whole (Dewey 1938, pp. 104105, emphasis in the
original).9 He also states that inquiry is a progressive determination of a problem
and its possible solution (Dewey 1938, p. 110). The indeterminate situation which
is investigated is open to inquiry because its constituents do not hang together.
That is why a crucial outcome of inquiry is to allow us to see the situation, with the
constituents we discerned by analysis, as a unified whole.
Despite the diverse subjects of inquiry, and the related diversity of its special
techniques, Dewey proposes that there is a common structure or pattern of

When Dewey uses the terms controlled and directed, he is not referring to controlled
experiments or something similarwhich would render his arguments limited to scientific work.
Rather, what he is considering is that inquiry can be regarded as competent to the extent that the
operations involved in it do lead to the establishment of an objectively unified existential situation. By using the words controlled and directed, he is pointing to the methods of inquiry
that are developed and perfected in the processes of continuous inquiry (Dewey 1938, p. 11).

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inquiry, to be found not only in science but also in what he calls common sense10
(see Dewey 1938, ch. VI).
The first element of this common pattern of inquiry is the indeterminate situation, which constitutes the antecedent conditions of inquiry. This indeterminate situation should be, by its very nature, questionable, uncertain, and unsettled, since we
inquire when we question, seeking for whatever may provide an answer to a question asked (Dewey 1938, p. 105). The indeterminate situation has, however, a peculiar and unique quality that exercises control over the special procedures or means
that will be used in inquiry. That is, when we investigate a particular situation, it is
not the case that everything goes. This would be, for Dewey, a condition of complete panic, of blind and wild overt activities (Dewey 1938, p. 105). Rather, the
character of the indeterminate situation is such that some procedures of inquiry can
be more effective than others. That is, there are comparisons and contrasts to be
made between modes of inquiry, by taking into account the pragmatic nature of the
particular situation we are dealing with. We are far from any radical relativism in the
framework put forward by Dewey.
Moreover, the pragmatic nature of problematic situations is not doubtful only in
a subjective sense, but in an objective sense, related to the relationships between the
inquiring organism and its environing conditions, which compose a situation which
is indeterminate with respect to its issue. This indetermination can be of different
natures: perhaps, we cannot anticipate the outcome of a situation, which is said,
then, to be confused; or the course of a situation makes room for final consequences that cannot be clearly established, in which case the situation is said to be
obscure; or the situation can evoke discordant responses, being then called conflicting (Dewey 1938, p. 106). In any of these cases, we have an objective, indeterminate, unsettled situation which can be fruitfully taken as a matter of inquiry. This
way of dealing with situations makes it clear that Dewey is to be located, in the
pragmatist scenario, closer to objective than to subjective pragmatism.
The situations in themselves are regarded by Dewey as precognitive, becoming
cognitive due to inquiry, which has, as its first result, an identification of why a
situation is problematic. As Dewey (1938, p. 107) writes, to see that a situation
requires inquiry is the initial step in inquiry. But to characterize a situation as
problematic is just an initial step in what Dewey calls the institution of a problem.
When we say that there is a problem for inquiry, we already have in hands a partial
transformation of a problematic situation into a determinate situation. This is what
is meantDewey statesby the familiar saying that a problem well put is halfsolved. It is an important advance in inquiry to find out what problems a
10

As we pointed out earlier, we do not follow Dewey in the way he interprets the similarities and
differences between common sense and science (for more details, see Dewey 1938, ch. IV).
However, this is not the place to pursue this matter, since it would take us away from our main
subject here. What is most relevant here is to note that, in his discussion of inquiry, Dewey is not
focused only on scientific inquiry. For him, inquiries enter into every area of life and into every
aspect of every area (Dewey 1938, p. 102). Nevertheless, we cannot deny that he was much
affected by consideration of scientific investigation, which he regarded as a quite well-developed
form of inquiry.

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

49

problematic situation presents to be investigated. After all, as it is well known by


those who engage in scientific investigation, the way we conceive of a problem will
affect which specific suggestions to its solution we consider and dismiss and what
data we select and reject. Moreover, the conception of a problem provides criteria
for our judgments about the relevance or irrelevance of hypotheses and conceptual
structures (Dewey 1938, p. 108).
After establishing what are the problems in a problematic situation, we need to
determine a problem solution, according to Deweys common pattern of inquiry.
Here, the very statement of the problematic situation should help, since a problem
well instituted has reference to a possible solution in its very statement. This leads
Dewey to put into question how is the formation of a genuine problem so controlled
that further inquiries will move toward a solution (Dewey 1938, pp. 108109).
The first requirement is to ascertain what are the constituents of a given situation.
This demands observation of the problematic situation, leading to the establishment of
what he calls the facts of the case, the observed conditions in a situation. The second
requirement is to find out a possible relevant solution suggested by the determination
of observed factual conditions. This possible solution presents itself as an idea.11
At first, it is nothing but a vague idea, but, as inquiry progresses, it becomes more
and more determinate with respect to its capacity as a means to solve the problematic
situation at stake.
With regard to the conceptual profile theory, we can say that a key point when
one is examining and comparing modes of thinking in relation to the prospects of
dealing with an indeterminate situation is to anticipate the consequences of using
that mode of thinking so as to make the situation determinate and eliminate our
hesitancy to act. It is in this manner that the pragmatic maxim bears on the attempt
to reach a conscious awareness about the ways we may think about a situation and
how fruitfully they can be applied to deal with it.12
In Deweys view, there is a dialectical relationship between ideas and observations: on the one hand, the more the facts of the case are established through
observation, the clearer and more pertinent become the conceptions of how to deal
with the problem constituted by the facts; on the other, the clearer the idea, the

11

It is important to mention that Dewey opposes the theory of ideas that has been held since the
time of Lockean empiricism, striving, instead, to formulate a pragmatic account which defines
ideas functionally, i.e., in the reference they have to the solution of a problem (Dewey 1938, p. 109,
n. 6). From this standpoint, ideas are anticipated consequences (forecasts) of what will happen
when certain operations are executed under and with respect to observed conditions (Dewey
1938, p. 109). Not surprisingly, Dewey rejects both traditional empiristic theories that ignore the
function of ideas in directing observation and ascertaining relevant factors, treating them as mental
copies of physical things, and rationalistic theories that fail to attend to the operative and functional
nature of ideas, treating them as being equivalent to the ultimate structure of reality. He assumes a
Kantian position, recognizing the profound logical insight of Kants statement that perception
without conception is blind, while conception without perception is empty (Kant [1789]1955).
12
We will come back below to the usage of the pragmatic maxim in the science classroom.

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more definite become the operations of both observation and intervention to solve
the situation13:
In logical fact, perceptual and conceptual materials are instituted in functional correlativity
with each other, in such a manner that the former locates and describes the problem while
the latter represents a possible method of solution. (Dewey 1938, p. 111)

It should be clear, then, that the common pattern of inquiry described by Dewey
is not atheoretical, or navely empiricist, despite the role ascribed to observation in
ascertaining the facts of the case. Both the perceptual and conceptual materials are
determined in and by inquiry of the problematic situation, which shows, in turn,
qualities that control the institution and contents of those materials. Factual material
has its significance established on the grounds of an existing conceptual system,
while the quality of the problematic situation determines which conceptual materials are selected as having bearing on the particular inquiry being carried out (Dewey
1938, p. 121). This selection is possible because conceptions have been organized
in the past under definite rubrics which summarize the kinds of interpreting principles that past experience has shown to be applicable in the variety of special cases
that normally arises (Dewey 1938, p. 121, emphasis in the original). After all,
there is a definite advantage in having conceptual frameworks ready in advance to
be actually used when they are needed (Dewey 1938, p. 136). In connection with the
conceptual profile theory, such frameworks can be interpreted as modes of thinking
about a given concept, as they apply or not in a fruitful manner to problematic situations, constituting a conceptual profile available for use in a given sociocultural
circumstance.
Moreover, following the pragmatic maxim, the perceptual and conceptual materials (which lead to anticipations with regard to the consequences of acting upon the
situation in a given manner) are finally checked by their capacity to work together
to lead to a resolved unified situation, which amounts to the end of (that) inquiry:
The anticipation functions logically to instigate and direct an operation of experimental
observation. When the consequences of the latter combine with facts already ascertained so
as to constitute a unified total situation, inquiry comes to an end. (Dewey 1938, p. 131)

In our view, all these remarks put forward by Dewey show why we can see in
objective pragmatism an apt middle road not only between rationalism and relativism but also between extreme forms of realism and anti-realism.
Reasoning, in the sense of ratiocination or rational discourse, also intervenes in
Deweys common pattern of inquiry, as a way of developing the meaning-content of
ideas in their relations to each other, and in relation to the problematic situation.
He admonishes against accepting a suggested meaning (or, else, idea) immediately,

13

For more details on the functional and operative correspondence between factual and conceptual
matters, which Dewey (1938, p. 125) called the copula, see his discussion in Chapter VII of his
Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. The copula consists, in his account, of a complex of operations by
means of which (a) certain existences are restrictively-selected to delimit a problem and provide
evidential testing material, and by which (b) certain conceptual meanings, ideas, hypotheses, are
used as characterizing predicates (Dewey 1938, pp. 132133).

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

51

since this would cut inquiry short. Rather, we need to elaborate on the ideas and
meanings, examining them in such a manner that they are properly grounded. In an
important sense, this examination consists in addressing the implications of a given
meaning in relation to other meanings in some system in which they are embedded.
An outcome of this reasoning on the meaning-content of ideas is that the operations
that can be used to test the applicability of the suggested idea become more clearly
determined (Dewey 1938, pp. 111112).
This leads us to recognize a key feature of observed facts and ideas in Deweys
framework: they have an operational character. Ideas are operational because they
instigate and direct further operations of observation, which can bring new facts to
light and organize the selected facts into a coherent whole, showing the way to the
determinate situation which is the end of inquiry, and in relation to it we know
(at least provisionally) how to act. Factual observations, in turn, are operational in
the sense that they are not self-sufficient and complete in themselves (Dewey
1938, p. 113). Rather, they are purposefully selected, described, and arranged with
the intent of fulfilling their specific roles in inquiry, so that the very statement of the
problem indicates a meaning relevant to the solution of the situation at stake and,
also, serves to test its worth and validity. That is, the facts of the case are recognized
by Dewey as having a dual function: they both bring the problem to light and provide evidential material regarding its solution. Furthermore, conceptual contents
also have a dual function, both anticipating a possible solution and directing observational operations.
The operational character of factual observations is of central importance when
we take facts to be not only results of operations of observation but, more than that,
evidence relevant to the test of a suggested idea:
Their function [of facts] is to serve as evidence and their evidential quality is judged on the
basis of their capacity to form an ordered whole in response to operations prescribed by the
ideas they occasion and support. (Dewey 1938, p. 113)

He also assumes a systematic view about the evidential power of facts:


no fact in isolation has evidential potency. Facts are evidential and are tests of an idea in
so far as they are capable of being organized with one another. The organization can be
achieved only as they interact with one another. (Dewey 1938, p. 113. Emphasis in the
original)

It is clear, then, that for Dewey evidence is not only factual observation, but
factual observation that has been purposefully selected, described, and arranged as
a consequence of its dialectical relationship with ideas.
While it is true that reasoning allows us to appraise the ideas to solve a problem,
putting us in a better position to judge the pertinence and weight of diverse ideas for
dealing with a situation, it is only by effectively testing the ideas in the course of
investigation that we will overcome the hesitancy to act. By putting ideas into operation so as to observe facts not previously observed, but anticipated, and organize
them with other facts into a coherent whole, we can evaluate if the ideas actually
function. This is a pragmatic test of the consequences of an idea, which can establish (or not) its pragmatic efficacy. And, even though we formulated this argument

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using the concept of idea in order to follow Deweys phrasing, mutatis mutandis,
the same can be said of modes of thinking.
As mentioned above, the outcome of inquiry is a settled situation, which amounts,
for Dewey, to judgment (Dewey 1938, p. 120). That is, if we began inquiry with an
unsettled situation, in the face of which we showed hesitancy to act, after we
inquired into the situation so as to settle it, we reach a judgment about how to act,
we are in position to make a decision about how to deal with the situation. As
Dewey (1938, p. 120, emphasis in the original) writes, judgment, as finally
made, has direct existential import. When judgment is reached, we perform some
action which has consequences with regard to the situation we are involved with.
Accordingly, the warranted assertions we reach as an outcome of inquiry are not to
be judged only in terms of themselves but, rather, in terms of the consequences that
ensue from them, i.e., from the existential determination or settlement of the previously uncertain situation. Peirces pragmatic maxim is clearly involved in Deweys
account of inquiry:
The final judgment arrived at is a settlement. The case is disposed of; the disposition takes
effect in existential consequences. The sentence or proposition is not an end in itself but a
decisive directive of future activities. The consequences of these activities bring about an
existential determination of the prior situation which was indeterminate as to its issue.
(Dewey 1938, pp. 155121)

As evidential and conceptual materials are considered throughout inquiry, in


their dialectical relationship with each other, we progressively move from an indeterminate to a determinate situation, culminating with a final settlement. This final
settlement is a judgment that is reached through a series of intermediate judgments
and partial settlements, with regard to the evidential and conceptual materials that
bear on the situation and are progressively covered by inquiry.
In a subsequent work, Democracy and Education, Dewey (1950/2001) discusses
basically the same elements composing his pattern of inquiry as general features
of a reflective experience, further showing that he is not talking about scientific
method only but about a more general constructin this book, reflective experienceof which scientific investigation is one manifestation (needless to say, a
well-developed one). He presents the general features of reflective experience as
follows:
They are (i) perplexity, confusion, doubt, due to the fact that one is implicated in an incomplete situation whose full character is not yet determined; (ii) a conjectural anticipationa
tentative interpretation of the given elements, attributing to them a tendency to effect certain
consequences; (iii) a careful survey (examination, inspection, exploration, analysis) of all
attainable consideration which will define and clarify the problem in hand; (iv) a consequent elaboration of the tentative hypothesis to make it more precise and more consistent,
because squaring with a wider range of facts; (v) taking one stand upon the projected
hypothesis as a plan of action which is applied to the existing state of affairs: doing something overtly to bring about the anticipated result, and thereby testing the hypothesis.
(Dewey 1950/2001, pp. 155156)

These steps are certainly established on the grounds of what Dewey took to be
the scientific method, conceived by him as a rather advanced form of inquiry.

The Epistemological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Theory

53

However, we should not forget that, although taking science as a departure point
(as a man of his time), Dewey was pondering about the more general nature of this
approach to knowledge production, considering that it can take place in everyday
circumstances.14 This position [Deweys] can surely lend itself to scientistic readings, but this can be avoided if we do not focus on scientific knowledge as a general
model of knowledge, but, following reliabilism,15 we take as knowledge a broader
notion involving beliefs that are constructed by means of reliable processes, i.e.,
processes that recognizably tend to produce more true than false beliefs and in relation to which we have no better reasons to put knowledge into doubt.16 This means
that we will need to broaden Deweys perspective on what are the canons that
follow from inquiry into inquiry, including, for instance, inquiry into other fields of
knowledge, such as philosophical or artistic domains. Anyway, if we think about
the goals of science education, it is widely held that students are supposed to apply
both scientific ideas and scientific ways of knowing in their everyday lives. This is,
arguably, not so far from Deweys intention.
The settled, objective state of affairs that is reached at the (provisional) end of
inquiry can be said to have warranted assertibility, because it leads to a solution of
a problem, so settled that we feel ready to act upon it in a given way, overtly or in
14
We should also avoid losing from sight that the general features of reflective experience
mentioned by Dewey are not taken by him to be fixed and rigid, but modifiable through the very
course of inquiry, andwe can draw from his argumentsadaptable to different sorts of inquiry.
15
Reliabilism comprises a broad variety of epistemological theories that conceive the notions of
knowledge and justification in terms of the truth-conduciveness of the process by which an individual forms a true belief. The idea that knowledge involves a reliable process appeared for the
first time in a brief essay by Frank Ramsey ([1929]1990) but only became a relevant theme in
epistemology 40 years later with the works of Alvin Goldman (1967, [1976]2000, 1979[1993],
1986), Fred Dretske (1971, 1981), Robert Nozick (1981), and Tyler Burge (1993), among others
who emphasize the social character of cognition. In contrast with internalist theories that claim
that belief is knowledge if the individual has reasons that justify and guarantee (inside a broad
framework of reasons) the truth of a belief, reliabilism is a kind of epistemological externalism
(with a naturalistic bias) because it acknowledges that many factors that cause or determine
knowledge are outside the cognizers mind and are not necessarily accessible to that individual.
The fact of possessing a perceptive apparatus that connects herself, as an individual, to the natural
world, the ownership of a personal and social epistemic memory, and, also, the participation in a
linguistic community that counts with the strength of the testimony of other people makes the
human condition amply favorable to the formation of true beliefs about the world. This does not
make the reliable process, to be sure, immune to errors and failures. Although we cannot develop
this point further here, we think that Deweys account can be conceived as an appeal to inquiry as
a reliable process to settle states of affairs and knowledge claims.
16
According to reliabilism, whether we know something or not does not depend on which justifications we can argumentatively present in favor of our belief, but whether our belief was produced
by a reliable process, and we are capable of discriminating the true belief from opposed situations
(or relevant alternatives). For Goldman (1976/2000, p. 86), a cognitive mechanism or process is
reliable if it not only produces true beliefs in actual situations, but would produce true beliefs, or
at least inhibit false beliefs, in relevant counterfactual situations [] To be reliable, a cognitive
mechanism must enable a person to discriminate or differentiate between incompatible states of
affairs. It must operate in such a way that incompatible states of the world would generate different
cognitive responses.

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imagination. However, the fact that a given particular situation has been settled
through inquiry is no guarantee that the settled conclusion will always remain
settled, being such a fallibility of the conclusions of inquiry a key feature of any
proper understanding of the concept of warranted assertibility. Warranted assertions
are never the end of inquiry. Rather, inquiry is a continuing (and self-correcting)
process, since the settlement of a particular state of affairs is by no means a guarantee that a specific settled conclusion will always remain settled. There is no assertion so settled that cannot be exposed to further inquiry. Warranted assertions are
always, continuously refined through continuous testing in public experience (e.g.,
Dewey 1938, pp. 89). Thus, what we can say about a state of affairs reached
through inquiry is that it has warranted assertibility, but never any sort of absolute
truth known by rational insight with certainty. Knowledge is not a system of truths.
Knowledge leads to action, and it is from action that we derive our confidence on it.
Dewey indeed accepts the word knowledge as a suitable term to designate the
objective state of affairs resulting from inquiry. He accepts this designation to the
extent that it is recognized that the claim that attainment of knowledge, or truth, is
the end of inquiry is a truism. In his view, this statement is a truism because that
which satisfactorily terminates inquiry is, by definition, knowledge (Dewey 1938,
p. 8). Knowledge is, in his view, an abstract term for the product of competent
inquiries. Knowledge is to be defined in terms of inquiry, not vice versa. However,
he still prefers the expression warranted assertibility because knowledge suffers
from an ambiguity that hampers its utility as a designation for the state of affairs that
is the outcome of inquiry. This ambiguity enters the scene when one thinks that the
term knowledge designates something beyond the outcome of inquiry, i.e., when
knowledge is supposed to have a meaning of its own, apart from its connection with
inquiry. The unfortunate result is, then, that the theory of inquiry is subordinated to
this meaning of knowledge as a fixed external end. Endless controversy ensues,
then, about what knowledge really is.
The expression warranted assertibility has, for Dewey, the advantage of being
free from the ambiguities of the terms belief and knowledge. We think that
Dewey, in his move to warranted assertibility, strictly defined as an objective state
of affairs that results from inquiry and (temporarily) eliminates hesitation to act,
gives a significant contribution to dissolve many problems surrounding epistemological discussions that revolve around the notions of knowledge and truth. We
cannot expand on this issue, however, in the confines of this chapter.
In his theory of inquiry, Dewey relies upon pragmatic criteria that are clearly
related to Peirces pragmatic maxim. The norms of inquiry are to be derived from
cases in which we manage to fulfill through inquiry needs to be satisfied, consequences to be reached. As he writes, in an analogy between the improvement of
inquiry methods and the advances in the art of metallurgy,
it was the result of their use [of new instrumentalities], their failure and success in
accomplishing ends and effecting consequences, that provided the final criterion of the
value of scientific principles for carrying on determinate technological operations.
(Dewey 1938, p. 6)

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55

The pragmatic maxim also appears in a clear manner when he claims that the
validity of principles that guide the methods of inquiry is determined by the
coherence of the consequences produced by the habits those principles articulate.
A principle is valid if the habit of inference resulting from it generally produces
conclusions that are sustained and developed in further inquiry. (Dewey 1938, p. 13)
That Dewey is closer to Peirce than some authors think (e.g., Hacking 1983) is
clear in his own works. He explicitly grounds a great part of his theory of inquiry on
what he calls a free rendering of Peirce (Dewey 1938, p. 14, n. 4). Furthermore,
his account of inquiry is, to our understanding, clearly on the side of objective
pragmatism. For instance, the reasons he offers to reject the term belief as a
designation of the outcome of inquiry show his rejection of a subjectivist reading
of pragmatism:
in popular usage, belief also means a personal matter; something that some human being
entertains or holds; a position, which under the influence of psychology, is converted into
the notion that belief is merely a mental or psychical state when it is said that the end of
inquiry is settled belief The objective meaning of subject-matter as that is settled through
inquiry is then dimmed or even shut out. (Dewey 1938, p. 7, emphasis in the original)

Here, we see Dewey coming closer to Peircean than to Jamesian pragmatism.


The indebtedness to Peirce on the part of Dewey follows from the fact that the former was the first thinkeras stated by Dewey himself (1938, p. 9, n. 1)who took
inquiry and its methods as the primary and ultimate source of logical subject matter,
just as Dewey did.

2.4

Objective Pragmatism

In order to reach a via media between Peirces abstract community of rational


agents and James more subjectivist account of a community of individuals using
personal standards to assess the efficacy of ideas, we can talk about communities
of flesh-and-blood people who make decisions that are guided or, at least, can be
guided, by specific criteria. Among these criteria, we can consider in the scientific
case, say, accuracy, (theoretical and/or empirical) consistency, simplicity, intelligibility, coherence, fruitfulness or heuristic power, explanatory power, predictive
power, etc. These criteria can be differently applied by different individuals (or even
by the same individual in different circumstances) and can conflict with one
another. However, they can still be discussed and justified. The criteria available
for deciding, for example, for one theory rather than another do not give room to
any neutral algorithm that might lead each and every individual to the same decision, if correctly applied. These criteria should be rather treated as values shared
by a community that can guide an individuals choice, but do not determine that
choice. That is, the use of the same set of values does not determine always the
same choice, because different weights can be ascribed to these values by different
individuals and/or in different circumstances.

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These criteria, thus, mediate at least partially the process through which theories,
ideas, approaches to solve problems, etc., come to be accepted by the community,
but they do not establish by themselves which choice is to be made regarding their
acceptance (cf. Kuhn 1977).
If one assumes, then, that the values guiding the choices of a relevant community with regard to knowledge are ultimately specified by sociological means,
one might conclude, then, that this is closer to a subjectivist than to an objectivist
position. This would seem to follow from the commitment to the ideas that such
choices are the result of judgments made by appealing to criteria assumed by the
relevant community, and that these criteria typically vary with the historical and
cultural circumstances of the community. However, we intend to argue that this
position can be interpreted differently: rather than being relativistic, it can be
taken as an attempt to move in a space between relativism and rationalism, which
is open by a pragmatist realignment. From this standpoint, the choices made by
individuals and communities, and their commitments regarding knowledge and
its usage to act in the world, are neither purely objective nor purely subjective.
Rather, they depend on a mixture of objective and subjective factors, or shared
and individual criteria, which are taken to be epistemic values, not rules or
algorithms for choice.
What could be the alternative, after all, to the idea that our knowledge choices are
guided by criteria that are historically, socially, culturally situated? There is an
available alternative, namely, to assume that we can choose between different
theories, ideas, and indications for action by some kind of entirely rational decision,
guided by ahistorical and atemporal criteria. Despite the seduction that this alternative may represent to some, to our understanding it is an untenable avenue, since to
assume that kind of decision-making is to suppose that we can assume a superhuman perspective, some kind of Gods eye view. If we do not take this position, we
will have no other alternative than recognizing that epistemic criteria are sociohistorically grounded. We can argue, however, that this recognition does not necessarily
entail that we should deny, in some absolute manner, the objective nature of the
decisions grounded on those criteria or values.
The problem here is that the terms objectivity and subjectivity pose a
series of difficulties. They suggest at first a distinction between some knowledge
that simply reflects the world as it is and some other knowledge which is nothing
but an individual opinion. Since a nave realist position is not available anymore
in the philosophical scenario, and we tend to ascribe to knowledge a value transcending mere subjective opinion, this way of opposing objectivity and subjectivity makes the debate go astray. To our understanding, however, no matter how
wary we are about using the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity, there is still
a useful and, above all, important distinction to be made between attempts to
settle a situation by mere opinion or by an outcome of inquiry, as proposed by
Dewey. There is a distinction to be made between a judgment that is grounded, in
the sense that it is a product of inquiry, and a belief entertained without
examination.

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57

Even though he is far from being a pragmatist, Kuhns (1977) discussion of his
discomfort with the terms objectivity and subjectivity can be helpful here.17 He
considers a conflation between two distinct uses of subjective, one in which subjective opposes objective and another in which it opposes judgmental. Kuhn
argues that his critics appeal to this second sense when they describe the idiosyncratic features mentioned by him when addressing theory choice as subjective,
claiming, further, that theory choice would be, for him, just a matter of mob psychology. These critics also claimhe arguesthat his view deprives science of
objectivity. Then, a conflation between the two senses of subjective takes place.
In our interpretation, Kuhns argument is that, even though guided by values,
and not algorithmically determined by rules, theory choice can still be objective.
But this must certainly lead us to question what the word objective means in this
context and, in particular, if this meaning might lead to some via media between an
entirely subjective account and a completely objective account of theory choice.
Kuhn asks us to consider one of the usual applications of the term subjective,
namely, to refer to matters of taste. Consider, however, that one of the central features
of matters of taste is that they are not open to discussion. But if we consider two scientists who disagree about a theory choice, it is certainly the case that they can discuss
their decisions. Moreover, this discussion does not take place in terms of the fact that
one likes the theory, the other does not. What can be and often is discussed about their
decisions are the judgments they offer about the theories. If their judgments are guided
by shared values, the scientists probably applied them differently in that specific situation, and this can also be discussed. Moreover, even when the decisions were not
based on shared values, it is still the case that these values can be and often are discussed in the scientific community. As Kuhn (1977, p. 337) writes, scientists may
always be asked to explain their choices, to exhibit the bases of their judgments. After
negotiation and all the rest, we still see a case in which there are criteria being applied
and there is a judgment being done. We do not have a subjective situation in the sense
that it is not judgmental, just a matter of taste (El-Hani and Bandeira 2008).
Thus, one cannot claim that the thesis that decisions about knowledge are not
determined but rather guided by epistemic valueswhich should be themselves interpreted in a sociohistorical mannernecessarily entails that these decisions are subjective, particularly if this term is somehow opposed to judgmental, in the sense
that the decision at stake would not be discussable, just a matter of taste, or that theory
choice would be nothing but a kind of religious conversion. From the fact that those
values can only guide, but not determine the decision, it does not follow that there is
no judgment being done, which can be critically analyzed, properly justified, and so on.

17

Our appeal to Kuhn here is deliberate in the sense that we do not agree with the way he has been
often taken as a basis for radically relativist accounts, as well as for putting under siege the idea of
objectivity and rationality in science, through which Hacking (1983, p. 13) calls the popularized
Kuhn of Structure. In our view, such a popular view about Kuhns theory seriously misrepresents
his ideas. We cannot expand on the issue here, but the way we will use Kuhns ideas throughout
our argument at least implies how we differ from this popularized interpretation.

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We can, then, think about decisions about knowledge that are sociohistorically
grounded and open to the vicissitudes of human endeavors, and yet can be, at least in
the sense discussed here, objective and rational. Certainly, this claim puts us in a
position in which we need to clarify what we mean by these latter terms.
By appealing to the notion of rationality, what we have in mind is that people
can be asked to explain their choices, to exhibit the grounds of their judgments, and,
by doing so, they can be called rational, no matter if they are scientists or not. We
can still talk about a rational and objective decision, even though it is made by fleshand-blood people engaged in socially embedded ongoing negotiations. As we argued
above, we can do so when there are criteria being applied and there are judgments
being done. In these terms, a choice of a mode of thinking, speaking, and acting can
be rationally guided by criteria that can be discussed and appraised. Notice, also, that
this does not mean that we are requiring that all that takes placeor even that is
relevantin a decision should be judgmental. There is certainly much more in place,
such as values, emotions, and attitudes. What we are claiming is that, everything else
being equal, there are judgments being made, which can be discussed and appraised
and, in this manner, regarded as rational. In this sense, when we choose an idea, a
theory, a mode of thinking, a mode of speaking, a manner of acting, etc., there is a
judgment being made which is neither entirely subjective nor made in the abstract.
We can fruitfully consider what is objective in such decisions by tying objectivity
not to propositions, as it is typically done, but to human practices. We can find this
movement in Shrader-Frechette and McCoys (1994) Wittgensteinian insight,
derived from the following statement: giving grounds [] is not a kind of seeing on
our part; it is our acting (Wittgenstein 1969, p. 204). Their argument can lead us to
come to grips with a sound notion of objectivity after the Kantian turn showing that
truth and objectivity cannot be formulated in terms of any correspondence between
knowledge and some external, mind-independent reality. Yet, we can still say that
there are objective and subjective actions, statements, beliefs, and so on, if we follow
Shrader-Frechette and McCoy in their move from propositions to practices. In the
domain of practices, to be objective is to search for impartiality in our actions and
decisions, even though complete impartiality is obviously impossible for embodied
and situated agents. It is, however, by attempting to reach this impossible goal that
we can allow it to regulate our practices, in such a manner that they are critical and
informed by procedures aiming at avoiding biases, at least to some extent. And, as
biases are always present, this goal will also incite us to critically appraise them.
The criteria we will use to make judgments, including judgments about the pragmatic efficacy of distinct modes of thinking and speaking, will always be situated
and influenced by the sociohistorical circumstances in which they are built and used,
but we willor at least canbe always engaged in discussing our reasons and decisions, and, in doing so, we will not reach any objectivity in the (untenable) sense of
a mind-independent belief, but we may arrive at the objectivity that is possible to us,
embodied, situated, human agents. We think, however, that there is no sense in asking for more, and this is enough to our responsible and critical actions as humans.
The mutual criticism of knowledge, actions, decisions, and criteria plays a central
role in the self-correcting inquiry process that both Dewey and Peirce saw as the

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59

source of human knowledge. Scientific knowledge, in particular, can reach a high


degree of objectivity, due to its public nature and to the use of a series of (far from
being perfect) procedures of mutual rational control by the scientific community,
such as systematic criticism of theories and hypotheses, methods and evidence,
through referee systems, project evaluations, and meeting presentations. It is important
to make it clear, however, that it is not only science that can reach such objectivity.
Critical thinking and action are found in many human practices of knowledge
construction, such as philosophy, logic, theology, and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). This is an important and interesting consequence of the view that
objectivity is tied to human practices: it does not lend itself to a value distinction
between science, as some superior knowledge, exclusively capable of being objective, and other ways of knowing, treated as inferior and incapable of being truly
critical. In this manner, this view is not committed to scientism, a caricature of
science that the conceptual profile theory also strives for avoiding.
We can also find arguments in favor of objective pragmatism in other philosophers, such as Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson. For Putnam, if one understands
the problem of truth and reality as a dispute about statements about the world (which
reflect the structure of our language), it is possible to make a severe critique of epistemology and correspondence realism and, at the same time, avoid epistemological
relativism. The idea of comparing our thoughts and beliefs, on the one hand, and
things as they are in themselves, on the other, does not make sense. This does not
mean, however, that we should conclude that this idea should be a necessary
assumption of the common idea that there are animal, vegetal, and mineral objects,
which are not part of thought or language, or of the equally common idea that what
we say about these objects sometimes captures facts correctly (cf. Putnam 1990).
Even if we are working on the horizon of pragmatist themes, a certain minimal
epistemological and realist attitude seems indispensable. We can accept that reality
is relative to the linguistic apparatus available to us to speak about the real world,
but even if the concept of reality is dependent upon the conceptual schemes we use
to describe it, this does not mean that we cannot distinguish between real and unreal
facts or, else, between true and false statements about facts, within a given conceptual scheme. Thats the reason why Putnam, Davidson, and originally also Peirce
defended a pragmatic realism. The concepts we use are our concepts, and they are
relative to a culture or to public criteria, but from this we should not conclude that
the truth or falsity of anything we say using those concepts is simply decided in an
arbitrary manner by a culture or person.
Although Davidson never declared himself a pragmatist,18 his positions about
truth, language, and knowledge are in agreement with central intuitions of objective
pragmatism. For him, philosophical problems could be expressed as follows:
18

Richard Rorty (1991, pp. 113125) appraised Davidsons work as the culmination of a school of
thinking in North-American philosophy that attempted to be naturalist without being reductionist.
He was clearly referring to pragmatism. Davidson himself did not accept that his philosophy was
a brand of pragmatism (cf. Borradori 1991; Pereira 1998). We do not intend to discuss in this text
whether or not Davidsons philosophy can be regarded as a variety of pragmatism. It is enough to

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In sharing a language, in whatever sense this is required for communication, we share a
picture of the world that must, in its large features, be true. It follows that in making manifest the large features of our language, we make manifest the large features of reality. One
way of pursuing metaphysics is therefore to study the general structure of our language.
(Davidson 1984, p. 199)

We only master the idea of reality if we share a language by means of the objective
practice of intersubjective communication. In these terms, the epistemological
authority is shifted from the first person or a transcendental subject to the point
of view of the interpreter, since it is not the speaker who confronts their beliefs
(that which she conceives of reality) with reality (that which reality is) and with the
beliefs of others in the act of conversation. It is the intersubjective dialogue which
establishes this adjustment, looking for causal relationships and reasons. To put it
differently, meaning and belief are interdependent, since we cannot infer the belief
without knowing the meaning and, in turn, we cannot infer the meaning without the
belief (Davidson 1984, p. 142). When we speak about the world, we are speaking
about meaning and belief, since our world is not outside our descriptions and narratives about our world. But the world cannot be true or false; only our descriptions of
it can be false or true. When we interpret someones speech, we should consider
that, in order to speak, she accepted beliefs that she somehow considered to be
trueshe ought to consider them to be truesince there should be countless true
beliefs about the matter before something in the world can play a part in the subject
matter of belief. Moreover, no simple theory can make speaker and interpreter reach
a perfect agreement. The basic methodological principle is, then, that a good theory
of interpretation should maximize the agreement. Davidson speaks of a theory of
interpretation not in the sense of a philosophical theory of interpretation or a
hermeneutic theory of interpretation. For him, a theory of interpretation is a
hypothesis made by a hearer concerning the meaning and truth of another persons
speech. If someone says (the example is Davidsons) The gun is loaded, the hearer
should formulate a hypothesis about the meaning of each term involved, the context
of the statement, and the speakers intentions. The success of intersubjective
communication depends on the success of the theories formulated by the hearer
(see Davidson 1984; LePore and Ludwig 2007).
With Peirce, Dewey, Putnam, and Davison, we can conclude that the collapse of
the Gods eye view in philosophy does not have a unique and fair reaction either
in relativism and conventionalism or in the complete abandonment and dissolution
of epistemology. On the contrary, in pragmatism it is reasonable to accept that truth
and reality, just as epistemological problems in general, should be understood in the
mirror of meaning. In order to do so, a theory of knowledge is replaced by a theory
of interpretation in language, in a dialogue in which language, interpreter, speaker,
and context participate. The end of dialogue is not only the agreementwhich is
not necessarily achievedbut also understanding. Moreover, everything that can
be said (about objective reality, our own sensations, and the minds of others) can
our purposes to observe that, no matter if Davidson can be characterized as a pragmatist or not, his
work is consistent with the pragmatic realist position we are striving to elaborate here.

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61

be said truthfully and can be understood fallibilistically. Even if we cannot take the
terms of the agreement to be true in any sense of simple correspondence to the
world, we can go on with the interpretation and bet that we are following a good
(the meaning, the truth).

2.5

Concluding Remarks

If we consider the ideas discussed in this chapter, we can conclude that we will have
grounds for choosing what knowledge, what theory, and what mode of thinking and
speaking to accept by critically considering and verifying its consequences to practice. Rival modes of thinking, say, can be chosen when facing concrete but problematic situations in an objective manner, in the sense that this choice can be rationally
guided by criteria that do not determine it, but influence it, and can be intersubjectively discussed and appraised. We can reach in this manner a view about the choice
of different perspectives to account for phenomena grounded on historically situated criteria and a pragmatic appraisal of the consequences of adopting one or
another mode of thinking and speaking.
This is the position taken by the conceptual profile theory when it comes to critically comparing distinct modes of thinking, something that may be inevitable in the
science classroom: distinct modes of thinking can be chosen when facing some
concrete and problematic situation, by deciding whether that situation falls under
the domain of application of a specific zone. This decision will be grounded by
values to which a person is committed, and it is a key issue in science education,
according to this approach, to promote the development of an awareness among
students about the domains of application of distinct modes of thinking and about
the values or criteria that can guide the choice of perspectives to address particular
problems.
It is probably clear now that the philosophical basis of the conceptual profile
theory cannot harbor a commitment to anything goes relativism. Rather, this
approach assumes an objective pragmatist ground, in the sense explained above. In
our account, we move away from subjectivism by demanding that choices of modes
of thinking and acting be always rationally appraised and discussed. In the particular confines of the conceptual profile theory, we do so by introducing as a learning
goal the construction of awareness about the domains of application of modes of
thinking and speaking.
In the end, one might argue, however, that such pragmatism is not really that different from relativism. Maybe. But we think we drove home the central distinction
we want to make here, namely, between anything goes relativismparticularly as it
often appears in robust multicultural stances (El-Hani and Mortimer 2007)and
the pragmatist grounds of the conceptual profile theory. If one calls the latter also
relativism, we have no problem with that, provided that one does not conflate this
relativism with that other, namely, anything goes relativism. Still, one of the easiest
ways to be confused is to use the same word to say different things. Thus, it is

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always better to use different words to say different things, and this is why we prefer
to characterize our position as (objective) pragmatism.
Objective pragmatism has no problem with efforts to compare different modes of
thinking, ideas, ways of knowing, etc., provided that these comparisons are not
made in abstract, but in a clear connection with concrete situations to be dealt with.
Here, we can come back to Dewey, in his elaboration of how different modes of
inquiry can be contrasted on the grounds of their pragmatic consequences:
we are able to contrast various kinds of inquiry that are in use or that have been used in
respect to their economy and efficiency in reaching warranted conclusions. We know that
some methods are better than others in just the same way in which we know that some
methods of surgery, farming, road-making, navigating or what-not are better than others. It
does not follow in any of these cases that the better methods are ideally perfect, or that
they are regulative or normative because of conformity to some absolute form. They are
the methods which experience up to the present time shows to be the best methods available
for achieving certain results. (Dewey 1938, p. 104)

Moreover, it is not only the case that we can choose between different bodies of
knowledge and ways of knowing, but we can also rationally appraise and understand why some are successful where others are not:
through comparison-contrast, we ascertain how and why certain means and agencies
have provided warrantably assertible conclusions, while others have not and cannot do
so. (Dewey 1938, p. 104)

This leads us to briefly mention a pedagogical consequence of assuming objective pragmatism as a philosophical basis for the conceptual profile theory. It concerns a putative strategy to attain the learning goal of increasing the awareness of
learners about the heterogeneity of human thinking, as represented in a conceptual
profile model, and the domains of validity of distinct modes of thinking. How should
we establish these domains, so that we can use them in pedagogical practice?
The pragmatic maxim suggests a heuristically powerful approach: examine the
pragmatic consequences of the modes of thinking constituting the zones of a profile,
i.e., their consequences to the ways people think and speak about relevant issues and
to the ways people act in relevant circumstances, or, to put it differently, compare
modes of thinking in relation to the prospects of dealing with a problematic situation by anticipating the consequences of using that mode of thinking to deal with it.
This will provide the grounds to delimit the validity of the application, the pragmatic efficacy, and the warranted assertibility of the distinct zones of a profile.
Needless to say, it will be a highly fruitful enterprise for teachers and students to
consider what pragmatically follows from thinking about relevant issues in one way
or another.
Examples such as the ones mentioned above in connection with the conceptual
profile of heat can be helpful. If we consider the cases of a student asking for a coat in
a shop or deciding which drinking vessel to use (see Chap. 1), we will be dealing with
the pragmatic efficacy of everyday and scientific language in the context of students
daily experiences. These casesand other similar onescan be used by teachers to
build teaching approaches grounded on conceptual profiles. It is important to remember,
however, that to stimulate students to consider problematic situations and strive for

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63

proposing solutions is much more worthwhile when we engage them in a methodical


approach to the situation, which can follow, for instance, the common pattern of
inquiry suggested by Dewey and discussed above. We still need, however, to develop
and test, in future steps of the research program on conceptual profiles, teaching
sequences addressing the pragmatic value of different modes of thinking.

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Chapter 3

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual


Profile Research Program
Eduardo F. Mortimer, Charbel N. El-Hani, Cludia Sepulveda,
Edenia Maria Ribeiro do Amaral, Francisco ngelo Coutinho,
and Fbio Augusto Rodrigues e Silva

In order to establish a methodology for research on conceptual profiles, we should


consider a variety of situations in which such investigations may occur, as described
in the various chapters of this book: for instance, studies aiming at identifying
possible zones to build a conceptual profile model, as, for example, described by
Coutinho et al. (Chap. 5 of this book) and Sepulveda et al. (Chap. 7); investigations
conducted in order to understand how the different zones of a conceptual profile
model evolve in a specific population, such as biological and pharmaceutical
sciences students, as discussed by Silva et al. (Chap. 6), or researches about how
different zones of a profile emerge in discursive interactions in the classroom, as
shown by the work of Sepulveda et al. (Chap. 7).

E.F. Mortimer (*)


Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Av. Antnio Carlos 6627,
30.270-901 Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
C.N. El-Hani
Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Rua Baro do Geremoabo, s/n,
Campus de Ondina, Ondina, 40170-290 Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
e-mail: charbel@ufba.br
C. Sepulveda
Department of Education, State University of Feira de Santana, Feira de Santana, Bahia, Brazil
E.M.R. do Amaral
Department of Chemistry, Rural Federal University of Pernambuco (UFRPE), Recife,
Pernambuco, Brazil
F.. Coutinho
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte,
Minas Gerais, Brazil
F.A.R. e Silva
Department of Biodiversity, Evolution and Environment, Federal University of Ouro Preto,
Campus Universitrio Morro do Cruzeiro, 35.400-000, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_3, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

67

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3.1

E.F. Mortimer et al.

Identifying Zones to Build a Conceptual Profile Model:


A Dialogue Between the Empirical and the Theoretical

The main methodological principle that guides researches carried out to identify
possible zones to build a specific conceptual profile model resides in the Vygotskian
maxim that it is only possible to have a full picture of the genesis of a concept if we
study it in different genetic domains (Vygotsky and Luria 1935; Wertsch 1985).
Therefore, we should study how the genesis of a concept occurred in the domain of
the sociocultural history, that is, how the understandings about a given concept
evolved throughout the history of mankind. At the same time, we should also seek
studies to inform us about how this concept is learned and how it evolves through
the history of each subject, dealing, in this case, with the ontogenetic domain.
Finally, we should associate these studies in two well-mapped domains with a third
domain, the microgenetic, which refers to the microprocesses or microgeneses that
occur in situations of interaction and expression of ideas, generally in a short time
gap and specific circumstances, as, for example, in a classroom, in interviews, and
in answers given to questionnaires. These situations allow short-term longitudinal
studies (Wertsch and Stone 1985), which characterize the microgenetic domain. By
considering data from all these genetic domains, we will be investigating a range of
meanings attributed to a concept in a diversity of meaning making contexts. This
allows us to build conceptual profiles that are more powerful and fertile models of
the heterogeneity of ways of thinking and speaking available in a society for use in
a range of contexts or domains of experience.
Vygotsky warns us that the main factor that causes development in each domain
is not always the same (Vygotsky and Luria 1935; Wertsch 1985), so that the studies
about these various domains should not have the objective of establishing any parallelism between the typical contents of each one, for example, between the students
ideas and those ideas found in the historical context. It is not, therefore, a question
of the ontogenesis recapitulating the sociocultural historical genesis. The purpose of
the historical study is to contribute to the understanding of the genesis of a concept
in the sociocultural genetic domain, in order to allow us to relate it with other
domains and provide a wider view of the genetic processes at stake. In a way,
historical studies enlighten the possible trajectories followed in building a given
understanding of a concept, being important to describe the changes that occurred
throughout the history of its construction and the difficulties faced in its historical
genesis. Epistemological studies, for their part, help to understand the various
components involved in the meaning of a concept, in particular, when they provide philosophical analyses about it. The students informal or alternative conceptions, addressed in the literature on science education, can be representative of the
ontogenetic processes of knowledge construction in everyday life. Moreover, this
literature gives access to ideas frequently used by students in various contexts, providing important inputs for the proposition of teaching strategies about a given concept. The investigation of students informal conceptions through questionnaires and
interviews also reveals data related to the genesis of a concept in the microgenetic

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program

69

domain (Wertsch and Stone 1985). Data obtained by analyzing textbooks and
episodes of classroom discursive interaction provide important information about
the ontogenesis and microgenesis of concepts. In textbook analysis, it is also possible, in some cases, to have access to information about the sociocultural genesis
of a concept.
The study of conceptual profiles involves two distinct methodological procedures. In the first, the main goal is to determine zones that can be used to build a
profile model for a given concept, necessarily investigating different genetic
domains. In the second, once the zones are determined and the conceptual profile
model built, we can carry out investigations about how the ways of thinking and
modes of speaking related to these zones are distributed and evolve in a given population. In this chapter, we will discuss each of these methodological procedures,
beginning with the establishment of zones to build a conceptual profile model.

3.2
3.2.1

Determining the Zones of a Conceptual Profile


Working with Different Genetic Domains

The methodology for building conceptual profiles presupposes a dialogue between


the different genetic domains, and between theoretical information and empirical
findings, as, for example, those provided by questionnaires, interviews, and classroom videotaping.
There may be a mutual influence between the sources used, which is coherent
with the idea of working with different genetic domains. The need of working with
these different domains is reinforced, also, when we consider the way in which the
zones of a conceptual profile are identified. The zones of a profile are stabilized by
ontological, epistemological, and axiological1 commitments that stabilize ways of
thinking and speaking about concepts. In order to identify these commitments, it is
necessary to put into dialogue secondary literature about the history of science, the
epistemological literature, the literature about alternative conceptions, and the primary data obtained from questionnaires, interviews, textbook analysis, and analysis
of episodes of discursive interaction in the classroom.
For the treatment of primary data, two different strategies can be used, with
different risks. In the first, we analyze primary data initially in a partly inductive
way, deriving from their analysis categories with a relatively smaller contact with
the historical, epistemological, and alternative conceptions literature. This avoids
analyzing this data mostly based on the categories from this literature. Nevertheless,
the obvious risk of this kind of strategy is to arrive at a very poor categorization of

The investigation of the axiological domain is a recent contribution to the research program (see
Mattos, Chap. 10 in this book), which has not been incorporated yet in most of the empirical studies
reported in this book.

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empirical data, which will make it very difficult to engage in later dialogue with
historical, philosophical, and alternative conceptions sources. After all, one cannot
stop at this point of the analysis, because the zones of a profile do not correspond
to those categories. As stated above, they are identified by ontological, epistemological, and axiological commitments, and these are not to be found on the surface
of discourse. In order to extract them from the categorized primary data, the
dialogue with historical, philosophical, and alternative conceptions sources is
essential, particularly when they provide analyses of the meanings attributed to a
given concept as well as about alternative ways of meaning making about it.
Therefore, in this first strategy these sources become prominent at a second stage of
the construction of a profile, making it possible to identify the zones that will make
up the model.
The second type of strategy used to build conceptual profile models begins
with the historical, philosophical, and alternative conceptions sources, in this way
inferring the zones and, later, the categories of answers that characterize them and
that will be sought in the empirical material. In this strategy, there is the risk of
drawing up a well-articulated theoretical framework, but which does not account for
the empirical data, because these may be much richer than the articulation reached
in that framework. Another problem is the possibility of an excessive bias in the
interpretation of the primary data.
In the two methodological strategies used, we strive for reducing the consequences of the risks we described by always seeking to place the data obtained from
different genetic domains into constant dialogue. In spite of the different procedures
and risks that characterize each strategy, it is important to consider that they do not
exclude each other and can be used to build the same conceptual profile, as will be
illustrated in the next section of this chapter.
We should note that one cannot postulate a hierarchy between genetic domains.
In one of the methodological strategies, the sociocultural and ontogenetic domains,
when used to build and analyze the questionnaires, interviews, and classroom
videotapes, precede the microgenetic domain in the course of the research. In the
other strategy, it is the ontogenetic and microgenetic domains that precede the
sociocultural domain. This ordering occurs for purely methodological reasons and
does not reflect any assumptions about a putative hierarchy of the domains. It is the
coming together of all the domains that makes the methodology rich, and not a supposed hierarchy between them.
It should be noted, also, that we do not do historical research, that is, we do not
study the evolution of the concepts in primary historical documents but in secondary
sources about the history of science and in epistemological texts. For example, an
important reference for studies relating to themes such as heat, entropy, and others
is Laidlers book, The World of Physical Chemistry, since in this book we find a
summary of various historically important works for the development of this field.
It should be also noted with regard to the sociocultural genetic domain that we
do not always stick to the reports of historical research, but we also resort to current
(or contemporary) research reports on how certain areas of knowledge deal with the
different concepts we are investigating. This is clear when we take a concept such

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program

71

as death (see Chap. 11). In this case, it is important not only to make a historical
survey about the sociocultural genesis of the concept but also to check how it has
been treated in different fields of knowledge, for example, philosophy, psychology,
and medicine. This same procedure was adopted by us in the case of the conceptual
profile of life, except that, in this case, instead of verifying how the concept has been
dealt with in different areas of knowledge, we asked how it has been worked in
specific areas of biological research, for example, in research about artificial life and
in research based on the Gaia theory (see Chap. 5).
For its part, the ontogenetic domain is widely represented in the research about
students alternative conceptions that had their boom in the literature of the 1980s.
In various of these pieces of research, cross-cutting studies were carried out with
children and adolescents of different ages, so as to make up a given epistemic subject
in the Piagetian sense, following a certain path in elaborating a given concept, although
most of these studies did not refer to this epistemic subject (e.g., see Brook et al.
1984; Erickson 1985; Tiberghien 1985; Trivelato 1989; Stavy 1990; Pereira and
Pestana 1991). Differently from the Piagetian studies that focus on the conceptual
evolution along more general categories, as, for example, conservation and atomism,
most of the studies on alternative conceptions are very specific, focusing on some
concepts considered central to science teaching, such as heat, force, electrical current,
chemical reaction, and natural selection.
In the process of determining the zones of a conceptual profile model, the treatment
of these alternative conceptions may precede the stage of obtaining empirical data,
and within a different strategy, these concepts are raised after contact with the empirical
field (see above). In one way or the other, it is certain that alternative conceptions
that are discussed in the literature may arise when the empirical data is being analyzed,
bringing together two genetic domains the ontogenetic and the microgenetic but it
can also be the case that they do not appear or other alternative conceptions are revealed.
Therefore, in any of the strategies adopted, we must be aware of the possibilities of
making the characterization of the zones proposed for the profile more comprehensive.
When dealing with empirical data, we should keep in mind that we work with
three different kinds of data: (1) those obtained in the classroom, by video-recording
processes that occur during the development of teaching sequences; (2) those
obtained in response to interviews; and (3) those obtained through questionnaires.
In analyzing these data, response categories are constructed that can, in the future, be
framed in a mode of speaking that becomes one of the elements for the characterization
of a conceptual profile zone.

3.2.2

Exemplifying the Strategies for Determining the Zones


of a Conceptual Profile Model

In this section we provide examples of the two methodological strategies presented


above in the construction of the same conceptual profile model, namely, that of life
(Coutinho 2005, see Chap. 5). We will begin with the second strategy, which starts

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E.F. Mortimer et al.

with studies of historical, philosophical, and alternative conceptions sources and


then, after formulating some categories, moves to the empirical data in order to
validate their existence in the investigated sociocultural context, while also refining
the analysis.
Studying the evolution of the understanding of causality in children, Piaget
(1934) established some categories from which we extracted the name and explanation
given to two of our categories, namely, finalism and artificialism.
We considered as finalist those utterances which contained some idea of reality
as being organized according to a plan that tends toward the harmony of nature. An
example of this zone is obtained in the answer of one of the investigated students to
the question: What is life? Life is the constant harmonious interaction in the
environment (even if it produces inharmonious consequences).2
We included in the other category artificialism the utterances that attribute to a
fabricating agent, generally a divinity, the origins or donation of life. This category
also includes any type of anthropomorphization that refers to life as human life.
The utterance below exemplifies this zone both in its anthropomorphic form
(fragment 1) and in the form of life as a gift (fragment 2):
Life is what we do for us and for others; it is to do good, to take an interest in others, have
friends; to live is to be well with yourself and happy, have a family and people you can
always rely on (frag. 1). Life is a God-given gift and no one has the right to take it away.
It should be enjoyed in a healthy and respectful way. (frag. 2)

Therefore, the categories related to these ways of speaking were taken from the
literature about the ontogeneses of notions and concepts, but it was, at the same
time, confirmed and expanded by the data obtained empirically, since different
kinds of utterances were found in these data that expressed the same principles.
Let us then exemplify the first methodological strategy, in which the primary
data are initially analyzed in a partially inductive way, deriving categories from this
analysis with relatively smaller contact with the historical, epistemological, and
alternative conceptions literatures. Still in the study on the conceptual profile of life,
the determination of the category essentialism illustrates this methodology. In the
empirical data, we found a number of life definitions that listed properties and
defined them as being necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be named
as alive. Because there was a reference to necessary and sufficient conditions, we
called this category, obtained in an inductive manner, essentialism. However,
from the dialogue with the historical and philosophical sources, we realized that
there were two forms of essentialism in the utterances or answers found in the
empirical data. The first referred to macroscopic properties and it was called macroessentialism and the other referred to microscopic properties being called
micro-essentialism. Examples of both categories are found in the answers to the
question about what are living beings: macro-essentialism, beings that are born,
grow, reproduce and die or that have the potential for this, and micro-essentialism,
the fragment Everything that has DNA.

The students answers were translated from Portuguese to English by the authors of the chapter.

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program

73

Table 3.1 Categories and their forms of expression in Coutinho (2005)


Category
Agent
Artificialism
Macro-essentialism
Micro-essentialism
Finalism
Mechanism
Relational

Expressions
Use of expressions containing tends to, does, transforms, permits,
produces
Reference to gift, donation, God, references to human life and human
states of spirit and heart
Macroscopic properties of living beings (birth, reproduction, movement,
growth, nutrition, etc.)
Microscopic properties and composition of living beings (metabolism,
cellularity, DNA, RNA, proteins, etc.)
Harmony, teleological expressions (purpose, finality)
Reference to mechanisms and machines. Explanation in terms of
components arranged as in a machine
Reference to interactions and relations between entities or between an
entity and its environment

Table 3.2 Reduced zones and their derivation from the expanded categories (From Coutinho
2005)
Reduced
zones
Externalism

Expanded categories
Agent
Finalism
Artificialism

Conception
Life is understood as something exterior, or
which tends to be exterior to the living
system

Macro-essentialism
Micro-essentialism
Mechanism

Life is understood as processes or properties


inherent in the living system

Internalism

Relational

Life is understood as a relation between


entities or the definition is given in terms
of relations between concepts

Relational

In building a model of the conceptual profile of life, Coutinho (2005) also


introduced a methodological procedure that is useful in constructing profiles,
namely, the initial proposition of expanded categories which are later fused to obtain
the profile zones. Initially, the categories in their expanded form were associated
with the expressions indicating them (Table 3.1).
A more careful analysis of the seven categories shown in Table 3.1 indicated that
they could be reduced to three basic zones of a conceptual profile of life, understood
as a biological concept, through the identification of epistemological and ontological
commitments. Table 3.2 shows the correspondence between the expanded categories
and reduced zones.

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3.2.3

E.F. Mortimer et al.

The Importance of Investigating Modes of Speaking in


the Construction of Conceptual Profiles

Modes of speaking are characteristic expressions of a given conceptual zone that


help the analyst to identify examples of these zones in utterances. They are useful,
therefore, in analyzing questionnaires, interviews, and videotaped classes and can
be used for both determining the zones that make up a conceptual profile and
studying the evolution of the distribution of the zones of a previously constructed
profile in a given population, as exemplified in Sect. 3.3.
The modes of speaking typical of each zone are usually expressed by social languages and/or speech genres (Bakhtin 1986). For Bakhtin (1981, 1986), the speech
genre and the social language are two ways of language stratification that assure its
heterogeneity. A social language is a discourse peculiar to a specific stratum of society (professional, age group, etc.) within a given social system at a given time
(Holquist 1981, p. 430). All social languages are specific points of view on the world,
forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values (Bakhtin 1981, pp. 291292).
In the Bakhtinian view, a speaker always produces an utterance using a specific
social language that shapes what she has to say. For its part, a speech genre is not
a form of language, but a typical form of utterance; as such, [] genres correspond to typical situations of speech communication, typical themes, and, consequently, also to particular contacts between the meanings of words and actual
concrete reality under certain typical circumstances (Bakhtin 1986, p. 87).
Therefore, while a social language is related to a specific point of view, determined
by a professional or personal position, the speech genre is related to the social and
institutional place where the discourse is produced.
We may infer from these considerations that, when responding to a data collection
tool, the subject will resort to a social language which is typical of the place from
where she speaks and will also consider, in a certain manner, utterances which are
specific of her academic and/or school condition, that is, a specific speech genre
that we may call the school speech genre. Both social languages and speech
genres make up forms of speech that characterize the zones of a given conceptual
profile model.
Let us examine an example from the three zones we reached in the construction
of a conceptual profile of death (Nicolli 2009). Through a review of the literature in
different domains (such as medicine, philosophy, thanatology, literary fiction) and
its confrontation with the data of a pilot questionnaire, we arrived at three zones in
this profile: (1) naturalist, (2) religious, and (3) relational.3
We will discuss here modes of speaking that emerged in response to the
questionnaire used in this research. Most of the answers we analyzed refer to one of
the questions: What is death? With regard to the naturalist zone, we found a set of
typical ways of speaking. In the first place, we found expressions that refer to organs,
cells, metabolism, breathing, circulation, chemical composition, etc., attributing to
3

For a detailed discussion of each of these zones, see Nicolli (2009) and Chap. 11 of this book.

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program

75

death the condition of the phenomenon that results from the cessation of the living
functions of the organism. This is expressed, for example, in the following speeches:
Organs/cells stop working; Because they dont have any vital characteristics
anymore, such as metabolism, breathing, circulation. Second, it was possible to
identify references to the life cycle, in which death is conceived as a stage experienced
by every human being, as in the following speech: Because death is the last stage
a living organism goes through. Third, we observed expressions that refer to the
general class of living beings, such as all and others, as a natural human condition,
as, for example, in the speech: All living beings go through this. Another way of
speaking expresses death as a possibility or capacity of the succession of living
beings, so as to assure natural balance. As examples, we have the following
speeches: It allows the succession of beings and natural balance; Because some
must die for others to be born. Finally, the responses included expressions that
refer to death as something normal, as part of human nature, as in the following
speeches: It is normal; Because it is the nature of life.
With regard to the religious zone, it was also possible to find a typical set of ways
of speaking. In the first place, we have the expressions that refer to death in the view
of a body/soul duality, or consider the existence of life after death. Some examples
of this mode of speaking are The beginning of an eternal spiritual life; the spirit
leaves the body/the disembodiment of the soul. Second, we found expressions that
refer to God, the divine Will, and derived expressions that are part of the language of different religious systems, such as heaven and hell. The following
speeches are examples: it only happens to those who do not have Jesus in their
heart; the moment we will meet the Creator; the continuity of life in heaven or
hell. Third, there are expressions that describe death as a destiny, as part of the
fulfillment of a mission. As examples, we can mention: when the person fulfilled
their role/mission in this life; Yes [death is divine will]. We arrive in the world
with our destiny drawn out/with a defined timeline. Fourth, we have expressions
that mention biblical passages, as, for example, Yes [death is divine will]. God
determines the right time, the wage of sin is death; God allows death, but it is not
his will; [death is] a release from a prison called life.
The relational zone also made possible the identification of a set of typical ways
of speaking. First, we observed expressions that refer to death as a fact that brings
fear, anguish, and despair, expressing difficulty of acceptance. As examples we have
[Death is] the most terrible thing on the planet; [Death] is a fatality; Difficult
to accept. Second, there are expressions that translate the perception of death as a
mystery, the unknown, and the uncertain, as in the examples: [Death] is a mystery;
[Death is] unknown to all and idealized by many.
Finally, because of the identification of polysemy, there is always the need to
include a category called other answers in the data analysis, in which are allocated
some answers that allow a range of interpretations. As we understand them, the
following expressions are examples: We will only know when we die; It is the
lack of love; Rest, deep sleep. We must point out the fact that these expressions
cannot represent, in the work on a conceptual profile as a whole, a significant
percentage of the categorized utterances. If this happens, it is an indication that
additional studies have to be carried out.

76

3.2.4

E.F. Mortimer et al.

How We Analyze the Data from Interviews

Another methodological aspect to be considered, still related to the determination


of the zones that make up a conceptual profile model, refers to interviews, which,
due to their more dynamic and naturalistic character, allow a greater deepening in
data collection and make it possible to find out whether and how the subjects of the
research become aware of their own profile.
In the work about the conceptual profile of life, these interviews were carried
out using task situations and were recorded and transcribed for analysis. The use of
task situations is inspired by Scribner (1984) and the way we previously used this
methodology in our research program (Correa 1997). Task situations are narrative
structures with gaps that triggers certain cognitive moves in the interviewee.
Normally, the preparation of task situations begins with a more intimate contact
with the daily practice of the interviewees and emerges, therefore, from an ethnographic work (Scribner 1984). Task situations for the concept of life, however,
were drawn up from controversial cases selected in the historical and epistemological literature (for instance, in Bedau 1996; Lovelock 1995; Lima-Tavares and
El-Hani 2001).
In the case of this conceptual profile, the interview outline was made up of five task
situations (Coutinho 2005; Coutinho et al. 2007). These task situations are presented
in Table 3.3. The first refers to the Gaia theory, raising the issue of whether planet
Earth could be seen as a living being. The second deals with universal criteria for
defining and identifying life, discussing whether it is possible to find a life concept
that serves not only for life-as-we-know-it but also for life-as-it-could-be in some
other planet. The third copes with the program of artificial life, which seeks to understand life through computational models. This task situation highlights a counterintuitive concept, since it goes against the common sense conception of life by stating that
the virtual processes developed by artificial life researchers are not only simulations
of living systems but would generate in the computer screen legitimate instances of
such systems (see, e.g., Emmeche 1997). The fourth raises the problem of how could
we apply the concept of life to both a containing system, such as an organism, and to
the contained parts, such as cells, in order to raise problems related to whether we
should consider life as a classical concept, in the sense of having rigid and welldefined borders (i.e., something could be only living or not living), or as a fuzzy
concept, admitting a continuum of more or less living systems. Finally, a fifth issue
makes it possible for the interviewee to express his/her religious conceptions. With
these task situations, we hoped that the interviewees would have the opportunity to
express modes of thinking and speaking that could help in determining zones for a
conceptual profile of life, by argumentatively positioning themselves for or against the
conceptions stated in those situations.
In the case of the research about the conceptual profile of life, these task situations were applied to graduate students. We previously validated them, however,
with higher education biology students, which led to the reformulation of some

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program

77

Table 3.3 Task situations about the concept of life (Coutinho 2005; Coutinho et al. 2007)
1. The concept of life gives origin to many problems and ambiguities. We can very easily
classify many things as living and nonliving beings. For example, fishes and ants are alive,
while flames, crystals, and clouds are not alive. However, for many things there remains a
doubt. Viruses, for example, are borderline cases. The Gaia hypothesis, according to which all
the chemical and biological environment at the surface of the Earth is a single living being,
challenges the common concept of life. What is your opinion about this hypothesis?
2. Another problem is when we look for extraterrestrial life. Extraterrestrial life, if it exists, may
not depend on information codified in DNA molecules or might not even be based on
processes of carbon chemistry. The chemical constitution of extraterrestrial life could be
completely different from that of life on Earth. Therefore, we have no reason to imagine that
extraterrestrial life is similar to life on Earth. Thus, to find a definition of life means that this
definition must apply not only to life-as-we-know-it but also to life-as-it-could-be anywhere
in the universe. Thus, how would we recognize extraterrestrial life if we found it? What
concept of life would apply not only to life-as-we-know-it but also to life-as-it-could-be?
3. Artificial life is an interdisciplinary research field that seeks to understand life through
computational models. These devices carry out processes characteristic of living systems,
such as self-organization, metabolism, competition, growth, development, reproduction, and
adaptive evolution. Many scientists state that such virtual processes are not only simulations
of living systems, but that, when the programs are run, we would see in the computer screen
legitimate living beings.
(a) Argue for or against this statement, according to your opinion.
4. Many organisms are multicellular, with extremely differentiated cells. Given any concept of
life, would this apply only to the organism as a whole but not to the cells that belong to it?
Could we say that an organism is alive, but the cells that belong to it are not? How can we
solve this problem?
5. Many people believe that life was created or is a gift of God. What is your opinion about
this belief?

questions and provided orientations for the positioning of the researcher during
the interview.
Besides enabling greater deepening in the data collection, the interviews may
favor, because of their richer discursive context when compared to questionnaires,
what we call becoming aware of the conceptual profile or, at least, becoming
aware of a disturbance in relation to the original ideas the subject had about a given
profile. In the context of Coutinhos (2005) work, we have several examples of this
process. Let us consider one of them. At the beginning of the discussion about task
situation 2, which deals with universal criteria for defining and identifying life, it
was possible to see that an interviewed student has become aware of his conceptual profile and, moreover, of the fact that the ways of thinking included in it did not
account for the complexity of defining life. This increased awareness is shown in
the passage of an episode reproduced below, with the use of expressions that function as interjections, such as Gosh! which appears twice in the passage. It appears
that, while the student progressed in the interview, he sought a new way of defining
life, since he ends the previous episode with the expression: Oh! I see that!
[laughter]:

78

E.F. Mortimer et al.


S2. How is that? Gosh! Can I compartmentalize? Gosh! In the first part there you already
made a big hole in my concept of life, because the concept of life we have is completely our
own vision and as I see it/very anthropocentric 4.

This student had not expressed modes of thinking that could be connected
with the relational zone when answering the questionnaire used in this study.
However, as soon as he became aware of this zone, he started to use it constantly. This later converged to another passage in a subsequent episode of the
interview. In fragment 1 of this passage, he explicitly defined life in terms of
relations. Next, however, the fact of becoming aware of this zone and how to use
it became very noticeable, as can be seen in the speech: I think my ideas are
quite contradictory:
1.
2.
3.
4.

R: You have already used the word relation


S2: About twenty thousand times right?
R: Because
S2: [Laughter]. Look up my psychologist and ask her ((laughter)). Yes! But I think my
concept of life is well/that I told you It is interaction (frag. 1). I think my ideas are
quite contradictory. But I think I never wasted much time never wasted/no! I never gained
much time driving myself crazy like this. Heaven help me! (frag2)

Another aspect to be highlighted in relation to student 2 is that when answering


items of the questionnaire resorting only to the modes of thinking related to the
internalist zone, he did not show a range of ways of thinking about the concept of
life. However, the interview made new zones explicit, and this led us to the idea that
students showing only one zone of the profile could in fact exhibit the other zones
for the concept of life or even different zones from those that were found. This
shows that the modes of thinking made explicit by a subject are strongly linked to
the context created by the questions. Since in an interview there is more time for
reflection, and there is feedback by the interviewer, this context favors increased
conceptual dispersion. The awareness of the dependence of the manifestation of
modes of thinking related to the zones of a profile on the data collection instruments
unfolded into a later investigation, which will be discussed in the next section.

3.3

Research on the Evolution of the Distribution of Profile


Zones in a Specific Population

In the case of investigations about how the distribution of profile zones evolves in a
specific population, we also use questionnaires. However, these tools cannot be as
short as the questionnaires used to build a profile model. The questionnaires applied
4

In order to make the transcription simple, we adopted a simplified code for transcribing the oral
language: we kept the dot (.), the question mark (?) and the exclamation mark (!), without the usual
parentheses, to indicate a stress in the intonation, or a shift in the tone indicating a question or an
exclamation (these notations are thus researchers inferences); a slash (/) indicates a small pause;
when the pauses lasted longer, an approximate duration was indicated between parentheses (for
example (2s)); brackets ([ ]) indicate simultaneous talk.

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program

79

in the investigation of the evolution of the distribution of profile zones should


be longer, with a range of questions that makes it possible to produce different
contexts, which favor the appearance of the different zones. This is important
because, although the same question can favor the appearance of different zones,
most of them preferentially points to one particular mode of thinking.
The researches on the conceptual profile of life also illustrate this kind of study.
In the questionnaires used to establish the zones of this profile model (Coutinho
2005; this book, Chap. 5), we used few questions applied to a smaller sample. In Silvas
(2006) research, in turn, the goal was to investigate how the distribution of modes
of thinking about life evolved among students in two higher education courses:
biological and pharmaceutical sciences (see also this book, Chap. 6). For this
purpose, we developed a questionnaire containing a greater number of questions
18 open questions addressing various themes and subjects, which allowed for
the emergence of the different zones that make up the conceptual profile of life. This
tool was applied to a diversified sample, composed of 132 biological sciences students
(1st5th semester) and 105 pharmaceutical sciences students (1st5th semester, with
the exception of the 2nd). We also performed a statistical treatment of the data
obtained through the questionnaires, in order to extract the maximum of information that could enable us to compare the evolution of the profiles throughout the
courses. An important fact to note, however, is that the evolution at stake was not
investigated, in fact, through a longitudinal study of the same subjects throughout
their courses but by means of cross sections in which we obtained, at the same
moment, answers from students in different semesters.
Some examples can help in elucidating the strategy of data collection in this
study. Initially, we will show how we identified observed scores for the individuals,
and then, using the statistical item response theory (Valle 2000), we identified the
scores of the expression of a given zone in a given question, for the same individuals.
For example, in question 6 of the questionnaire used in this research (Silva 2006;
see Chap. 6), which referred to the arguments used by scientists to state that certain
computer programs can be considered as living beings, one of the interviewees gave
the following opinion: Capable of making decisions and reproducing themselves.
In this answer, the interviewee used ways of expression characteristic of the externalist
zone (in italics) and the internalist zone (in bold) but not of the relational zone.
When recording the data, this answer received value 1 for the externalist and internalist
zones and 0 for the relational zone.
Student

Externalism

Internalism

Relational

S1

In the question For you, what is life? we have another example of an answer:
Everything that interacts in the environment, which actively participates in the
relations of the planet and presents some kind of awareness. In this answer,
the interviewee used the relational zone (in italics) and the externalist zone
(in bold) but not the internalist zone. Below, we can see the recording of the data
related to this answer.

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E.F. Mortimer et al.


Student

Externalism

Internalism

Relational

S8

With the use of this strategy, we consolidated the data of the 237 questionnaires
distributed through the different semesters of the biological and pharmaceutical
sciences courses. It is important to note that the questionnaire used, with 18 questions,
favored the emergence of the 3 zones of the conceptual profile of life. Only nine
students (3.8 %) gave answers classified in a single zone in all the questions included
in the tool. Out of a total of 237 students, 147 (62 %) expressed a profile with 3 zones
and 81 (34.2 %) with 2 zones.
This strategy provided observed scores for each zone of the profile of life. These
observed scores represent the number of times each student used, in the questionnaire, each zone of the profile. Based on theses observed scores, it is possible to
attribute individual profiles to each respondent. From the individual profiles, it is
possible, through cluster analysis (Mingoti 2005), to determine which are the most
common groups of profiles in the sample. This analysis was carried out with the
program SPSS 12.0 for Windows. The groups of profiles are clusters of individuals
that hold similar levels of expression or access to the zones of a given profile, in this
case, of life.
This strategy provided us with the three most common profiles in the sample of
biological sciences students, as shown in Fig. 3.1.
This analysis of observed scores did not produce, however, the expected diversity
of profiles. Thus, we used another statistical procedure, using item response theory
(Valle 2000), to obtain a greater diversity of profiles and, at the same time, examine
how each question contributed to elicit each zone. In this procedure, we did not
use the observed scores but a new category that we called the expression of a
given profile zone () for each question. The statistical procedure was run with the
software GGUM 2004 (Roberts 2004; Roberts and Cui 2004).5
Bortolotti (2003, p. 15) states that the model implemented by GGUM 2004
places together in a continuum individuals and items that vary between a negative,
a neutral and a positive position. Individuals are placed in this continuum according
to their opinion and the items are placed on the same continuum according to their
content.
In the case of the research under discussion, the individuals are placed in this
continuum according to the intensity of expression of a given profile zone, and
the items, according to their potential of establishing contexts for the expression of
the different zones of the profile.
The individual data about each one of the zones of the profile were calculated by
GGUM 2004 separately, leading to the establishment of three interval scales with
values between 3 and +3. The individuals who scored 3 for a given zone of the
5

This program can be obtained for free at http://www.psychology.gatech.edu/unfolding/. The site


also provides handbooks with information about the handling of the program and the statistical
theory on which it is based.

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program

81

16

Observed Scores

14
12

Externalism
Internalism
Relational

10
8
6
4
2
0
Group 1

Group 2

Group 3

Fig. 3.1 Most common profiles in the sample of biological sciences students investigated by Silva
(2006), obtained by cluster analysis

profile did not express it in their answers to the questionnaire. The value +3, in turn,
corresponds to the maximum score of intensity of expression () provided by the
questionnaire. However, in the current research this value was not attributed to any
individual.
With the use of GGUM2004, three characteristic test curves (CTC) were
produced based on all of the items of the questionnaire, providing information
about the test as a whole. These curves can show the expected score for a given
value of . What is important is that, after drawing the characteristic test curve for
the population, it is possible to make quantitative and qualitative inferences by
merely using the plotted graphs.
Figure 3.2 shows the characteristic test curve for the externalist zone. The following
example helps in interpreting the graph: after submitting the data related to the
students externalist zone to GGUM 2004, the expression intensity scores () of
the externalist zone were produced. The minimum score was 3 and the maximum
score observed for this zone was 1.94. Note that this is less than the maximum value
observed in the curve, but it corresponds to the score of 8, the maximum observed
in our sample. Observing the graph curve, for the minimum value of in the externalist zone, a score close to zero is expected. With this result, therefore, it is stated
that the individual with = 3 never showed this zone in the questionnaire. With the
maximum = 1.94, a score of 8 is reached, showing that this subject is expected to
show this zone of the profile in eight questions.
Figure 3.3 shows the characteristic test curve for the internalist zone. According
to the expression intensity score () of the internalist zone calculated using GGUM
2004, the maximum value obtained was 1.707. With this score, it is expected that
the individual expresses the internalist zone in 16 items of the questionnaire.
According to the curve, with a minimum value of 3, it is expected that the expression
of this zone occurs fewer than two times.

82

E.F. Mortimer et al.


10
9
8
7
6
Expected
5
score
4
3
2
1
0
4

Theta

Fig. 3.2 Characteristic test curve for the externalist zone (Silva 2006)

20

15
Expected
score

10

0
Theta

Fig. 3.3 Characteristic test curve for the internalist zone (Silva 2006)

Finally, Fig. 3.4 presents the characteristic test curve for the relational zone.
The maximum score obtained for this zone was 2.46, and, for a subject with this
value, it is expected that this zone is expressed 12 times when answering the
questionnaire. The individual with a minimum value of 3 is expected to express
the relational zone fewer than two times.
Table 3.4 presents examples of observed scores and expression intensity scores
of the zones of the profile for the same individuals, making it possible to compare
these values.

83

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program


15

10
Expected
score
5

0
4

0
Theta

Fig. 3.4 Characteristic test curve for the relational zone (Silva 2006)

Table 3.4 Examples of observed scores and intensity expression scores of the zones of the profiles
of students in the first semester of the biological sciences course (Silva 2006)
Students
3
5
7
10

Observed scores
Externalist
Internalist
3
14
1
15
9
9
3
14

Relational
5
1
0
0

Expression intensity scores ()


Externalist
Internalist
Relational
0.205
0.363
0.933
0.676
0.653
0.257
1.801
0.751
3.000
0.205
0.382
3.000

Besides the values of , which represent the expression intensity of a zone of the
profile, another important parameter provided by GGUM 2004 is (delta), which
is a measure of the characteristics of the item. This provided, for each item of
the questionnaire, independent values of for each zone of the profile: externalist,
internalist, and relational. These values of make it possible to differentiate the
questions with regard to the access they give to different zones of the profile, that is,
concerning the relationship between the discursive context established by the question
and the chances that certain zones emerge in the answers.
Bortolotti (2003, p. 19) states that
If i denotes location (position) of item I in a continuum and j denotes the location of
individual j on the same continuum, then the individual tends more to agree with the item
as the distance between j and i comes close to zero.

For the research we are discussing, it was assumed that the closer to zero is the
difference between {j i}, the greater the probability of an individual expressing
a given zone of the profile. A high value of i in an item demands a high value of j
for a high probability of expressing a given zone of the profile in that question.
Figure 3.5 helps to understand this relation. In this figure, we see a characteristic
curve produced by GGUM 2004 according to parameters of one of the items of

84

E.F. Mortimer et al.

Fig. 3.5 Characteristic curve of an item of the questionnaire, representing the probability of
accessing the externalist zone of the profile in item 16, used by Silva (2006)

the questionnaire (Roberts 2004). The curve represents the probability of accessing
the externalist zone of the profile in item 16. In this item, the subjects of the research
were asked if a mule, a hybrid organism incapable of reproducing itself, can be
considered a living being.
Figure 3.5 shows that, in this item used as an example, an individual with close
to 3.352 has a greater probability of expressing the externalist zone of the profile
than another with close to 1.000.
In summary, the use of the GGUM 2004 made it possible to produce expression
intensity scores () for the three zones of the profile for the subjects investigated in
this study on the conceptual profile of life. It also provided values of and that
made it possible to check the chances of the items creating discursive contexts that
would bring about the expression of different zones of the profile.
Similarly to the observed scores, the expression intensity scores () were also
used in analyzing the individual profiles in order to build groups of profiles, as well
as in analyzing the evolution of profile zones among biological and pharmaceutical
sciences students. From this measure of the intensity of expression of a given zone,
we determined the individual profiles of the research subjects. In the sample of 237
questionnaires answered by the students of different semesters, we obtained a
greater number of more common profiles when we took the data obtained by , that
is, the measure of the expression intensity of a given zone, according to the item
response theory. Using this strategy, we used clusters analysis, performed with
SPSS 12 for Windows, and, this time, we obtained not only 3 but 8 different profiles
most commonly expressed by the students.

85

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program


1.5
1
0.5
0
-0.5
Externalism

-1

Internalism
Relational

Group H

Group G

Group F

Group E

Group D

Group C

Group B

-1.5
Group A

Fig. 3.6 Representation of


the groups of profiles
produced by using the
expression intensity scores
() for the zones of the profile
of life (Silva 2006)

Expression intensity of the zones ofthe profile

Table 3.5 Evolution of the profiles of the concept of life throughout the semesters of the biological
sciences course (Silva 2006). The groups in bold are discussed in the text below
1st sem.
Groups of Profiles
Group A
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F
Group G
Group H

2nd sem.

3rd sem.

4th sem.

5th sem.

28.57
14.29

14.29
7.14
28.57
7.14

7.14
4.76
21.43
9.52
9.52
7.14
30.95
9.52

5.56
5.56
11.11
16.67

55.56
5.56

4.35
21.74
8.70
4.35
4.35
43.46
13.04

(%)
2.86
42.86
14.29
11.43
2.86

14.29
11.43

Looking at the groups of profiles shown in Fig. 3.6, we can examine their
evolution throughout the courses. Let us take an example from the biological
sciences course. In this example, we seek to identify, through cluster analysis,
which are the most common profiles in this course and what percentage of students
in different semesters expressed individual profiles similar to the 8 most commonly
found. The results are shown in Table 3.5.
We will discuss only two groups to exemplify how the conceptual profile of life
evolved in the sample of biological sciences students investigated. If we observe
only what happened in groups B and G, we will already have remarkable indications
of change, since these two groups show stronger variations. Group G went from
14.29 % in the first semester to 43.46 % in the 5th semester. Group B, in turn, went
from 42.86 to 4.35 % from the first to the fifth semesters. Group B is made up of

86

E.F. Mortimer et al.

subjects who showed the internalist and externalist zones but not the relational zone.
There is a strong drop in this group, while Group G arises as the predominant one.
This group includes students who showed the three zones, with a greater intensity
in the expression of the internalist zone. Therefore, considering these tendencies,
we can say that in the biological sciences course, the students are enculturated in
a view of the biological sciences that privileges internalist characteristics in a
conception of life, which, together with the relational zone, is closer to a scientific
view. The relational zone also appears in other profiles that are typical of the more
advanced stages of the course. The externalist zone, which was strong in the first
semesters and is marked by modes of thinking and speaking linked to the use of
everyday language, tends to show a weaker expression in the final periods, although
it does not disappear completely.
In the pharmaceutical sciences course, in turn, we did not observe a change so
consistent as that observed in the biological sciences course. The different types
of profile appeared to vary randomly from one semester to the other, without a clear
pattern (for more details, see Chap. 6).

3.4

Researches Using Conceptual Profiles to Investigate the


Cognitive Dimension in Discursive Interactions in the
Classroom

In spite of the variety of theoretical views that guide the field of discourse analysis,
it is possible to say that contemporary approaches agree in considering that discourse is more than a way of using language, conceiving it as a social phenomenon
(Hicks 1995). The analytical structure developed by Mortimer and Scott (2002,
2003) allows us to investigate both the social interactions in communication between
teacher and students in the science classroom and the use of language, since it is a
structure that is anchored in Bakhtins notions of social language and speech genre
(Bakhtin 1981; Voloshinov 1929/1973) and Lotmans notion of the functional dualism of the text (1988 apud Wertsch 1991). When we make use of conceptual profiles
in discourse analysis, we intend to contribute to account for the cognitive dimension, which includes the points of view that are being communicated and the meanings negotiated throughout the interactions in the classroom.
The proposal is to model the discursive dynamics in the classroom and meaning
making in teaching episodes through the integrated application of a conceptual
profile of a given concept and the analytical framework developed by Mortimer and
Scott (2002, 2003). The conceptual profile is employed to epistemologically guide
the semantic analysis of discourse and the latter analytical framework, to characterize
the way teachers and students interact in producing new meanings.
The analytical framework is summarized in Table 3.6. It is based on five interrelated
aspects that focus on the teachers role and are grouped in three dimensions: teaching
focus, teaching approach, and actions.

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Table 3.6 Framework proposed by Mortimer and Scott (2002, 2003) for the analysis of interactions
and meaning making in science classrooms
Aspects of the analysis
(i) Focus
(ii) Approach
(iii) Actions

(1) Teaching purposes


(3) Communicative approach
(4) Patterns of interaction

(2) Content
(5) Teachers interventions

In the following sections we will discuss each of the aspects that make up this
analytical framework, with the exception of the fifth, teachers interventions. For a
more detailed discussion of this framework, we refer the reader to the original texts
(Mortimer and Scott 2002, 2003).

3.4.1

Teaching Purposes

According to the principles of Vygotsky theory, we consider that science


teaching produces a type of public performance in the social plane of the
classroom. This performance is guided by the teacher, who planned its script
and takes the initiative in presenting the various activities that make up the
science classes (Leach and Scott 2002). The work of developing the scientific
story in the social plane of the classroom is essential to this performance.
However, there are other purposes that must be considered during a teaching
sequence. These purposes, which are derived from other aspects of the sociocultural theory and from our own experience as classroom researchers, are summarized in Table 3.7.

3.4.2

The Content of the Classroom Discourse

In science classrooms, the interactions between the teacher and the students can be
related to a wide diversity of contents, including the scientific story, procedural
aspects, issues related to organization and discipline, and class handling. Each of
these aspects is important to the teachers work, but in this chapter we will limit
ourselves to the contents related to the scientific story being taught.
We have structured the analysis of the contents of the classroom discourse in
terms of categories that can be considered as fundamental characteristics of the
social language (Bakhtin 1986) of school science, based on the distinction between
description, explanation, and generalization (Mortimer and Scott 2000).
Description involves utterances that provide an account of a system, an object or
a phenomenon in terms of its constituents, or the spatiotemporal displacements
of these constituents. Explanation involves the use of some theoretical model or
mechanism to account for the occurrence of a specific phenomenon or system.

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Table 3.7 Teaching purposes (Mortimer and Scott 2002, 2003)


Teaching purposes
Opening up the problem

Focus
Engage the students intellectually and emotionally in
the initial stages of the scientific story
Exploring the students views
Raise and explore students views and understanding
of specific ideas and phenomena
Introducing and developing the
Make the scientific meanings (including conceptual,
scientific story
epistemological, technological, and environmental
themes) available in the social plane of the
classroom
Guiding students to work with scientific Give the students opportunities to talk and think with
ideas and giving support to the
the new scientific ideas, in small groups and
internalization process
through activities involving all the class. At the
same time, support the students in producing
individual meanings, internalizing these ideas
Guiding students in applying the
Support the students in applying the scientific ideas
scientific ideas and expanding their
taught in a variety of contexts and transfer control
use, progressively transferring the
and responsibility for the use of these ideas to the
control and responsibility for this use
students (Wood et al. 1976)
to them
Maintaining the narrative: supporting the Provide comments about the development of the
development of the scientific story
scientific story so as to help the students to
follow their development and understand their
relations with the science curriculum as a whole

Generalization involves the elaboration of descriptions or explanations that are


independent of a specific context, thus referring to a certain set of cases of a phenomenon or system that one is trying to explain or describe in general terms.
An additional distinction we regard to be important is related to the fact that
descriptions, explanations, and generalizations can be empirical or theoretical.
Therefore, descriptions and explanations that use observable referents (constituents
or properties of a system or object), directly or indirectly i.e., by means of instruments are characterized as empirical. It should be noted, however, that the evidence is always loaded with theories, especially when we deal with indirect
evidence. Therefore, one cannot completely separate the theoretical from the empirical. However, one can still identify descriptions and explanations that use nonobservable referents, constructed in the sphere of the theoretical discourse of the
sciences, as in the case of the models of matter. These descriptions and explanations
can be characterized as theoretical (Mortimer and Scott 2000).

3.4.3

Communicative Approach

The concept of communicative approach is essential in the analytical framework


developed by Mortimer and Scott (2002, 2003). It provides a view of how the teacher

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works with the purposes and contents of teaching through different pedagogical
interventions that result in different patterns of interaction. Those authors identified
four classes of communicative approach, defined through the characterization of
the discourse between teacher and students or between students in terms of two
dimensions: dialogic (multivocal) or authoritative (univocal) discourse and interactive
or noninteractive discourse.
The distinction between dialogic and authoritative functions was discussed by
Wertsch (1991) and used by Mortimer (1998) to analyze the discourse in a Brazilian
classroom. The grounds for this distinction are found in the differentiation between
authoritative and internally persuasive discourse, introduced by Bakhtin (1981), and
the notion of the functional dualism of texts in a cultural system, discussed by
Lotman (1988 apud Wertsch 1991).
When a teacher works with the students in a science classroom, the nature of the
interventions can be characterized in terms of two extremes. In the first, the teacher
considers what the student has to say from the students own point of view. In this
case, more than one voice6 is considered and there is an interanimation of ideas.
This first type of interaction constitutes a dialogic communicative approach. In the
other extreme, the teacher considers what the student has to say only from the point
of view of the school scientific discourse that is being constructed. This second
type of interaction corresponds to an authoritative communicative approach, in
which only one voice is heard and there is no interanimation of ideas. In reality,
any pedagogical practice probably contains aspects of both functions, dialogic and
authoritative.
An important characteristic of the distinction between the dialogic and authoritative approaches for classroom communication is that a discursive sequence can be
identified as dialogic or authoritative, no matter if it is uttered by one individual or
is interactive, involving more than one individual. What makes the discourse functionally dialogic is the fact that it expresses more than one point of view more than
one voice is heard and considered and not that it is produced by a group of
people or a lonely individual. This last aspect is related to the second dimension of
the communicative approach, which distinguishes between interactive discourse,
which occurs with the participation of more than one person, and noninteractive
discourse, which takes place with the participation of only one person.
These two dimensions can be combined to create four classes of communicative approach. Although each of these four classes, as we will discuss below, is
related to the role of the teacher in guiding the classroom discourse, they are
equally applicable to the description of the interactions occurring only among the
students, for example, in small groups. The four approaches can be exemplified
as follows:

The notion of voice is used here based in Bakhtin to refer to the point of view of the speaker,
related to her way of seeing the world, her conceptual horizon, and her social place (Wertsch 1991).

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1. Interactive/dialogic: teacher and students explore ideas, formulate authentic


questions, and offer, consider, and work with different points of view.
2. Noninteractive/dialogic: teacher reconsiders, in her speech, various points of
view, highlighting similarities and differences.
3. Interactive/authoritative: teacher generally guides students through a sequence
of questions and answers, with the aim of reaching a specific point of view,
typically that of school science.
4. Noninteractive/authoritative: teacher presents a specific point of view that of
school science.

3.4.4

Patterns of Interaction

The fourth aspect of our analysis specifies patterns of interaction that emerge as the
teacher and students alternate speech turns in the classroom. The most common
are I-R-E triads (Initiation by the teacher, Response by the student, Evaluation
by the teacher), but other patterns can also be seen. For example, in some interactions, the teacher merely prompts an utterance by the students, through short
interventions that often repeat part of what the student has just said, or provides
feedback for the student to further elaborate some of her talks. These interactions
generate chains of non-triadic turns, such as I-R-P-R-P or I-R-F-R-F, where
P means a discursive action that prompts the continuation of the students talk and
F amounts to a feedback, in which some additional information is introduced,
normally by the teacher, for stimulating the student to further elaborate her talk.

3.4.5

Analyzing Classroom Episodes with Conceptual Profiles

In order to illustrate how conceptual profiles are used to analyze the cognitive
dimension of discourse in science classrooms, we will present an analysis of discursive interactions in a teaching sequence addressing the biological content of evolution, in which we employed a conceptual profile of adaptation integrated with the
analytical framework developed by Mortimer and Scott (2002, 2003). The conceptual profile was used to model meaning making about Darwinist explanations for
the diversification of living organisms in a biology classroom (see also Chap. 7 in
this book).
A teaching episode was selected to illustrate the analysis with regard to the
following aspects: (1) teaching purposes and discourse content, (2) communicative
approach and patterns of interaction, (3) the modes of thinking and ways of speaking
about organic diversity that interanimated one another throughout the discursive
interactions, and (4) the perspectives of meaning making about the concept of
adaptation the zones of the adaptation profile model that are being negotiated
(for further details, see Reis et al. 2010; Sepulveda 2010).

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Table 3.8 Characterization of the zones of a conceptual profile of adaptation (Sepulveda 2010)
Zones
Intra-organic
functionalism

Providential adjustment

Transformational
perspective

Variational perspective

Ontological and epistemological commitments


The existence of adaptive traits is preferentially or exclusively
explained by appealing to proximate causes, more specifically
physiological and biomechanical processes regarded as sufficient
to explain the organization of the organic structure
Adaptation is conceived, in ontological terms, as a state of being or a
property of the organism of being adjusted to its living conditions.
In causal terms, this adjustment is explained by appealing to the
principle of natural economy and a teleological perspective on the
organization of organic forms
Adaptation is interpreted as a process of evolutionary change. This
change results from a transformation of the essence of a species
toward an optimal state of adjustment to environmental conditions
and is explained through the transformations that each individual
organism goes through. This view maintains, therefore, a
commitment with essentialist thinking
Adaptation is conceived as a process of evolutionary change or as a
trait resulting from it. This change is a consequence of the
selective propagation and fixation of variants in a population under
a given selective regime. Biological evolution is conceived as the
result of changes in the proportion of variant organisms in the
population. This perspective is based on populational thinking and
stresses the relationships between organisms and their ecological
circumstances

The conceptual profile of adaptation which we used in our analysis is made up of


four zones: intra-organic functionalism, providential adjustment, transformational
perspective, and variational perspective. The construction of this profile is discussed
in Chap. 7 of this book. Table 3.8 provides a brief characterization of these zones in
terms of their ontological and epistemological commitments. School science discourse
shares most of the commitments of the variational zone, which coincides, in general
terms, with the Darwinist interpretation of the concept of adaptation, in the context
of its use to explain the origins of organic diversity.
The teaching episode was taken from a lesson included in a teaching sequence
addressing the theory of evolution by natural selection, applied to a third year high
school class (ages 1718) in a public school in the State of Bahia, Brazil. The teaching
sequence comprised seven weekly 60-min classes. The analyzed episode is from
the second lesson, in which the teacher presented and discussed with the students
the case of the diversification of the finches in the Galapagos Islands. After offering
a series of information about the geographical distribution of the finch species in the
archipelago, the relation between the morphology of their beaks and feeding
habits involving the type of food resource and the strategies for its exploration
and the diversity of environmental conditions found in each island, the teacher
asked the students to explain the morphological diversity of the beaks and the
origins of the 13 species found in the Galapagos.

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Episode: Had to Adapt to Survive and This Led to the Change of the Beaks
1. Teacher: Given this information/how do you explain the differences in the
beaks of the finches of the Galapagos Islands?
2. Student 1: Because of the food/they fed/they fed according to the climate/
3. Student 2: Depending on what they fed upon.
4. Student 1: And also because/each island had its birds/its animals/So they adapted/
different individuals in each island/because of this/Because of the food they ate/
also because of the climate/because each island had a climate/so each island had
a kind of vegetation for them to feed upon/So/because of this variation.
5. Teacher: And? Ok. Anyone else? Yes/student 3. How do you explain the difference
in the beaks?
6. Student 3: According to the/type of food they used to survive and according to
their habitat.
7. Teacher: Right. According to the environment in which they lived/and the food/
that explains the difference in the beaks. Isnt that right? Ok. In the continent we
find only one species of finch/while in the islands we find THIRTEEN different
species of this same bird genre. What explains this diversity of birds/of the group
of finches in the islands? Han? What explains it/Folks? Hello!/In the continent,
we have one finch species/right? And in the island we have THIRTEEN different
species. What explains the diversity of this group of finches/What explains the
diversity? The fact that in the continent we have only one species and in the
islands we have THIRTEEN species? What explains that? Tell me.
8. Student 3: The others do not adapt/to the continent/Lets say that the kind of
food that the continental one eats/the others are unable to eat.
9. Teacher: Yes/Anybody else? What explains that in the continent we have only
one and there we have thirteen? How does this happen?
10. Student 4: Because its feeding habit is different from the other birds?
11. Teacher: The feeding habit is different? How could this be? We are working
from the perspective of evolution/So what happens? We have seen that/one
of the points of the theory of evolution is the common ancestor/Is that true?
And here is the information from the text that probably the species from the
continent ((raising her voice, as student 3 tries to say something)) is the ancestor
of these thirteen species/right? This helps to improve/
12. Student 3: Teacher/lets say that the one in the continent did not have a good
evolution/yes? It does not evolve/
13. Teacher: In the continent it would not have a good evolution. What would be a
good evolution/Student 3?
14. Student 3: Does not adapt to other kinds of/
15. Teacher: What happened?
16. Non-identified Student: The capacity to adapt.
17. Teacher: The capacity to adapt.
18. Non-identified student: To its new environment.
19. Teacher: The capacity to adapt to the environment/If we work with the idea of
a common ancestor/What is a common ancestor? It is a species that originates/
that is there from others? How can we explain this? What happened? If these
thirteen are originated from a common ancestor/how could this have/

20.
21.
22.
23.
24.
25.
26.
27.

28.
29.
30.
31.
32.
33.
34.
35.
36.

Methodological Grounds of the Conceptual Profile Research Program

93

Student 2: From the continent, it went to the islands/


Teacher: Yes.
Student 2: And it end up adapting there/And there it/
Teacher: Yes. From the continent/the occupation went to the islands ((a gesture
that gives the idea of migration)) and arriving there/what happens?
Student 2: It had to feed/so it/
Student 1: It is like that theory that the ancestors/before there werent/they did
not have forks
Student 2: It goes adapting itself/
Student 1: The teeth were like the canine tooth because of food/because they
had to tear and over time/they went on handling/cutlery and so forth/and
because they do not have the necessity of feeding that way anymore/so their
teeth kept on changing over time and got to be like ours.
Teacher: Right/And turning back to the birds ((laughter)).
Student 1: So/it moved from the continent/it had to learn/
Teacher: It left the continent to the island/the population went there/Arriving
there/it found?
Student 2: The food/
Teacher: Different food/It is showing there/that in the islands there is a great
variety of food and environments/right? And then?
Student 2: And then they had to adapt to survive.
Teacher: They had to adapt to survive.
Student 2: And that meant the change of the beaks.
Teacher: Right. And that brings/And that brings a bit of letter c ((reads the
question from the script)). What could explain the similarities between the
species in the island and the species found in the continent? What could explain
this similarity? It is exactly this idea that we are mentioning here/of common
ancestor. Ok? Then/if we work with this idea/what is it that happens? The
population of the continent/it goes to the islands/arriving there/it finds different
environmental conditions/consequently/different feeding conditions.

In this episode, the teacher had two purposes: exploring the students ideas about
the origins and diversity of organic forms and introducing and developing the scientific
story, presenting concepts and principles that structure an evolutionary explanation
for the diversification of the beaks of the Galapagos finches.
The episode begins with an initiation by the teacher, asking the students to
explain the morphological diversity of the beaks of the finches. Students 1 and 2
interact, mentioning some factors involved in explaining the phenomenon. These
answers are not evaluated by the teacher, who continues the interaction, encouraging other students to express their opinions. Student 3 answers and, in the next turn,
the teacher accepts the answer and makes a synthesis, integrating elements of the
answers given by the three students. Therefore, in this segment of the episode (turns
17), the communication between the teacher and the students generates an interaction
chain I-R1-R2-R1-P-R3-S, where S means synthesis.
The way of speaking used by students 1, 2, and 3 to address the variety of beaks
of the Galapagos finches in this segment of the episode presents a linguistic feature
typical of the providential adjustment zone of the adaptation profile model,

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E.F. Mortimer et al.

namely, the use of the term according to. The students use this term to establish a
relation of necessary adjustment between a morphological structure, the beak, and
the capacity of the organism, the bird, to carry out a vital activity: feeding.
However, there is a peculiarity in the way of speaking used by student 1. While
students 2 and 3 emphasize a property of the organisms, the feeding habit of the
birds, student 1 stresses factors that are external to the organisms, the availability of
food resources in virtue of the differences of climate and vegetation in each island
(turn 4). We can say that student 1 presents a tendency of perceiving the role that
the relation between organisms and their ecological circumstances can play in
explaining the diversification of organic form, an important commitment for the
development of a variational (Darwinist) interpretation of adaptation.
This same student makes the concept of adaptation available in the social plane
of the classroom. The concept appears in the form of a verb, to adapt, which is used
in the past tense, suggesting the idea of a process that has already occurred.
There is, therefore, a first attempt at an evolutionary perspective for interpreting
adaptation, with the additional feature that the concept is used in a retrospective
sense, which is more adequate than its use in a prospective sense, as if the presence
of an adaptation increased the chances of future reproductive success.
In turn 7, the teacher makes a new initiation, in which she also provides feedback
to the students, introducing more information about the scenario at issue. She
proposes that the students think about the explanation for the diversity of species of
finches in the Galapagos, given that only one species of these birds is found in
the South American continent. Student 3 proposes an explanation using the verb to
adapt, previously made available by student 1. In this context, however, the verb
to adapt is used in the present tense, suggesting a property of a group of organisms
of being adjusted to the environmental conditions, pointing in this case to the fact
that the birds have a feeding habit adjusted to the food resources of the environment.
Student 3, therefore, still formulates his explanation in terms of a providential
adjustment. His answer is ignored by the teacher, who asks for new contributions.
Student 4 presents a point of view similar to that of student 3 (turn 10). In turn 11, the
teacher evaluates the answer of the student and makes a new initiation.
It is important to note some linguistic aspects of the teachers utterances that may
have hampered the development of an evolutionary perspective in this first segment,
between turns 110. The teacher asked the questions (in turns 1, 5, 7, and 9) in such
a manner that she did not introduce lexical and phraseological resources that could
guide the students discourses toward an evolutionary perspective. The most frequent
questions were How do you explain? and What explains? which guide the
focus of the answers toward an explanation in terms of proximate, not evolutionary
causes. The phenomenon of organic diversification was described by the terms
diversity and differences between, which do not give an idea of a succession
of events or even of the occurrence of processes, as would, for example, the terms
diversification, differentiation, evolution, and arising, as well as the questions
how did it arise? or what happened?
Turn 11 shows a turning point in the ways of speaking, as from this turn on a series
of enunciative strategies is used by the teacher with the intention of guiding discourse
toward a point of view closer to that of school science, namely, a variational account of
adaptation. The teacher provides feedback to the students, establishing three premises

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95

to be considered by them when elaborating their explanatory models (turn 11): (1) the
models should presuppose the idea of evolution, (2) the idea of a common ancestor is
fundamental to an evolutionary explanation, and (3) the species from the continent can
be considered as the common ancestor of the Galapagos finches.
Between turns 11 and 19, the teacher interacts with student 3 and another student
we could not identify by means of a triadic pattern I-R-E, prompting but at the same
time negatively evaluating their contributions. These contributions present a point
of view aligned with the zone providential adjustment, in disagreement with
the evolutionary and variational perspective of school science. Student 3 and the
non-identified classmate not only continue to conceive adaptation as a capacity of
the organisms to adjust to the environment but also attribute the same meaning to
the term evolution (turns 12, 14, and 16).
In turn 19, the teacher provides one more feedback, offering an additional
explanation about the meaning of the idea of a common ancestor and giving hints of
how it can be used to explain the origins of the diversity of the Galapagos finches.
Then, she insists in posing the question what happened? which suggests the
existence of a chain of events from which the student can build a narrative.
Students 1 and 2 accept the teachers suggestion and begin to propose an explanatory
model closer to the one she is expecting. Between turns 19 and 28, the teacher interacts
with these students through a chain I-R2-P-R2-P-R2-R1-R2-R1-E, continuing the
interaction so that the students develop their ideas.
Student 2 attempts a narrative that starts with the migration of the continental
species of finch to the island, followed by a process of adaptation to this new
environment (turns 2026). In speech turn 27, student 1 suggests that it is possible
to analyze the case of the finches through an analogy with a case that is more familiar
to her, the explanation of the origins of the current morphology of the human dental
arch. Adopting the notion of common ancestor as a thinking device (Lotman
1988, apud Wertsch 1991), student 1 develops an evolutionary narrative that explains
the change in the morphology of the human dental arch throughout the evolution
of the human species in terms of a process of transformation of the structure
throughout the generations, resulting from the needs created by the change in the
feeding habits of our ancestors. In response to the initiation by the teacher in turn
28, the student begins to propose a narrative for the origin of the finches.
Between turns 28 and 36, the teacher makes instructional evaluations and
questions so as to guide students 1 and 2 in building an evolutionary narrative to
explain the origin of the beaks of the Galapagos finches. In order to do so, she
establishes once again an I-R-E triadic pattern with these students in turns 28-29-30,
30-31-32, and 32-33-34. As it is very common in this kind of classroom, each turn
of the teacher evaluates the previous turn of the student and launches a new initiation
in the form of a question. This interaction results in a narrative in which a population
of birds migrates from the continent and occupies the archipelago. Then, this
population, or its individual members this is not clear , driven by the need of
adapting to the new and diverse supply of food available in the islands, undergoes a
modification of their beaks. At this point, the discursive interactions led to an
evolutionary view which is close to the transformational zone. Next, the teacher will
work with this evolutionary perspective, seeking to move from an explanation in
terms of the transformational zone to an explanation closer to school science, in

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terms of the variational zone. However, we will not deal with these episodes in this
chapter. They are analyzed in Reis et al. (2010) and Sepulveda (2010).
The episode closes with a speech turn which is noninteractive and authoritative,
uttered by the teacher, in which she establishes that the concept of common ancestry
explains the empirical data stated in the outline of the activity, that is, the
morphological similarity between the species of finches from the continent and the
13 species of these birds found in the islands.
In the beginning of the episode, the teacher encourages the students to present
their explanatory models, without evaluations, in fact, permitting more than one point
of view in the social plane of the classroom. Thus, up to turn 11, a dialogic communicative approach with a low level of interanimation between different points of view
was established, as these points of view were not actually considered and developed. In
turn 11, the teacher established the directions from which the students had to develop
their explanations and, from that moment on, used strategies to guide the discourse to
a point of view closer to school science, by ignoring or negatively evaluating ideas
closer to the providential adjustment zone. At the same time, she selected ideas that
favored the development of an evolutionary explanation for the diversification of
organic form. Therefore, the communicative approach that prevailed in this episode
from turn 11 on was interactive and authoritative.
In terms of the process of meaning making about the concept of adaptation, we
can conclude that there was a negotiation around ontological and epistemological
commitments that underpin the mode of thinking identified with the providential
adjustment zone toward the development of a transformational point of view, as
characterized in the third zone of our profile model.
At the beginning of the episode (turns 119), we see a prevalence of an interpretation
of the concept of adaptation as a property or state of being of the organisms, according
to which they are adjusted to the environmental conditions, an ontological commitment
typical of the providential adjustment zone. The use of expressions such as according
to and capacity to adapt are linguistic signs that indicate this mode of thinking (turns
3, 6, and 17). However, during the episode there is a change in the mode of thinking and
way of speaking about adaptation in the social plane of the classroom with regard to the
ontological character of this concept. As students 1 and 2 adopt the notion of common
ancestor and propose interpreting the diversification of the Galapagos finches by means
of the construction of a narrative, the term adaptation begins to designate a gradual
process of change. The use of the expression it goes adapting itself (turn 26) is a
linguistic sign of this new way of meaning making about the concept. This new ontological commitment brings about the development of an evolutionary perspective, an
epistemological commitment shared by the transformational and variational zones of
the conceptual profile, which had already emerged only timidly in turn 4 of student 1.
The following discursive and epistemological aspects promoted the development
of this evolutionary perspective: (1) the introduction of the concept of common ancestry and the teachers action of marking it as a key idea, (2) the teachers enunciative
strategies that proposed the construction of a narrative, and (3) the proposition, by
student 1, of an analogy between the case under study and the explanation of the transformation of the human dental arch due to the change of ancestral feeding habits.

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Table 3.9 Aspects that interact in meaning making about the concept of adaptation in the analyzed
teaching episode
Teachers intentions

Discourse content
Communicative
approach
Patterns of interaction

Modes of thinking
Ways of speaking

Perspectives
of meaning making

Exploring students ideas about explanations for the diversity of beaks


of the Galapagos finches
Introducing the scientific story: notion of common ancestry; evolutionary
perspective
Theoretical explanation
Turns 110 interactive/dialogic with low level of interanimation
Turns 1136 interactive/authoritative
(17): I-R1-R2-R1-P-R-S
(711): I-R-P-R-E/F
(1119): I-R-E triads; questions and answers, with the teacher
prompting but ignoring the students views
(1928): I-R2-P-R2-P-R2-R1-R2-R1-E
(2836): I-R-E triads
(119) Adaptation as a property of the organism
(1936) Adaptation as a process of evolutionary change
(119) Statement of a relationship of necessary adjustment between the
morphological structure and the vital activity of the organism
Recurring terms and expressions: according to, has the capacity to adapt
(1936) Narrative in which organisms or groups of organisms are
protagonists of a transformation toward the adjustment to the needs
for survival
Recurring expressions: goes adapting, had to adapt itself
Negotiation around commitments of the providential adjustment zone,
toward the development of commitments of the transformational zone

At the very beginning of the episode (turn 4), student 1 suggested a seed for the
development of an epistemological commitment typical of the variational zone, the
focus on the relationships between organisms and their ecological circumstances.
However, this point of view was not explored.
At the end of the episode, at least students 1 and 2 were committed to the notion that
organic diversity is explained by a directed evolutionary change, which occurs in individual organisms of a species, i.e., a transformational point of view about evolutionary
adaptation. The way of speaking associated with this mode of thinking is marked by
utterances in which organisms are the agents of evolutionary change and has as a linguistic hallmark the recurring use of the expression [it, the organism] had to adapt
itself. If we follow the changes in the utterances of student 2, we can say that, with
regard to the process of meaning making about the concept of adaptation, the episode
amounts to a microgenesis of the transformational perspective for understanding adaptive change, based on its negotiation with the point of view of providential adjustment.
With this analysis, we intend to show how the characterization of the zones of a
conceptual profile, when integrated with discourse analysis, can contribute to the
investigation of discursive and epistemological aspects that interact in the process of
meaning making in the classroom. In Table 3.9 we present a summary of the interrelated aspects in the process of meaning making about the concept of adaptation
during the analyzed episode.

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E.F. Mortimer et al.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we can say that the methodologies for the investigations about
conceptual profiles vary according to the research goals. When the goal is to investigate which zones could be included in a profile model for a given concept, studies
in different genetic domains lead to an understanding of the possible changes that
take place in the different geneses of a concept sociocultural, ontogenetic, and microgenetic. This movement through different domains does not have the objective of
seeking similarities or differences between them but aims at an understanding of the
conceptual genesis in all its extension and depth.
When the goal is to determine the evolution of the zones of a particular conceptual
profile in any population, questionnaires and/or interviews with various questions can
be used, assuring the variability of discursive contexts and, by extension, of answers
and, therefore, the framing of these in different zones of the conceptual profile model.
In this case, we must highlight that the statistical treatment of the data assures a greater
availability of the types of profile used by the population. When the goal is, in turn, to
access the microgenetic context and to examine whether the subjects are aware of their
profiles, task situations and recorded interviews are used.
Finally, if the goal is to analyze the classroom and check how the zones of a conceptual profile develop as a consequence of teaching, one has to move to discursive analysis, in which the conceptual profile needs to be integrated with a discourse analysis
tool, such as that developed by Mortimer and Scott (2002, 2003). While the conceptual profile works as a tool for the analysis of the cognitive dimension, the latter tool
makes it possible to analyze the linguistic and social dimensions of discourse.

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Part II

Empirical Studies for Building and Using


Conceptual Profile Models for Chemical,
Physical, and Biological Ontoconcepts

Chapter 4

Contributions of the Sociocultural


Domain to Build a Conceptual Profile Model
for Molecule and Molecular Structure
Eduardo F. Mortimer and Luiz Otvio F. Amaral

4.1

Introduction

This chapter deals with one of the most important concepts that help establishing
the ontoconcept of matter: the concept of molecule. We are going to report how the
concept of molecule evolved in the sociocultural domain, trying to identify its
genetic roots. We are also interested in examining the contexts of application of
each conceptual zone, trying to establish epistemological and ontological consequences of each zone for the development of chemistry. Related to the zones that are
outside the scientific domain, we are interested in demonstrating contemporary uses
of ideas that bear strong similarity with these zones. Finally, we discuss some implications of determining this conceptual profile model of molecule for chemistry
teaching.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word molecule appeared in the English
language in 1678, from the French molcule. The word came from New Latin
mlcula, which is a diminutive of the Latin word mls, which means mass. The
word can be found in Lavoisiers Trait lmentaire de Chimie (1789) to designate
the smallest units in which a substance can be divided without a change in its chemical nature. In classical chemistry, the idea of molecule evolved in the nineteenth
century to the smallest group of like or different atoms held together by chemical
forces (The American Heritage Dictionary, compact disc edition). According to
such a classical concept, the properties of any material depend on the quantity and
type of atoms, the way they are ordered their topology and the way they are
arranged in space, their geometry.
E.F. Mortimer (*)
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais,
Av. Antnio Carlos 6627, 30.270-901 Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
L.O.F. Amaral
Department of Chemistry, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Minas Gerais, Brazil
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_4, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

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This view of molecules as real objects, the building blocks of matter constituted
of atoms held together by chemical forces, continues to be central to research programmes such as nanotechnology, in which scientists try to build molecular devices,
remaking the world molecule by molecule (Regis 1995). The idea of a molecule
as a machine has several applications in chemistry. It is used, for example, to
describe the mechanism by which oxygen molecules reversibly bound to and release
from molecules of haemoglobin (Perutz 1978).
Nevertheless, for several molecules, it is not possible to draw a unique structure,
with a fixed geometry, because of the phenomena of stereochemical nonrigidity and
fluxionality. Molecules of PF5, for example, show a constant change between the
equatorial and axial atoms of fluorine around the central atom of phosphorus.
Moreover, the application of quantum mechanics in chemistry resulted in a new
concept of molecule brought by the molecular orbital (MO) theory. Instead of a
molecule as the framework produced by the union of atoms, the MO theory suggests
that a molecule can be seen as a unity, a kind of polynuclear electronic cloud. In
addition, the relational nature of the many chemical properties obligates us to think
of properties as resulting from the interaction of molecules, and not only from the
characteristic composition and geometry of one single molecule. In other words, we
cannot substantialise these chemical properties (Mortimer and Amaral 1999).
To understand modern chemistry, therefore, we cannot resort only to the classical
molecules or its modern counterparts: dynamic, polynuclear, or supramolecular
frameworks. All of them are complementary views of the chemical world. They are
not applicable to the same problems, but we cannot resort to only one of them to
explain all the chemical phenomena. If we look out of chemistry, into everyday
culture, this scientific complementarity should be expanded to incorporate other
meanings in a complete conceptual profile model of molecule. These zones of the
profile, which do not show themselves in the culture of chemistry anymore, can also
be traced in the history of science. The idea of principles, as we find in Aristotle,
Paracelsus, and Libavius, is still alive in homeopathy. The substantialism of attributing macroscopic properties such as melting, boiling, and dilation to atoms and
molecules, a very common finding of research on childrens ideas, can be traced
back to the minima naturalia of Aristotle, retaken and developed as a theory of the
smallest particles in the Middle Ages by several of the Aristotles commentators
(Van Melsen 1952). In a broader profile model, these ideas should be ranked together
with the scientific views about molecules.

4.2

The Conceptual Profile of Molecule

In exploring the zones that constitute a conceptual profile model of molecule, we


should draw from the history of science, since all the zones in our profile can be
identified based on their historical development. Nevertheless, we look for historical facts only to illustrate the genesis of the categories that constitute the profile
model. We have no intention of giving here a detailed historical account of these

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105

ideas. Moreover, we refer the reader to Chap. 1, where we outlined the main
characteristics of the theory of conceptual profiles. Here we only stress the fact that
each zone in a conceptual profile offers a way of seeing the world that is unique and
different from the other zones. It is as if we looked to the world through lenses that
show the whole reality in a specific way. Each conceptual zone corresponds to
different mediational means, to different theories and languages that reveal the
world in their own way. The reality itself cannot be understood entirely from only
one perspective, since only complementary views can give a more complete picture
of reality.

4.2.1

The First Zone of the Conceptual Profile


Model of Molecule: The Principles

The first zone of the profile model can be identified with the idea of first principles. When discussing the systems of pre-Socratic philosophers, Aristotle claims
that there is something in common to all of them: for all thinkers posit their elements or principles, as they call them; and, though they give no reasoned account
of these principles, nevertheless we find () that they are really talking about
contrasted couples (Physics, I. v.).1 Aristotle maintains that these antithetical principles need something to work on, a passive principle as the nonantithetical subject
on which the antithetical principles act (Physics, I. vi.). The four elemental substances (water, fire, air, and earth) account for the constitution of all the sublunary
bodies, but they cannot themselves be accepted as the ultimate material, for they
have antithetical characteristics and can be transmuted into each other by antithetical changes (Physics, I. vii.). According to Aristotle, every material being is composed of primary matter and form of being. In distinguishing between matter and
form, even though they never exist in isolation, and in assuming that matter represents the incidental nonexistence of attributes (Physics, I. ix.), Aristotle made
clear that their antithetical principles are not material.
The Aristotelian system exerted a strong influence in several systems of natural
philosophy for almost 2,000 years. The idea of nonmaterial principles and transmutation had a particular importance to alchemy. Perhaps influenced by Aristotles idea
of the two exhalations, dry and wet, perhaps by the considerable accumulation of
knowledge on metallurgy, sulphur and mercury became important principles in all
versions of alchemy Hellenic, Arabian, Chinese, and European. For alchemy,
sulphur is the principle of combustibility. All the inflammable things have some form
of sulphur. Mercury is the principle of fusibility, which was considered the most
important property of metals, the possibility of becoming liquid and being moulded.
Paracelsus added salt to mercury and sulphur to form the tria prima. Salt was
considered to be the principle of solubility in water, of crystallinity, and of health

All the citations of Physics refer to Aristotle (1980).

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maintenance, since food could be conserved when salted. It is curious to note that
the trinity of mercury, sulphur, and salt is the exact analogy of the twentieth-century
Ketelaars triangle for the possibilities of representing chemical bonds, since
mercury is a metal, sulphur a molecular substance, and salt an ionic compound.
The idea of nonmaterial principles went beyond Paracelsus and can be found
even in Libavius, in the sixteenth century. His Alchemia, published in 1597, was a
remarkable bibliographic event in chemistry (Hannaway 1975). Instead of the enigmatic and allegoric discourse of the alchemical books, very common at that time,
Libavius wrote in clear language and explained the operations of chemistry in a very
systematic way. According to him, chemistry (Alchemia) could be divided in two
parts: encheria, which dealt with chemical operations, and chymia, the study of
chemical combinations, i.e. a descriptive approach for chemical reactions. Christie
and Golinski (1982) called attention for an interesting point in Alchemia. Encheria
has two classes of operations: the elaborations and the exaltations. The operations
classified under the first label are those that bring closer or get apart material particles of different bodies. The exaltations, however, are operations able to modify the
qualities of the bodies without affecting matter. These qualities of the bodies apart
from matter are nothing else but nonmaterial principles. Christie and Golinski compared the scheme of operations from Libavius with another, from an anonymous
author of the mid-seventeenth century, and noted that the schemes were very similar, using the same general idea for classifying the operations. Nevertheless, there
were no operations such as exaltations anymore. Mechanism had, at that time, made
its room in science, leaving no space for nonmaterial qualities or principles, which,
since then, disappeared from scientific thought.
It is worth noting that Lavoisier still used the idea of oxygen as a principle of acidity. He was not thinking, however, of oxygen as a nonmaterial quality. Anyway, the
idea of nonmaterial principles can still be found outside scientific culture, for
instance, in alternative medical practices such as homeopathy and herbal medicine.
The homeopathic idea of therapeutic intensification through centesimal dynamisation means that a medicine becomes more and more efficacious throughout a sequential dilution. Each dynamisation includes the dilution of the medicine to the centesimal
part of the original concentration and its agitation according to specific prescription.
If we take the thirtieth centesimal dynamisation, we are dealing with something that
was diluted to the (1/100)30 or 1/1060 part of the original concentration. If the initial
concentration was 1 mol/L, then we have something that is 1 1060 mol/L. This
number is infinitely small. To have one molecule of the active principle, we would
need 1036 L of the solution, i.e. 1033 cubic metres. Supposing a cubic container, this
molecule of the medicine is diluted in a cube with 1011 m of edge, which is roughly
the distance between the Sun and the Earth. One cube with these dimensions which
contains only one molecule of the active principle! The activity of the homeopathic
medicine cannot be accounted for by a material principle.
We have no intention of criticising homeopathy here, since this would divert us
from our argument, but only of showing that, in some way, the idea of nonmaterial
principles and qualities survives there. Homeopathy and herbal medicine have
become more and more popular, even among chemists. Their efficacy claims lie on

4 Contributions of the Sociocultural Domain to Build

107

grounds that are out of the scope of scientific concepts, but they are supposed to be
effective by thousands of people around the world. Our conceptual profile model
leads us to understand that, although their principles appeared early, they are not
inherently worse than scientific thought, at least in a broader cultural view, as the
former may have validity within a specific context, related to an older but surviving
form of human activity.

4.2.2

The Second Zone of the Conceptual Profile


Model of Molecule: Substantialism

Although modern chemistry does not attribute properties of substances like dilation
or fusibility to individual molecules, substantialism still remains as a part of our
daily chemical language, mainly in dealing with the energy of chemical processes
and with relational properties. Latent heat of fusion and heat capacity are examples of substantialisation of energy in the language of chemistry. We refer to foods
or fuels as something with energy stored in chemical bonds. Textbooks of biochemistry explain that (substantialised) energy is released when a bond PO in a molecule of ATP is broken. The very definition of molecule quoted in most handbooks
and dictionaries as the smallest unit quantity of matter which can exist by itself and
retain all the properties of the original substance (CRC Handbook of Chemistry and
Physics, 52nd Edition) is substantialist, since molecules do not retain all the properties of the original substance. A molecule does not melt itself and does not dilate
itself. An atom of copper is not reddish brown or malleable. Substantialism, thus, is
a very important zone of the profile for science itself, as its unconscious use in language can produce confusion, predisposing to mistakes both chemists and students
of chemistry.
We can trace substantialism back to Greek philosophy as well. Anaxagoras used
the idea of seeds for the smallest units of matter. Although Aristotle did not agree
with Anaxagoras statement that every substance contains all possible kinds of
seeds, and could be named after the kind of seed predominating in it, he admitted
that there was a limit to the increase and decrease of a thing (Physics, I.vi.).
According to the latter, the smallest particles of any given kind of matter were
similar, for they were determined by the specific nature of the substance in question
(Van Melsen 1952).
Aristotle did not develop a physical theory of small particles beyond offering a
logical argument against the indefinite divisibility of matter, but some of his commentators in the Middle Ages attempted to do so. Averroes, for example, explains
that when we remove a part of fire and repeat this action again and again we finally
reach a quantity which is such that by a further division the fire would perish,
because there is a certain minimal quantity of fire (Averroes, Physics. viii, comm.
44, apud Van Melsen 1952). Scaliger was explicitly substantialist in his interpretation of Aristotle and, following Averroes, stated that fineness and coarseness, for
example, were properties of the minima themselves. Nevertheless, he distinguished

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between properties of matter that depended on the minima, such as coarseness, and
others that depended on the manner in which they are joined, as density: Hail is as
coarse as rain, but of greater density. Snow is as coarse as rain, but of a lesser density. Yet the matter of all three is the same (Scaliger apud Van Melsen 1952, p. 75).
It is possible to find substantialism also in the mechanist tradition. Lemery,
whose Cours de chymie has been one of the most popular chemical works published
at the end of the seventeenth century, used the corpuscular theory of Descartes,
which stated that the properties of substances depended mostly on the shapes of
their particles. Lemery, accordingly, ascribed the properties of acids to a sharp,
spiky form of their particles (Leicester and Klickstein 1952).
The importance of substantialism lies in that, although it is thought to be out of
the doctrine of modern chemistry, it remains alive in the subtle texture of daily language and in practices of chemistry itself. Differently from the first zone, whose
principles are still alive but outside of the scientific culture, substantialism remains
alive in the shadows of chemical language and can confuse students of chemistry
and chemists alike. Moreover, research on childrens and teenagers ideas has shown
that students from different countries use a substantialistic atomism, ascribing dilating, melting, or boiling to the particles themselves in order to represent these phenomena (see, e.g. Piaget and Inhelder 1941; Doran 1972; Nussbaum and Novick
1978; Nussbaum 1985; Driver 1985; Ben-Zvi et al. 1986; Mortimer and Amaral
1995). If we become aware of this zone of our own profile, we will be able to avoid
the traps of this commonly used language.

4.2.3

The Third Zone of the Profile Model


of Molecule: Geometrically Arranged Atoms

The classical view sees a molecule as the smallest unit in which a substance can be
divided without a change in its chemical nature. According to such a classical concept, the properties of any material depend on the quantity and type of atoms, the
way they are ordered their topology and the way they are arranged in space, their
geometry. We are going to give a short account of the genesis of these three features
of the concept.
This classical view can be traced back to Democritus atomism, which is essentially mechanist and non-substantialistic. The differences in size, shape, and position of the atoms account for all the differences we perceive in things: By convention
are sweet and bitter; hot and cold. By convention is colour; in truth are atoms and
the void (Democritus quot. 589, apud Kirk and Raven 1957, p. 422).
In 1803, Dalton presented what is generally accepted as the first atomic theory
applied to chemistry. At that time, atomism was already well disseminated through
the work of Gassendi and had been used by several important scientists such as
Galileo, Boyle, and Newton. Assuming weight as a fundamental property that
could distinguish the atoms of different chemical elements, Dalton opened up a
fruitful research programme in chemistry. Nevertheless, alongside the entire

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109

nineteenth century, atomism was immersed in controversy and confusion. Not all
scientists adopted the Daltonian programme, as Berzelius did in his search for
atomic weights. Gmelins equivalent weights were much more utilised by chemists
in the 1840s than Berzelius atomic weights. Dumas wrote, in 1836, that If I had
such power I would erase the word atom from science, persuaded as I am that it
goes beyond experience and that in chemistry we should never go beyond experience (apud Rheinboldt 1988).
Even those who had adopted the atomistic programme were not in agreement in
several points. Avogadros hypotheses, which explained Gay-Lussacs volumetric
law of combining gases, made a clear distinction between what we nowadays called
atoms and molecules, but could not be accepted by Dalton or Berzelius. Both had
difficulty in admitting that a molecule of an element could be diatomic in the context of their theories. Berzelius electrochemical dualism, accounting for affinity in
terms of differences in the electrical charges of the atoms, forbade atoms of the
same element to attract each other, as they had the same electric charge. Dalton
imagined that the repulsive caloric atmosphere of like atoms restrained them from
forming a diatomic molecule. Only in the 1860s, after the Karlsruhe Congress, the
confusion on atoms, molecules, and atomic weights began to dissipate. The means
for determining molecular weights and, thereby, accurate formulas, based on
Avogadros hypotheses, was shown by Cannizzaro, ending with half a century of
dispute and mistakes.
Another fundamental contribution to the classical concept of molecule was the
discovery of the phenomenon of isomerism by Berzelius, in 1830. According to
him, the same elements, in the same number, but arranged in a different way (perhaps a different position of the atoms), lead to compounds with different properties
and forms (Berzelius, apud Rheinboldt 1988). Since then, the properties have been
shown to depend not only on the types and numbers of atoms but also on the way
they are arranged in the molecule.
The third fundamental piece of this puzzle that the properties of substances
depend also on the geometry of the molecule emerged in the context of an intensive
work on several concepts that would originate structural chemistry. Organic
chemistry developed several theories of substitutional types, which were the base
for the latter development of the concept of valence by Kekul and Couper. The
work of Le Bel and Vant Hoff on optically active compounds led to the conclusion
that, when a carbon atom is attached to four different atoms or atomic groups, the
four substituents can be arranged in two different ways, and the resulting molecules
will be different, each one being the mirror image of the other. The tetrahedral
representation of carbon opened up the possibility of representing molecules as real
objects, with the atoms disposed in a geometric arrangement that could be the mirror
expressed by the polygonal line connecting them.
This idea of molecule was basically preserved in the first attempts to draw molecules taking into account the electronic structure of the atom. Lewis formulas deal
with chemical bonds as electronic pairs oriented in space, suggesting a way of treating bonds that would be preserved at most of the early attempts to apply quantum
mechanics to molecular structure, in the context of the valence bond (VB) method.

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The multiplicity of resonance structures, characteristic of the VB method, is due to


the impossibility of a literal translation of Lewis hypothesis in terms of a wave
function, as all the electrons belong to the same molecular framework and cannot be
assembled on pairs in a unique and predetermined way. This demanded that the VB
method took into account all the possible ways of pairing (Paoloni 1980).
This classical view of the molecular structure, as a framework of atoms geometrically assembled, gave to chemistry a highly explanatory model applicable to
molecular problems not only in chemistry but also in the physical and biological
sciences. A beautiful example is Perutzs explanation of the mechanism by which
haemoglobin takes up and releases oxygen molecules, as we already mentioned in
the introduction. Perutz resorts to a triggering mechanism in which the transition
between the so-called T and R structures of haemoglobin, consisting mainly in a
rotation of one pair of alpha- and beta-subunits with respect to the other pair, causes
the movement of the heme iron into the plane of the porphyrin ring: Once the heme
iron has descended into the plane it can bind an oxygen molecule. In the reverse
transition (from R to T) the iron is pulled out of the plane and the oxygen cannot
follow because it bumps against the porphyrin nitrogen atoms (Perutz 1978). This
very mechanistic approach to molecular biology is possible only by considering the
molecular structure as a framework of atoms.

4.2.4

Modern Chemistry: Bringing New Zones


to the Profile of Molecule

Modern chemistry brings three characteristics of molecular structure that prevent us


from treating molecular structure as having a unique geometry. In this item we are
going to describe each one of these features, which are called stereochemical nonrigidity, dynamic nature of a molecular system, polynuclear description of a molecule, and relational properties of chemical substances.
The very characteristic of classical molecular structure is its fixed geometry,
describable as a polygonal uniting fixed vibrating atoms. Many molecules, however,
cannot be described as having this unique geometry.
We have already mentioned PF5 as an example of fluxional behaviour. Among
many more recent examples, we want to refer to some trisubstituted gold (I) clusters
such as Au11L7-xLx(SCN)3, with L = P(C6H5)3 and L = P(p-ClC6H4)3. NMR spectra
of these clusters show the reduction to a single signal as the temperature rises, characteristic of the equivalence of the nuclei (Steggerda et al. 1982). What interests us
in this kind of behaviour comes from the evidence it provides of the nonnecessity of
correspondence between the properties of a material and a fixed molecular structure. Of course, chemists have for a long time considered dynamic properties of
molecular structures as necessary to interpret spectra. Nonetheless, stereochemical
nonrigidity appears to go beyond the admission of rotations and slight oscillations.
Another evidence of the dynamic nature of molecular structures comes from isotopic exchange studies. Mixing equal quantities of vapour of H2O and D2O will give

4 Contributions of the Sociocultural Domain to Build

111

in a very short time a system with approximately 50 % of HDO molecules. These


are important evidence for the dynamic nature of a molecular system.
Contemporary chemistry goes beyond the classical one also by admitting that a
molecule can be described without referring to its constituent atoms. In molecular
orbital (MO) theory, the use of linear combination of atomic orbital functions is
merely a question of commodity, not a mandatory feature of the scheme. Contrasting
with the valence bond (VB) scheme, delocalisation appears naturally in the MOs.
This means, of course, that we have not to resort to anything like resonance to
allow for the delocalisation of (at least) some of the electrons. We may, however,
be obligated to impose opposite corrections in describing some of the electrons as
localised. Woolley (1978), moreover, called into question that molecular structure
could be deduced from quantum mechanics. The quantum chemistry methods
applied to molecular structure rely on the Born-Oppenheimer approximation,
which separates electronic and nuclear motions, and treat nuclei as fixed. The
Woolley approach to molecular structure without the fixed nucleus approximation
brought a new and disconcerting view of the molecular structure as a collection of
delocalised nuclei and electrons in which all identical particles are indistinguishable (Weininger 1984).
Moreover, several chemical properties cannot be reduced to substantial properties. Acidity and basicity, redox behaviour, and solvent effects on reactions are just
some examples of relational chemical properties depending on the interaction
between molecules and not only on the structure of an isolated species. Even strong
mineral acids as sulphuric or hydrochloric acids may behave as bases when facing
stronger proton donors, super acids, for example. In the latter, weak acids as HF and
SbF5 can be changed into a stronger acid by being mixed together and also in a very
strong one in the presence of SO3. The energy of chemical processes can only be
accounted for in relational terms, as changes in energy depend on the breaking and
formation of bonds. The molecular structure is something dynamic that cannot be
seen only as a group of atoms whose number, type, and geometrical arrangement
determine all its chemical properties.
Admitting the relational nature of chemical processes leads us to subscribe the
reserves of many scientists of our time regarding the reductionist programme.
Reductionism tries to persuade us in believing that every aspect of nature ought to
be reduced to some fundamental laws, normally taken from physics. As Anderson
has aptly remarked, the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws
does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe
(Anderson 1972, p. 393). Anderson also stresses two undesirable and very common corollaries of reductionism: first, it tends to consider most scientific fields as
of relatively minor importance and their specific questions as mere instances of
somewhat trivial applications of the really important work performed by an elite.
Second, this arrogance, already insufferable in the case of some physicists,
becomes very dangerous when it comes from molecular biologists, who seem
determined to try to reduce everything about the human organism to only chemistry, from the common cold and all mental disease to the religious instinct
(Anderson 1972, p. 396).

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E.F. Mortimer and L.O.F. Amaral

Conclusions

The application of the conceptual profile theory to the concept of molecule called
into question the universality and context independence of a central idea in chemistry. The need of complementary views to account for the molecular structure in different contexts brings important issues for understanding and teaching chemistry.
Treating molecule as a concept that can be dispersed in several zones of a profile
gives us the advantage of seeing how the way we approach the world is strongly
influenced by the context we are dealing with. In the specific profile of molecule,
realistic interpretation seems to be a recurrent obstacle. From the old days of
Lemery, when particles were miniatures of the substance, we came to consider
realistic molecular buildings. After the discovery of the electron and the impact of
quantum chemistry, we tried to resort to realistic interpretations of the chemical
bond and the atomic and molecular orbitals themselves. A fine example that this
can indeed be so, even for quantum chemistry practitioners, is this quotation from
C. A. Coulson:
I described a bond, a normal simple chemical bond; and I gave many details of its character
(and could have given many more). Sometimes it seems to me that a bond between two
atoms has become so real, so tangible, so friendly that I can almost see it. And then I awake
with a little shock: for a chemical bond is not a real thing: it does not exist: no one has ever
seen it, no one ever can. It is a figment of my own imagination. (Coulson 1955, p. 2084)

This recurrence to realistic interpretations is easy to understand if we remind


that, when facing new problems, we have a strong tendency to resort to familiar
views, which might translate the new into an old scheme. Moreover, the conceptual
profile of molecule gives us evidence that realistic approaches to molecular problems can exist alongside with other more complex and dynamic interpretations. In a
broader cultural dimension, even non-scientific approaches, such as dynamisation
in homeopathy, can be acceptable by some scientists when facing health problems.
We are not full-time chemists all over our existence, and apparently contradictory
views can exist side by side in our individual profile, as we do not use them in the
same context.
Realism seems to be a two-dimensional obstacle, both epistemological and ontological. The realistic consideration of carbon valence atomic orbitals hinders formidably understanding and the acceptance of contemporary findings such as the
possibility of synthesising penta- and hexa-coordinated carbon compounds as gold
(I) clusters as {[R3PAu]4CR}+, {[(C6H5)3PAu]5C}+, and {[(C6H5)3PAu]6C}2+, prepared by Schmidbaur and co-workers (Grohmann et al. 1990). These same researchers have also announced the synthesis of gold (I) clusters including a penta-coordinated
nitrogen atom. It seems to us that the notion of the four valence electrons of carbon
as limiting the possibilities of bonding of this atom, both stoichiometrically and
geometrically, is a huge ontological obstacle.
In the other hand, the substantialisation of chemical properties seems to be a
more epistemological than ontological obstacle, as thoroughly discussed in
Bachelards La formation de lesprit scientifique (1938).

4 Contributions of the Sociocultural Domain to Build

113

The consciousness of his/her conceptual profile can help a chemist to have a better
understanding of the different ways employed by scientists when faced with different
problems. This is particularly important when we think about teaching chemistry, as
a student hardly sees this multiplicity of meanings as a natural characteristic of science. On the contrary, students tend to admit that scientific concepts are unique and
well defined, and this can lead them to interpret all the chemical entities as realistic
objects. Textbooks normally present chemistry as populated by real orbitals, bonds,
rings, etc. By showing that realism alone cannot explain all the chemical properties,
we may help students think open-mindedly in other fruitful ways.
An important research to be done is to expand this conceptual profile in considering other genetic domains than just the sociocultural. Molecule is a concept that has
been well explored in studies about students informal and alternative conceptions,
and the consideration of this kind of study can add new interpretations to the zones
of the conceptual profile model of molecule discussed above. Moreover, the study
of classroom interactions where the concept is applied, mainly in university courses,
can lead to new insights on this conceptual profile, as we direct more attention to
ontogenesis and microgenesis.
Acknowledgements This work was supported by grants from CNPq, CAPES, and Pr-Reitoria
de Pesquisa da UFMG. We thank Rubn Dario Sinisterra for calling our attention to the works on
gold (I) clusters.

References
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Aristotle. (1980). Physics: Books IIV (P. H. Wicksteed & F. M. Cornford, Trans.). Cambridge,
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Bachelard, G. (1938). La formation de lesprit scientifique: contribution a une psychanalyse de la
connaissance objective [The formation of scientific mind: Contribution to a psychoanalysis of
objective knowledge]. Paris: Vrin.
Ben-Zvi, R., Eylon, B., & Silberstein, J. (1986). Is an atom of copper malleable? Journal of
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chemistry (pp. 89101). Leipzig: Leipziger Universitts Verlag.
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E. Guesne, & A. Tiberghien (Eds.), Childrens ideas in science (pp. 124144). Milton Keynes:
Open University Press.
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Chapter 5

Building a Profile for the Biological


Concept of Life
Francisco ngelo Coutinho, Charbel N. El-Hani,
and Eduardo F. Mortimer

5.1

Introduction

This chapter presents the results of an investigation aiming at building a conceptual


profile of life. Our starting point was the hypothesis that the concept of life
has several different meanings and, therefore, can be expressed in a conceptual
profile. In order to demarcate zones to constitute such a conceptual profile, we
combined theoretical and empirical studies involving at least three genetic domains
(Wertsch 1985): sociocultural, ontogenetic, and microgenetic.
In the linguistic networks associated with scientific theories, ontodefinitions
(Emmeche 1997) play a particularly important role. As discussed in the introduction
of this work, however, we use a modified version of Emmeches proposal, referring
to ontoconcepts rather than ontodefinitions in the remainder of our arguments.
Ontoconcepts can be thought of as very broad categories, such as matter, life, mind,
and society, which refer to the most general kinds of scientific objects, which are
at the same time objects of ontology. They belong to the metaphysical component
of a theory, defining what scientists working under the influence of that theory are

F.. Coutinho (*)


School of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: fac01@terra.com.br
C.N. El-Hani
Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Rua Baro do Geremoabo,
s/n, Campus de Ondina, Ondina, 40170-290 Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
e-mail: charbel@ufba.br
E.F. Mortimer
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais,
Av. Antnio Carlos 6627, 3840440 Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_5, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

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striving to understand, in the most general sense, and, at the same time, providing
some basic explanation of the very nature of those general kinds of objects.
Ontoconcepts are, thus, at the border between science and metaphysics and have a
potentially integrative role in scientific theories or fields. The concept of life, as the
most general concept in biological thinking, or, to put it differently, the ontoconcept
characterizing biology as a whole, plays a wide-ranging integrative role in the
context of science teaching and learning. Moreover, we should consider that this
concept is not limited to the biological discourse, but rather plays a part in the most
diverse social discourses. Thus, it is particularly prone to show a wide range of
meanings, which go beyond the domain of science. In this manner, the importance
of building a conceptual profile of life as a way of planning biology teaching in its
most general sense and, also, of appraising the evolution of students ideas about
living beings becomes clear. In particular, it is important to promote students
awareness of the fact that the concept of life is polysemous, and that some of its
meanings are not consistent with current scientific discourse about living beings, and,
thus, it is fundamental to have a clear view of the domain of application of scientific
views about life and views stemming from other cultural traditions. A conceptual
profile of life is likely to be helpful in achieving all these goals and, therefore,
can be an invaluable tool for biology teaching, particularly if we have in view the
construction of an integrated understanding of living systems.
The integrative role of the concept of life becomes clear when we consider
that to be plausible and fruitful, this concept should offer a clear view about the
scientific and ontological class of objects biologists study, in its more general
sense. It should contribute to organize biological models, theories, and concepts
in a unified and coherent manner. Although it is by no means sufficient, such a
coherent organization is a necessary condition to an autonomous science of biology
(cf. Mayr 1982, 1988), aiming at studying objects which are different from the objects
addressed by other sciences, such as chemistry and physics (Emmeche and El-Hani
2000), even though they should be treated, in a naturalistic and evolutionary view,
as composed of these latter objects, organized in a complex structure typical of
living beings. Symptomatically, an understanding of what is life is needed in order
to grasp what is typical about the structure of living systems and how they differ
from other kinds of physical systems. In this manner, a clear view about what is life
can contribute to the goal of integrating teaching and learning about conceptual fields
embedded into biology, but usually isolated in disciplines with well-demarcated
domains, and, thus, to the deep transformation of biology that thinkers such as
Kafatos and Eisner (2004) advocate. For them, scientific progress happens when
there is knowledge integration, and biology lives today the expectation of unification,
in order to reach theoretical and practical results of a greater scope. In our view,
theoretical and empirical investigations about the concept of life are an important
part of this current agenda of biological research, and, in the domain of biology
teaching, an integrated approach to living beings, structured around the diversity of
meanings ascribed to the life concept in the scientific discourse, is also part of this
endeavor. The success of science teaching can be also measured by assessing
how capable the students are of building an integrated and organized view of

5 Building a Profile for the Biological Concept of Life

117

the networks of meanings and practices that constitute a given scientific field.
An understanding of life in a general sense is certainly not enough for achieving this
goal, but it amounts to an important step toward a successful teaching of biology
(Emmeche and El-Hani 2000).
The above arguments justify why we chose the concept of life as a starting point
when we decided to apply the conceptual profile approach to biological themes.
Its place as the most general ontoconcept of biology and its consequent integrative
role made it a natural choice. After all, we intend to contribute to the elaboration
of strategies aiming at a more integrated biology teaching, both in secondary and
higher education.
In the next section, we will present some of the bases for proposing the categories that will compose the conceptual profile of life, taken from a historical and
epistemological study about the life concept and from a review of the literature on
alternative conceptions of life. In these sections, we will discuss some definitions
of life in order to review some developments in the fields of theoretical biology
which have been useful for our investigations. We will also argue that a conceptual profile of life should not be merely composed of these definitions, but its
composing zones should rather have a different nature. Then we will describe the
methodology of our research. The subsequent section will explain the categories
that compose the conceptual profile of life we built. Finally, we will report results
obtained in our investigations about ideas of undergraduate and graduate biology
students about life, which have been guided by the conceptual profile previously
presented.

5.2

Some Historical and Epistemological Aspects


of the Life Concept

It seems that the first formal definition of life was proposed by Aristotle (FerraterMora 2001, entry life). This philosopher thought that animate beings differ from
inanimate beings because they possess an inner principle that gives them life. This
principle was the psykh. To explain what he meant by psykh, Aristotle appeals to
his hylomorphic doctrine of reality.1 According to this doctrine, every being has two
inseparable principles, matter and form. Based on the idea that the principles or
elements (the ultimate constituents of existing things) should include an underlying
something and two fundamental contraries, which would differ in excess and defect,
and would subsume all other oppositions, Aristotle posits that the principles are
matter (the underlying something), form (which makes it possible to define what a
thing is), and the privation (of form) (Physics, I.7. Aristotle 1995, pp. 324326.

The Aristotelian doctrines about psykh or soul are very complex and were interpreted in a variety
of ways, by different authors. These disputes are outside the scope of this chapter. We stick here to
a particular reading, in accordance with Lear (1995).

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See also Metaphysics, XII().2, 1069b3234. Aristotle 1995, 1690; Metaphysics,


XII().3, 1070b1020. Aristotle 1995, 1691). From the perspective of the nature of
a thing as being, we should consider two principles, matter and form, while, in the
study of change, the becoming of things, we should add privation (of form) as a
third principle (Ross [1923]1995, p. 69).
For Aristotle, the form was the primary cause of a thing and, thus, provided us
with the best understanding of what a thing most truly is and why it is the way it
is (Lear 1995, p. 27). As any other thing, living beings also possess a material
substrate (an underlying something) and a form that defines them (Lear 1995,
pp. 9697). Aristotle states that by life we mean self-nutrition and growth and
decay (Aristotle 1995, p. 656. Da Alma, 412a, pp. 1415). According to Lear,
Aristotle postulated that form and matter are inseparable in natural objects. An
organism is, thus, a unity that can be seen as possessing both material and formal
aspects (Lear 1995, p. 97). We can say, therefore, that for Aristotle, what makes
something a living being is not the matter from which it is made, but rather a
certain kind of organization, i.e., its form. For our purposes here, we can say that
Aristotle saw life as something that animated and ascribed form to a particular
kind of matter.
For the neoplatonic philosopher Plotino, in turn, life undergoes a process of
emanation. He believed that the source of being was the One, from which a
series of emanations resulted: Life, Mind, Soul, and Matter (Kearney 1970, p. 39).
For another neoplatonic, Proclo, everything that lives has its own movement due
to the primary life (Ferrater-Mora 2001, entry life). It seems, thus, that for some
neoplatonics life is hypostatized, in the sense that there would be one thing that
would be Life, in contrast with Aristotles understanding of life in an organic
sense (Ferrater-Mora 2001).
A number of writings of the New Testament bring ideas that look similar to this
neoplatonic understanding of life. The Way, the Truth, and the Life are hypostases
of the Logos, in which Life was. Moreover, life resuscitates, according to the
New Testament. Therefore, life is not only a principle inherent in every living
being the breath of life but also what saves from death and annihilation.
This hypotastic conception of life can be traced back to the Old Testament and will
persist throughout the Middle Ages. Thus, the Christian tradition is committed to an
understanding of organisms as being animated by something exterior to their own
material organization, as a gift of God.
In the Renaissance, there is a coexistence of entirely distinct ways of interpreting
the world. Even though it is beyond the scope of this chapter to offer a more detailed
description of the characteristic features of these different coexisting views, some
words must be said. According to Kearney (1970), there were at least three great
scientific traditions during the Renaissance, each with a long history: organicism,
magic, and mechanism. Part of their achievements have been later integrated into
the modern scientific tradition.
As an example of an organicist thinker, we can mention William Harvey.
There is a connection between Harvey and Aristotelian thinking that can be

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perceived in the importance he ascribes to final causes in the universe. In his view,
it is fundamental to recognize in the works of nature as well as in animal generation
and nutrition the presence of an efficient cause and divinity in nature that always
work with art, providence, and wisdom and always with some end in view
(Kearney 1970, p. 86).
It is particularly relevant to our purposes here Harveys idea that blood brought
within it something more than the material nutrients for the body, since it was also
the vehicle of a vital principle, which could be identified, in his view, with the
Aristotelian soul (Kearney 1970, p. 87).
In the magical tradition, Paracelsus believed that there was a force that he
called archaeus, responsible for the property of autonomy of living beings.
The archaeus was a kind of materialized Aristotelian form, treated as the magical,
vital principle capable of organizing matter (Reale and Antiseri 1990, vol. II,
p. 207).
Therefore, in the organicist and magical traditions, the concept of life
amounted to the idea of a principle that moves all things, or realities, and the whole
world was often taken to be a big animal or big organism. This is an animistic
view, since it is fundamentally a commitment to the belief that it is possible to
explain properties of inanimate matter in terms of properties of living beings
(Bachelard 1936/1996, p. 218). These traditions are also committed to the view
that life comes from outside and reside in the organisms.
As it is well known, Ren Descartes was one of the most influential thinkers in
the mechanist tradition. His substance dualism amounted to the defense of the
existence of two distinct metaphysical realms, in which different substances would
dwell, res cogitans and res extensa. For Descartes, res extensa was composed by
matter and movement. All the diversity of phenomena, as well as their dynamical
nature, could be explained in terms of the quantity of movement God injected into
the world in its creation. This quantity of movement would be always constant,
never increasing or diminishing. The Cartesian universe is nothing but matter and
movement, and all events would be caused simply by collisions of particles. Heat,
magnetic forces, light, plant growth, and physiological function are all interpreted
by Descartes as particular cases of this universal dynamics. From this standpoint,
living beings were conceived as automatically operating machines, ruled by the
laws of matter in movement.
In his view of living beings as machines, Descartes thought not only that life
exclusively obeyed the laws of physics and chemistry but also that all relevant
behavior could be explained in purely mechanical terms.2 The phenomenon of life
was explainable simply by the arrangement of the material parts that constitute a
living being. The Cartesian view is committed to the assumption that life can be
explained simply by the internal arrangement of matter, with the exception of human

In the case of human behavior, res cogitans was also involved, as a source of thoughts and desires.
Consequently, human behavior could not be explained in a purely mechanical way.

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life, under the unceasing influence of an entity other than matter that would also
constitute our bodies, namely, the mind or soul.
It is time now to turn to the discussion of conceptions of life currently found in
the scientific community. Scientific concepts acquire their meaning through
their embedment into networks of statements and practices constituting scientific
theories. From this perspective, definitions of life can be formulated in a variety of
biological theories, such as the synthetic theory of evolution (Maynard Smith
1986; Emmeche 1997), autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela 1980), Alife (Bedau
1996), endosymbiotic theory (Margulis 2001, 2002; Margulis and Sagan 2002),
biosemiotics (Emmeche 1997; Emmeche and El-Hani 2000), and also in other
scientific fields, such as cybernetics (Korzeniewski 2001) and thermodynamics
(Schrdinger 1944/1997). For reasons of space, we will address here only the
definitions of life found in Franois Jacob and Jacques Monods works, in the
synthetic theory of evolution (particularly, as interpreted by David Hull), in
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varelas autopoietic theory, in Alife, in Gaia
theory, and in cybernetics.
Jacob and Monod claimed in 1961 that the genetic material contains a program
for coordinating protein synthesis. By introducing the metaphor of a program,
they opened up a conceptual space not only for thinking in different terms about
development but also for rethinking the very notion of a living being. In their
view, a living being is the realization of a program specified by heredity (Jacob
1983, p. 10) or, else, an object endowed with a project (Monod 1976, p. 21).
Accordingly, we can understand life in these terms as the product of a program
codified in the genome.3
Despite ongoing theoretical changes in evolutionary biology, the synthetic
theory of evolution still offers a very influential scientific explanation of the diversity
of living beings. This theory has played a central and unifying role in biological
thought, organizing several (but not all) disciplines composing biology within a
single structure (Meyer and El-Hani 2000, 2005). Dobzhansky (1973) emphasized
this feature in his paper entitled Nothing in biology makes sense except in the
light of evolution. It is consequential, thus, that one can formulate a definition of
life within the synthetic theory of evolution. Maynard Smith (1986) offers an
example. According to him, life can be defined by the possession of properties
necessary to ensure evolution by natural selection, i.e., entities with the properties
of multiplication, variation, and heredity are alive, and entities lacking one or more

We could expand here on several arguments for and against the genetic program metaphor.
We should limit ourselves, however, to some general comments. Jacob and Monod seemed to be
motivated to introduce this expression in order to characterize the apparent intentionality of
biological development (Keller 2000). This metaphor has been strongly criticized (e.g., Sarkar
1996; Coen 1999; Oyama 1985; Keller 2000), and many authors searched for other and arguably
better ways of articulating our understanding of living organisms and their developmental
processes, often by abandoning the very notions of program and information but in some cases by
reinterpreting them in different frameworks.

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of those properties are not (p. 23). Emmeche, in turn, defines life in the context of
the synthetic theory as follows:
Life is a property of populations of entities that: (1) self-reproduce, (2) inherit characteristics
of their predecessors by a process of informational transfer of heritable characteristics
(implying a genotype-phenotype distinction), (3) vary due to random mutations (in the
genotype), and (4) have the propensity to leave offspring determined by how well the
combination of properties (inherited as genotype and manifested as phenotype) meets
the challenge of the environmental selective regime. (Emmeche 1997)

Emmeche also expresses this conception of life as the natural selection of replicators.
A replicator was defined by Dawkins (1979) as a molecule that shows the property
of making copies of itself, but it can be understood, in more general terms, as any
structure that in the right environment can act as a template for its own copying
(Sterelny 2001). A less reductionist approach to evolution can be proposed by adding
to replicators the concept of interactors, defined by Hull (1980, 1981, 1988, 2001)
as entities that interact as a whole with the environment, in such a manner that their
interaction results in differential reproduction. This philosopher of biology was
precisely reacting to an idea advanced by George Williams (1966) and further
explored by Richard Dawkins (1990), namely, that the gene is the basic unit of
selection. As Gould (2002, p. 615) argues, Williams and Dawkins think of the criteria
of replication as sufficient for identifying the gene as the fundamental active agent
in natural selection. Hull argues, however, that even though genes can be properly
conceived as fundamental replicators, they cannot be mistaken as causal agents in
the process of natural selection. To put it differently, replication is necessary but not
sufficient for selection (Hull 2001, p. 2). After all, genes are situated at one level of
biological organization and cannot play functions that are realized at other levels, in
which we find, for instance, organisms and species (Hull 2001, p. 21). In his view,
natural selection does not operate in a single but rather at multiple levels, constituting,
thus, a hierarchical process.
Hull is interested in developing an abstract formulation of the Darwinian process
of natural selection that might be applied to any possible form of life, and even to
any structure that can be thought of as adapted. To achieve this goal, he redescribes
selection in functional concepts, which depict the function that should be played by
certain entities in a selective process, no matter their material substrates. He works
with three functional concepts, replicators, interactors, and lineages. The replicator
is, for Hull, any entity that passes on its structure largely intact in successive replications. Lineages and their evolutionary dynamics are the effects of complex causal
interactions involving replicators, interactors, and environments.
In Hulls view, evolution by natural selection is composed of two subprocesses
replication and interaction that cannot be detached, i.e., natural selection demands
both replicators and interactors, since the structure of replicators is differentially
perpetuated because of the relative success of the interactors of which the replicators
are part. As Gould (2002, p. 615) stresses, natural selection operates in the interaction,
not in the replication, and it is possible to define interactors at several levels of the
biological hierarchy.

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A definition of life is explicitly formulated in Maturana and Varelas (1980,


1995) theory of autopoiesis. The word autopoiesis (which literally means
self-production or self-creation) was invented by them to designate a theory of the
organization of living systems, which treats these systems as unities organizationally closed but structurally, i.e., materially and energetically open. An autopoietic
system is a network of components where the components produce the very
network (and its boundaries), which, in turn, produces the components. This circular
organization is seen as the defining feature of living systems: they produce
themselves, while nonliving systems cannot do so (i.e., they are allopoietic systems).
Life is a way of functioning that imposes a spatial closure. Thus, its own operational
closure is a fundamental part of its functioning.
In its strong version, Artificial Life intends to produce an understanding of lifeas-it-could-be, instead of the treatment of life-as-we-know-it that characterizes
the biological sciences (Langton 1989). In this endeavor, it expects to produce a
truly universal science of biology (Emmeche 1997; Moreno and Fernndez 2000),
by means of the generation of complex objects by open-ended evolution in artificial
environments, implemented in computers or in real settings (in evolutionary robotics), which might be regarded, according to many Alife researchers, as living entities produced (not only simulated) by that evolutionary process. Despite the
controversies about the strong program of Alife (Emmeche 1997; Moreno and
Fernndez 2000), the idea is that it would provide the only way to probe universal
features of living systems, which they would necessarily exhibit at any time and
place. In this research field, we find a radical evolutionary definition of life,
proposed by Mark Bedau (1996, 1998), a philosopher of Alife. He claims that life
can be defined as a property of any system that shows an automatic and open-ended
capacity to respond appropriately to unpredictable changes in its environment, by
means of what he calls supple adaptation. He thinks that this definition offers a
way of conceptualizing the creatures of Alife as living beings, so as to give support
to the claims of the strong program. Typically, definitions of life are focused on
some kind of individuality (be it a cell, an organism, a gene, etc.). But living systems
are continuously exploring their niches and exchanging matter and energy with
local environments. Accordingly, Bedau chooses to focus not on individuality but
rather on a collectivity capable of adapting to the contingencies of an unpredictable
environment as the primary form of life. A collectivity shows supple adaptation
when it is capable of achieving new kinds of meaningful answers to new types
of challenges and adaptive opportunities. One can conceive a population, or an
ecosystem, or even the whole biosphere, in their multiple interactions, as a collectivity
exhibiting supple adaptation. Bedau stresses that particular components inside a
collectivity can exhibit supple adaptation, as in the case of an individual organism,
for instance, but they are not capable of evolution; this is a property of collectivities,
such as populations. As a consequence, individual organisms could not be conceived
as living. Bedau strives for avoiding this counterintuitive consequence by claiming
that components of collectivities can be characterized as secondary forms of life,
due to their relationships within the system that shows supple adaptation. In these
terms, a mule, for instance, could be characterized as a living being, since it is part

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of reproductive population, but would be conceived as a secondary form of life,


while the reproductive population would be the primary form of life.
Another conception of life we can consider here is found in Gaia theory.
According to Lovelock (1989, p. 21), an understanding of living beings as systems
far from equilibrium points to a correct description of such systems and makes it
possible to detect life in any place in the universe.4 Taking as starting point the idea
that life is dependent wherever it exists on the use of fluid media, such as oceans
and atmospheres, as systems of conveying matter and wastes, Lovelock argues that
activities related to entropy reduction within living systems should interfere with
these media, altering their compositions and making them deviate from the states
expected in chemical equilibrium. Consequently, the atmosphere of a planet containing life would be substantially different from the atmosphere of a lifeless planet.
The atmosphere of our planet, for instance, shows a highly unlikely chemical
composition, significantly and persistently displaced from chemical equilibrium.
This is a signature of life, according to Lovelock (1989, pp. 2223). Such arguments,
among others, led him to propose Gaia theory, i.e., the claim of the existence of
a cybernetic control system on Earth, including the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, soils, and part of Earths crust, which would show the capacity of keeping the
properties of the physicochemical environment, such as chemical composition and
temperature, adequate for life. This controversial theory postulates control mechanisms based on positive and negative feedback loops in which living beings are
involved in a fundamental manner. Those mechanisms would result in self-regulation
of the system life-environment in our planet. This cybernetic system would be a
planetary entity, Gaia, which would be living or quasi-living, as Lovelock
argues in more recent works (e.g., Lovelock 1991). Lovelocks explanation of this
system has oscillated throughout his works, and while it is sometimes clearly
demarcated from the biosphere or Earth, sometimes it is conflated with one or both
of these entities.5 Furthermore, Earth itself has been often treated by Lovelock as
living (or quasi-living), even though most of the researchers currently working on
the theory avoid this claim.
What conception of life can we derive from Gaia? For our purposes here, the
main issue lies in Lovelocks polemical idea that life shapes the environment so as
to keep it adequate for itself. Life necessarily entails an extensive coupling between
living systems and the physicochemical environment, so that the latter is regulated;
otherwise, life cannot survive.
Finally, Korzeniewski (2001) proposes a cybernetic definition of life, according
to which a living individual is defined as a network of inferior negative feedback
(regulatory) mechanisms subordinated to a superior positive feedback, understood as
a potential of expansion. For him, the total complex of negative feedback mechanisms

For a discussion about the possibility that this thermodynamic definition is not sufficiently
specific for characterizing life, see, for instance, Korzeniewski (2001).
5
For more detailed discussions about Gaia and life, see, for instance, Lima-Tavares and El-Hani
(2001), Nunes-Neto and El-Hani (2007).

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constitutes the identity of the biological individual in functional terms, and the
function of this identity is to preserve its own existence throughout time, producing
as many copies of itself as possible. It is in these terms that the complex network
of negative feedback mechanisms has the function of accomplishing a superior
positive feedback, manifested not only in the reproduction and dispersal of living
systems but also in their evolution.

5.3

Alternative Conceptions of Life

Since the classical studies by Piaget in 1929 focused on the evolution of the concept
of living being in children, other works investigated the characteristics that students of different ages attribute to living organisms. Jean Piaget was the first
researcher to do studies on the evolution of the concept of a living being in children.6
According to him, a child in the early stages of his/her cognitive development has a
generalized animist vision of the material world, that is, he/she attributes life and
consciousness to inanimate objects (Piaget 1976). This characteristic of child thinking
is due to the fact that he/she does not yet have the capacity to reason in physical and
causal terms. As thought develops, however, this animist notion is substituted by
a concept of life more like that of adult life, according to which life would have a
narrower scope. Piaget (1976) says that the development of understanding about the
concept of life occurs sequentially, through four stages, to which he attributed
approximate ages. At the first stage, between the ages of 4 and 6, the child considers
any object which has any activity, utility, or function to be alive. At the second stage,
between ages 6 and 8, the child attributes life to everything that moves. At the third
stage, between 8 and 10, the child considers to be alive all that has its own and spontaneous movement. Finally, at the fourth and final stage, after the age of 11, the
child attributes life only to plants and animals.
Freitas (1989) quotes various papers that contradict Piagets findings on the
evolution of the concept of life by stages. These papers argue that the animist notion
of life is not a genetic trace inherent in child thinking. They also state that the child
begins the process of differentiating between the living and the inanimate from the
first months of life.
In his own work with children aged 713 years, Freitas found that most of them
consider the following attributes as essential to living beings: to be born, grow up,
breathe, feed, reproduce, and die. Also, almost all children considered living beings
as made up of material elements different from those of inanimate objects.
Lucas and collaborators (1979) observed that students aged between 8 and 16
used criteria based on external and internal structures and physiological functions
to characterize living beings. However, what is most notable in his work is the

It is worth remembering that Piagets study refers to the evolution of the concept of living being,
not of life.

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overwhelming preference of students for behavioral criteria. According to the authors,


it is important to note that the majority of the students in the interval of ages studied
indicate a reduction of the importance of movement as a category to describe living
beings. The authors indicate that this kind of answer, which clearly minimizes the
value of movement, has been ignored by studies about animism. Lucas and collaborators state, therefore, that their work joins that of others leading to a modification
of Piagets ideas.
The results of Tamir et al. (1981), in studies with Israeli children with school
ages equivalent to our 5th and 8th grades, concluded that movement and growth are
the most frequent indicators to attribute life to a given object.
Ochiai (1989), working with 6-year-old children, found that they use the criteria
of eating, walking, breathing, and running to identify living beings. In research with
university students, the criteria found by Ochiai were growth, death, breathing,
and reproduction.
Castao et al. (1997), working with children aged 5.58 years, found that for the
5.5-year-old children, the living were made up of objects that move or can move in
some way. The 7-years-old considered animals to be alive and did not think that
plants are alive. The 8-year-old children identified the living with animals and
plants, or only with animals. For the characterization of life, there were names such
as that which moves, nature, that which feels and hurts, and energy.
The work of Brumby (1982), with English university students, also shows the
use of a list of properties to define life. The students were submitted to questions
that compelled them to express how they define life. According to her, there are
seven characteristics the students mention when asked: growth, reproduction,
breathing, nutrition, excretion, irritability, and locomotion.
Alonso and collaborators (1998), working with university students, observed
that the criteria used to define life may be classified as physiological or structural.
The physiological criteria include, according to them, eating and nutrition, breathing,
movement, response to stimuli, growth, and reproduction. The qualitative analysis
of the physiological responses showed that the students base themselves mainly
on macroscopic and perceptible aspects eating, respiration, etc. There are few
answers based on cell or tissue physiology or the processes that occur in the organs.
The structural criteria, for their part, refer to the presence of systems and organs
and the presence of cells and chemical composition. These answers, however, are
very rare and, according to the authors, are ambiguous, imprecise, and indirect.
Also according to the authors, their results indicate that the great majority of
students base themselves on descriptions and direct qualitative observations,
basically working from perceptible and macroscopic aspects, which, according to
them, makes it clear the children are using everyday reasoning, even among biology
university students.
Studies on conceptions of life have also been done with Brazilian students.
Wykrota (1998), working with middle and high school students, noticed that students
chose movement as a minimum criterion to recognize life. Breathing, reproduction,
the senses, and the life cycle are also criteria used to characterize living beings.

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Ribeiro and Santos (2000), working with high school students, grouped answers
from students to the question what is a living organism? into the following
categories: characteristics (birth, growth, reproduction, and death), cell,
functioning (life functions), and classification (based on the fact that living
beings are classified according to taxonomic rules).
In another study on the visions of Brazilian high school students about life,
Dorvill (2002) investigated 837 pupils. According to the author, living beings were
described as those capable of breathing and reproducing. These characterizations
were widely distributed among all the students. The same was the case with the definitions that refer to actions such as to be born, grow, and die and the capacity to feed
oneself. Less frequent but also common in many classes were answers about the
presence of organs or systems and sensibility. The author mentions that some
answers were almost entirely limited one of the investigated institutions, such as
those that link life to homeostasis and to metabolism. The use of the concept of
evolution to describe life was recorded six classes of three different schools.
In the work of Silva (2003), with senior high school students, 26 % of the students
used reproduction, respiration, nutrition, excretion, irritability, and locomotion to
define life. The author found other life-defining categories. According to him, 42 %
of those interviewed make use of finalist definitions, which view life as organization
along well-defined lines, almost always centered on human activity; 32 % use artificial definitions (in which life comes from a fabricating agent, generally God);
18 % use animist definitions (attributing life and awareness and, frequently,
anthropomorphic features to inanimate objects); and 11 % phenomist definitions (which, according to the author, is the establishment of causality links
between phenomena that are close in space and time). Based on Emmeche and
El-Hani (2000), the author suggests that his findings indicate the absence of a
biological paradigm to guide the definitions of life, which are, therefore, linked to
everyday reasoning.
Bruzzo (2000), working with teacher training biology students, shows that
many of the subjects had a hard time giving an explanation about life. The main
explanation given for life was the cell concept, and few were able to speak about
life without referring to molecules.
Cunha and collaborators (2003), working with an undergraduate biological sciences
class, found 15 criteria used by the students to characterize life. The most widely used
were metabolism (50 % of the answers), composition (DNA, proteins, etc.) [53 %],
and reproduction (60 %). The categories metabolism and composition were used
together in 27 % of the answers, metabolism and reproduction in 30 %, and reproduction and composition in 27 %. All three together metabolism, composition, and reproduction were in 13 % of the answers. With the exception of two students that did not
answer and one who said that life is the antonym of death, all the others used at least
one of the three most mentioned categories. The category evolution was mentioned
by only one student. The authors conclude that the answers of the students are
limited to the sphere of phenomena without reference to a more abstract framework.

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The review of the literature on alternative conceptions of life must be done with
great caution: in the first place, because the various authors work with theoretical
frameworks and objectives that are different from those of our paper and, second,
because we are working with second-hand data, since the analysis of the answers is
brought to us by authors of the papers listed here. The exceptions are those by
Cunha et al. (2003) and Silva (2003) which were carried out by us or under our
guidance.
Although Piagets (1976) work was not about the life concept, but intended to
establish the understanding of the concept of living being in children, we can see
an animist and phenominist understanding of the life by the children, through the
use of the criteria of creativity, movement, and function.

5.4

Methods

Previous works about conceptual profiles employed pre- and posttests (Mortimer
1994, 2000), questionnaires (Gobara and Grea 1997; Chauvet 1994), and written
material produced by the students (Solsona et al. 2002) as tools for examining the
occurrence of different zones composing the profile of diverse concepts. Here, we
report the construction of a conceptual profile of life by combining theoretical
and empirical studies that resulted in a variety of data, allowing us to cover at least
three genetic domains: (1) the sociocultural domain, by means of a review of
epistemological and historical studies about the concept of life and its history and,
also, an analysis of how this concept is addressed in some textbooks used by
undergraduate students; (2) the ontogenetic domain, through a review of studies
about students alternative conceptions about life; and (3) the microgenetic domain,
by applying questionnaires about life to biology majors and semi-structured
interviews based on task situations to graduate students of two distinct programs.
The interpretation of the data gathered by means of interviews and questionnaires was grounded on a constant dialogue with epistemological and historical
studies, textbook analyses, and the literature on alternative conceptions about life.
This means both that the categories suggested by these three latter data sources were
employed to interpret students discourse in the interviews and questionnaires,
and that the categories emerging from these tools were also used in the analysis of
the results from our survey about epistemological and historical dimensions of the
life concept, alternative conceptions, and textbooks.
Here, we will focus on the questionnaires and semi-structured interviews and on
the procedures used for analyzing the resulting data.
We applied a questionnaire to biology majors of one of the most important
Brazilian public universities (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais). The questionnaire was answered by students from the first five terms of the undergraduate course
on biology. This is the period in which students have access to a basic, general

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128
Table 5.1 Question 2

Question 2. Many children believe that fire is a living being.


(a) In your opinion, why would a child imagine that fire is living?
(b) Which characteristics of fire might be used to suppose that it is living?
(c) Why do you believe that fire is nonliving? (Supposing that you believe so)

background on biological thinking. Afterward, they move on to bachelor courses


devoted to specific areas of biology or to preservice biology teacher training.
Since the return of questionnaires by second-term students was very low, we had to
exclude them from data treatment, and, consequently, we will work here only with
questionnaires filled in by first-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-term students.
In order to explore a greater diversity of ideas about life, we also interviewed
graduate students from the Graduate Studies Programs in Ecology, Conservation,
and Wildlife Management and in Genetics of the same university. We chose these
two programs due to our expectation that we would find different profiles in students
of these two areas, as a result of their different approaches to living beings and their
investigation.
We built a questionnaire containing four questions, with the purpose of detecting
possible zones of a conceptual profile of life. This tool was validated and improved
in pilot studies with high school students (Silva 2003) and biology majors of
the same university in which the final set of data was gathered (Cunha et al. 2003).
The students involved in this latter pilot study did not answer the questionnaire
subsequently, when we obtained the data presented here.
The first question For you what is life? is an open one, aiming at making
the students provide a substantial diversity of answers, with the purpose of bringing
to surface several zones for a conceptual profile of life.
The second question was derived from Brumby (1982). This question (see Table 5.1)
was also open, presenting in fact two steps that created a context for a third step,
the question properly speaking, in which the respondent was expected to offer a
definition of life, but now from a negative perspective. By submitting the student to
a situation in which he or she had to tell why something is nonliving, we suspected
that new zones for a conceptual profile might appear. In this case, only item C was
analyzed, being hereafter named 2C.
Question 3 (see Table 5.2) asked the student to choose the best example of life,
among some options offered, allowing the respondent, however, to provide an
example of his or her own, if he or she wished. Moreover, it required a justification
for the choice. The idea was to offer the respondent a chance to manifest yet other
zones of a profile of life or, else, to confirm zones that already appeared in the
other questions.
Question 4 asked the respondent to rate the examples offered in the previous
question in a scale from 5 to 0, from the best (5) to the worst example (0). We did
not use this question, however, in building our conceptual profile for life.

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Table 5.2 Question 3


Question 3. Suppose you have to explain to an ET what we, terrestrians, understand to be life.
Which alternative, among those offered below, would you choose as the best example of life,
in your explanation? Mark only one alternative and then justify your choice.
Obs.: If you have a better example in mind, please add it to the list:
Virus
Fungus
Cell
Protein
Cow
Tree
Human being
Rock
Prions
The biosphere
An ecological community
Computer virus
A DNA molecule
Grass
Justification:

Another tool used in our research was a semi-structured interview based on


task situations as we mentioned above. Our goal was to verify whether or not
zones detected in the questionnaires applied to undergraduate students would be
also present among graduate students and, also, to investigate if the latter might
show a higher degree of awareness about the presence of these different views
about life and the demarcation between them (and, also, their domains of application). The use of task situations was inspired by Scribner (1984) and, also, by
the use of this procedure in a previous work in the conceptual profile research
program (Correa 1997). Task situations are narrative structures with gaps that
compel the interviewee to engage in some cognitive tasks. Usually, the construction of task situations is based on a closer contact with the interviewees
daily practice, resulting from ethnographic work (Scribner 1984). We employed,
however, a different strategy, creating our task situations from controversial
cases concerning the concept of life selected in the historical and epistemological works we surveyed.
All interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed for analysis. The protocol was
composed of five task situations (see Box 5.1). The first concerned Gaia theory,
raising the issue of whether planet Earth can be treated as a living being or not (cf.
Lima-Tavares and El-Hani 2001). The second dealt with the necessity of universal
criteria for defining life and identifying living beings, asking the interviewee to
explain which criteria he would use to recognize extraterrestrial life and then discuss which life concept, if any, might be applied to other life forms besides that we
know here on Earth (which is basically the same form of life in a huge number of
variations, provided that we accept, as usual, a monophyletic origin of all living
beings). The third situation was about Artificial Life, a research program with the
goal (at least in its strong version; see Emmeche 1997) of universalizing biology
by studying life-as-it-could-be through computer simulations, robotics, and even
genetic engineering, instead of life-as-we-know-it, as the biological sciences

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Box 5.1: Task Situations About the Concept of Life


1. The concept of life gives rise to several problems and ambiguities. It is
rather easy to classify many things as living or nonliving beings. For
instance, fishes and ants are living, while flames, crystals, and clouds are
nonliving. But doubt remains about many things. Viruses, for example, are
borderline cases. Gaia theory, according to which the whole chemical and
biological environment at the surface of Earth constitutes a single living
being, challenges common conceptions about life.
(a) What is your opinion about this idea?
2. Another problem appears when we search for extraterrestrial life. If extraterrestrial life exists, it may not depend on information codified in DNA
molecules or even not be based on carbon chemistry. The chemical constitution of extraterrestrial life may be completely different from that of life
on Earth. Therefore, there is no reason to imagine that extraterrestrial life
would be similar to terrestrial life. Thus, to find a definition for life
means that this definition should apply not only to life-as-we-know-it but
also to life-as-it-could-be at any place in the universe. Consequently,
(a) How might we recognize extraterrestrial life, if we ever find it?
(b) Which concept of life might apply not only to life-as-we-know-it but
also to life-as-it-could-be?
3. Artificial life is an interdisciplinary research field that attempts to
understand life by means of computer models. These apparatuses execute
processes characteristic of living systems, such as self-organization,
metabolism, competition, growth, development, reproduction, and adaptive evolution. Many scientists claim that these virtual processes are not
only simulations of living beings; rather, when the programs are executed,
what we see in the computer screen would be legitimate living beings.
(a) Argue for or against this statement, according to your opinion.
4. Many organisms are multicellular, possessing extremely differentiated
cells. Given some concept of life, would it apply only to the organism as a
whole, but not to its composing cells? Could we say that the organism is
living, but its cells are not? How could we solve this problem?
5. Many people believe that life was created or is a gift of God. What is your
opinion about this belief?

typically do (Langton 1989; Boden 1996a, b). For Langton, Artificial Life is a biology of the possible life, treating life as an abstract phenomenon, a set of dynamical
processes organized in a certain manner that can be implemented in a diversity of
material bases, not only in the carbon base typical of life-as-we-know-it. Similarly,

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Ray (1996) claims that life is nothing but a complex process or pattern of matter and
energy, and, thus, it does not really matter which kind of matter or energy is involved
in its realization, but just the pattern, the process, the form. According to him, a
computer can implement living processes so well that the result would be not merely
an imitation or a theoretical image of life; rather, the patterns we see in the computer
screen would be new examples of how living processes can acquire form: they
would be synthetic life (Ray 1996, p. 112). Thus, the third scenario presents a controversial conception about what is living (Bedau 1996, 1998; Emmeche 1997;
Moreno and Fernndez 2000), which is very counterintuitive, particularly for biologists, and is also at odds with commonsensical views about life.
The fourth scenario posed the problem of whether or not life is a classical concept,
in the sense of exhibiting clear, rigid, well-delimited borders, or a diffuse concept.
To address this problem, students were asked to apply the life concept to parts of an
organism that intuitively look alive but do not satisfy some criteria used to understand life when the focus lies on the organism as a whole. In a classical categorization, entities and processes either belong (belonging value = 1) or do not belong
(belonging value = 0) to a given category. That is, if life is conceived as a classical
concept, entities and processes can only be living or nonliving. But if we admit
some kind of nonclassical categorization for life, such as that found in Zadehs
(1965) theory of fuzzy sets, according to which entities and processes can have
belonging values between 0 and 1, the situation is completely different. In these
terms, entities and processes can be distributed over a gradient, in which some
would be more or less living than others, and there would be no necessity of postulating a clear and precise border between the living and the nonliving (for an example of an interpretation of life as a diffuse rather than classical phenomenon, see
Bedau 1996). Finally, the fifth situation stimulated the interviewees to speak about
their religious convictions.
We expected that these situations would motivate the students to reveal ideas
related to zones in their conceptual profiles while arguing about the problems
raised by each of them. This would make it possible to compare graduate and
undergraduate students profiles, analyzing their composition and the awareness
shown by the subjects about the zones constituting their profiles and the demarcation between them.
The task situations were tested with students enrolled in ecology and genetics
bachelor courses of the same university and modified accordingly before being
applied to the graduate students.
The interviews were made in a room in which only the interviewer and the interviewee were present. The students gave informed consent to participate in the
research, and the confidentiality of the data and the interviewees identity were
assured by the researchers. It was also told that our goal was only to talk about the
problems, and not evaluate whether the responses were right or wrong. Care was
exercised to ensure that the responses given by the students were not biased by
the way the questions were posed. The interviews lasted on average 45 min, with the
shorter lasting less than 30 min and the longest, 1 h and half. The task situations
usually played their role quite well, functioning as a trigger for a long dialogue
about each problem at stake.

132

5.5

F.. Coutinho et al.

The Construction of a Conceptual Profile of Life

The analysis of the questionnaires, in a dialogical game with the review of both the
literature on the life concept and higher education biology textbooks, led us initially
to elaborate seven categories, which might correspond to seven zones in a conceptual profile of life. We called them expanded categories.
We had already derived from the historical, philosophical, and educational literature the hypothesis that the subjects might use one of the following strategies to
define life: (1) to list properties that could be distinctive of life; (2) to treat life as
something donated by an external creating agent to living beings; (3) to hypostatize
life, ascribing material existence to it as if it was in itself a substance or entity concretely existing in the world; (4) to idealize it in some more abstract form, deviating
from commonsensical notions; (5) to appeal to some variety of anthropomorphism;
and, finally, (6) to conceive in terms of some machine or mechanism. These previous ideas were used as a starting point to categorize the several answers to the
questionnaires, but we were also open to the appearance of new categories, suggested by the responses themselves, as it can be clearly seen in the resulting zones.
In the analysis of the questionnaires, we gave special attention to the relationship
between categories and specific ways of speaking.
Piaget (1934) established some categories related to living phenomena, on which
we based two of our categories, related to modes of thinking and ways of speaking
we called finalism and artificialism. We classified statements in the category
finalism when they presented a way of speaking that indicated an understanding
of reality as if it was organized in accordance with some plan or design, generally
tending to a state of harmony in nature. The following answer to one of the questions in our tool offers an example: Life is that something in which beings search
for better ways of living together in harmony. Artificialism, in turn, comprised
statements ascribing to a creating agent, generally God, the act of donating or giving
origin to life. We also included in this category any sort of anthropomorphizing, i.e.,
any process of ascribing a human form or characteristics to things or phenomena not
human, related to natural causation (Lukcs 1976). The following statement illustrates both ways of speaking, anthropomorphism (fragment 1) and the donation of
life by an external creating agent (fragment 2):
Life is what we do to ourselves and to other people, is to do good things, to worry about the
others, to have friends, to live is to feel alright about yourself and be happy, is to have a family
and people you can always rely upon (fragment 1). Life is a gift given by God that nobody
has the right to take away. It must be lived in a healthy and respectable way (fragment 2).

The category relational was also inspired by the literature. When discussing
the categories for a conceptual profile of molecule, Mortimer (1997) stressed that
certain chemical properties, such as acidity and basicity, redox behavior, and effects
of solvents on reactions, depend on interactions between molecules and not only
on the structure of isolated molecules. To put it differently, these are relational
chemical properties. Here, we employ the term relational to indicate ways of speaking
in which a definition of life was provided in terms of relationships between entities

5 Building a Profile for the Biological Concept of Life

133

or between an entity and its environment. This typically happened in attempts to


escape from the usual approach to define life, i.e., in terms of lists of necessary and
sufficient properties. An example of a statement classified in this category is found
in the following fragment of a students answer: to interact with the environment
and with other beings.
The category mechanism, in turn, was inspired by the classical (metaphorical)
understanding of living beings as machines. A good example is found in the following fragment: something that possesses some mechanism.
We also expected to find some hypostatizing conception of life, according to
which life would be taken to be an entity or substance in the world responsible for
some kind of action. We named this category agent. Here is an example of a way
of speaking we regarded as characteristic of this category: Life is what makes the
beings possessing it to react.
Another way of defining life that was likely to be found was that of listing properties taken to be necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be alive. After
all, this is a strategy commonly found in the scientific literature, in high school and
higher education biology textbooks, and in students at several levels of schooling.
We called this category essentialism, since it appeals to necessary and sufficient
conditions for life, in conformity with a classical mode of categorization, based on
the idea that living beings have an essence that might be captured in such lists of
distinctive characteristics (Lakoff 1987; Emmeche 1997; Emmeche and El-Hani
2000). While analyzing the questionnaires, we detected two forms of essentialism.
The first refers to macroscopic properties, and we accordingly named it macroessentialism, the second, to microscopic properties, therefore micro-essentialism.
An example of macro-essentialism is found in the following fragment: beings that
are born, grow, reproduce, and die, or have the potential to do so. And here is an
example of micro-essentialism: everything that possesses DNA.
One of the tools used in the analysis of the questionnaires was a set of ways of
speaking that appeared repeatedly in the respondents statements, making it possible to identify in a clear and straightforward way the categories in which they could
be classified. This is consistent with the conceptual profile approach, in which a
basic step is to relate modes of thinking with ways of speaking (Mortimer 2001).
Table 5.3 shows the relationships between categories and ways of speaking
employed in our analysis
We further analyzed the expanded categories and concluded that they could be
reduced to three basic zones the respondents were employing to communicate their
understandings of life. We called them reduced categories.
When the students utilized the categories agent, finalism, and artificialism,
they were making it explicit that they regarded life as something external or in some
sense apart from the living entity, which might be conceived as something that comes
from outside and animate the body or tends to some finality beyond the living being
itself. Thus, these three categories are committed to an externalist ontological
conception, grounded on the idea that something external to the living beings gives
them their life and/or on the notion that to live amounts to an action directed toward
a goal that is external to the organism. This reduced category was named externalism.

F.. Coutinho et al.

134
Table 5.3 Expanded categories and the related ways of speaking
Category
Agent
Artificialism
Macro-essentialism
Micro-essentialism
Finalism
Mechanism
Relational

Ways of speaking
Use of expressions containing tends to, does, transforms, allows, produces
Reference to gift, donation, God, allusions to human life and moods
Macroscopic properties of living beings (birth, reproduction, movement,
growth, nutrition, etc.)
Microscopic properties and components of living beings (metabolism,
cellularity, DNA, RNA, proteins, etc.)
Harmony, teleological expressions (purpose, finality)
Reference to mechanisms and machines. Explanation in terms of
articulated components as in a machine
Reference to interactions and relations between entities and between an
entity and its environment

Table 5.4 Relationship between expanded and reduced categories


Expanded categories
Agent
Finalism
Artificialism
Macro-essentialism
Micro-essentialism
Mechanism
Relational

Conception
Life is conceived as something
exterior or that tends to the
exterior of the living system

Reduced categories
Externalism

Life is conceived as processes,


properties, or entities inherent
in the living system

Internalism

Life is conceived as a relationship


between entities and/or the
definition is given in terms of
relationships between concepts

Relational

Macro- and micro-essentialism, and also mechanism, can be combined in a


reduced category, based on the interpretation that in these cases, the respondents are
addressing life in terms of processes, properties, or entities that are inherent in the
living system. Accordingly, we called this reduced category internalism, since the
answers included in it expressed the idea that the necessary and sufficient conditions
for life were internal to the living being.
The analysis of the answers categorized as relational showed that in all cases
life was conceived as a relationship between entities and/or systems. Thus, the
expanded category relational was simply kept among the reduced categories.
Table 5.4 shows the correspondence between expanded and reduced categories in
our analysis. The reduced categories amount to the zones built in the conceptual
profile of life presented in this chapter.
Next, aiming to illustrate the use of the conceptual profile model of life, we will
present an analysis of the interviews used to access the way individuals become
aware of their own conceptual profile.

135

5 Building a Profile for the Biological Concept of Life

5.6

Graduate Students Becoming Aware of Their Profile:


Results of Interviews

As we said above, the interviews were carried out with the objective of measuring
the growing awareness of the conceptual profile by the subjects, after finishing a
higher education course in biological sciences. We interviewed eight students from
the Graduate Programs in Ecology, Conservation and Wildlife Management and in
Genetics of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, with four students from each
program. Within the limits set for this work, and for the reasons we will explain
below, we will focus on the analysis of the interviews with two students (the results
of all the interviews are presented and discussed in Coutinho 2005).
It can be seen that we did not expect the interviewees to also answer the
questionnaire; however, two interviewees did so, which was very fortunate. Another
aspect that contributed to the analysis we present here is that one of them was a
Masters student in ecology and the other in genetics. Having noted this fact, we
adopted the following strategy. In the first place, since we already had the profile
of these subjects, we deepened the analysis of the transcript of their answers to
evaluate the maintenance of the profile zones and the growing awareness of their
conceptual profiles.
In Fig. 5.1, the profiles of these students are presented. The genetics Masters
student is presented in the figure as A2, and the ecology Masters student as A4.
We can see that A2 has only the internalist zone, with an extension of the profile
zone (EZP) equal to 5, while A4 has an internalist zone with an EZP equal to 4,
and externalist zone with an EZP equal to 1. Neither student had a relational zone.
With regard to A2, the presence of the internalist zone, revealed by the questionnaire, was also shown in the interview, as can be seen in section 1, extracted during
the talk about question 1. In this passage, the student uses the micro-essentialism

6
Internalism

Externalism

EZP

Fig. 5.1 Profile of


two graduate students
interviewed, who had also
answered the questionnaire
(A2 = student 2 and
A4 = student 4). EZP:
extension of the profile zone

3
2
1
0

A2

A4

136

F.. Coutinho et al.

category, which belongs to the internalist zone. In passage 2 of the conversation, the
student uses the category of macro-essentialism, as can be seen in fragment 1.
Passage 1 Researcher: For you, is the minimum unit of life the cell?
A2
A2: For me, it is the DNA, right? [laughter] Yea, what about the RNA? I even joke
with S He is from the RNA world, he and R But then why not consider
viruses that only have genetic material?
Passage 2 Researcher: Lets suppose you were put on a spaceship and they sent you out to look
for life out there. In each planet you arrived at, what type of system or what type
of activity would you look for?
A2
A2: Well, we associate it a lot to movement, maybe to growth (fragment 1),
interaction, interdependence. None One minute, let me think before I speak
nonsense. But no organism that we consider as living is complete and totally
independent from anything. In fact, not even the non-living organisms, right?
Like a flame, right? That needs oxygen to feed it I dont know! I think maybe
it would be interaction, interdependence, that is something like even
bact What is it called? Who needs food? Auto auto?
Researcher: Autotrophic?
A2: Even the autotrophic that are completely independent from the environment,
they dont have that complete feedback system. I would really look for energetic
exchange and other things. Which is very difficult to look for, right? To see. Oh!
I can see it! [laughter]

However, this passage 2 shows us something else or gives us a glimpse of


something else. In the sequence, the student uses the term interaction and begins
to define life from a relational zone, defining life basically as interaction. Before
getting to this point of the conversation in the previous passage, at the beginning of
the discussion about task situation 2, the student had become aware of his conceptual profile and that this could not account for the complexity of defining life. This
becoming aware can be discerned in passage 3 below and, apparently, while the
student followed the interview, he sought a new way of defining life, since he finishes passage 2 with the phrase: Oh! I can see it! [laughter].
Passage 3
(A2)

A2: What is that then? Goodness! Can I compartmentalize? Goodness! The first part
there you punched a hole in my concept of life, because the concept we have of
life is completely our vision and, as I see it, very anthropocentric.

As we saw, this student had not shown the relational zone when answering the
questionnaire. However, as soon as he became aware of this zone, he began to use it
constantly. This fact then converged to passage 4 of our conversation. In fragment 1
of this passage, he explicitly defines life in terms of relation. Next, however, the fact
that he is still becoming aware of this zone and its form of utilization is very clear,
as can be seen in the speech: I think my ideas are very contradictory, Chico.
Passage 4 Researcher: You already used the word relation.
A2: About twenty thousand times, right?
Researcher: Because
A2: [laughter] You go see my psychologist and ask her. [laughter] Yes. But I think my
life concept is well, that which I said it is interaction (frag. 1). I think my
ideas are quite contradictory, Chico. But I think I have never lost much time
Not lost, no! I never gained much time in going crazy like this. My God! (frag. 2)

5 Building a Profile for the Biological Concept of Life

137

Another aspect to be pointed out about student 2 is that when he answered the
questionnaire only using the internalist zone category, he apparently did not present
a profile of the concept of life. However, the interview brought out other zones,
which leads us to examine the idea that the 44 students who showed only one zone
of the profile in our study could in fact have shown the other zones for the life concept or even different zones from those found. But the tool used did not highlight
them. This shows that the profiles presented are strongly linked to the contexts created by the questions. Since in an interview there is more time for reflection and
there is feedback by the interviewer, this context favors an increased conceptual
dispersion, which is favorable in investigating conceptual profiles.
With regard to A4, the questionnaire had shown a profile with predominance of
the internalist, a slight presence of the externalist, and an absence of the relational
zone. In the interview, the internalist zone manifests itself again, since the student
basically defined life as metabolism. However, later in the interview, talking about
question 2, the relational zone was made explicit, as can be seen in the statement: all
that is life interacts with what is next to it, it can be the environment or another living
being, in passage 1. The student, however, turned back to the internalist zone, when
defining life in terms of a cell (passage 2), while we talked about question 3 and
discussed if the simulations produced by artificial life are or are not forms of life.
Once again, in discussing question 4, this same zone was accessed (passage 3).
Passage 1
(A4)

Researcher: Thats right. I would like you to give me a definition of life that was
universal and how to recognize life.
A4: Hum, hum [long silent pause] I have the principle, Chico, I dont know if it is
because of my more ecological training, that everything that is life interacts
with that which is around it. That can be the environment or another living
being. Therefore, I think that anything, in inverted commas, in which I could
identify any type of interaction, maybe I could classify as life.

Passage 2
(A4)

A4: But, to begin with, a living being is a set of cells that have a given function.
Therefore, beginning with this presupposition, I would exclude because
I dont think a computer has biological cells. For me it would not be life ()
So I come back to the great issue that, as an earthling, living beings necessarily
have to metabolize organic compounds and these these creatures there do not
have organic compounds, they dont metabolize and, for me, they are not alive.

Passage 3 (A4) A4. I believe, understand, that the cell is the basic life unit. It is the minimal life unit.

In the questionnaire, this student had shown the externalist zone. This zone appeared
strongly in the interview. When we discussed question 5, the student said he was
totally creationist. The categories that make up this zone, that is, agent, finalism, and
artificialism, can be seen, respectively, in passages 4, 5, and 6, which are in italics.
Passage 4
(A4)

Researcher: Ok, but Im not questioning this. He is the only one. But then the
Creator allowed his creature to one day create life.
A4. But thats where I disagree. I believe he is The Creator. No one can create life,
except Him.

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F.. Coutinho et al.

Passage 5
(A4)

A4: So, I believe God created all the mechanisms that make the universe function
in the way it functions, including the mechanisms which allow the species to
change, things to happen. Sometimes I am called an evolutionist, and I
believe in evolution, but, in spite of that, I believe evolution happens because
some greater creator intervened once in history and made it happen. The
driver of this whole wheel, in truth, is someone who stepped in and gave
poured out the kerosene and set it alight, otherwise it would not turn. I think.

Passage 6 (A4) A4: () it is a sentimental and spiritual issue that artificial life cant have and
biological life has.
Researcher: Does all biological life have this feeling?
A4: I believe so

So, what we can see is that this student maintained the internalist zone. The
interview also revealed his externalist zone. The work with the interview also made
possible the manifestation of a relational zone that had not appeared in the questionnaire. It cannot be seen that this student, at least explicitly, becomes aware of
his conceptual profile.

5.7

Final Remarks

In this work, we propose zones for a conception of life profile in a dialogic game
with results obtained in historical and epistemological studies about the concept of
life, in the literature on alternative conceptions of life and in the analysis of higher
education teaching books. We used this profile as an instrument to analyze the forms
of speech about the concept of life of the undergraduate students of biological sciences and graduate students in ecology and genetics. In the case of the latter, we use
interviews based on task situations to investigate the growing awareness about their
conceptual profiles.
The conceptual profile of life we built has three zones: (1) externalist, which
includes the idea that something external donates life to living beings or that living
constitutes an action directed at a purpose which is external to the living; (2) internalist, where life is understood as a process related to the organization of matter or
the components of matter; and (3) relational, in which life is understood as a relation
of entities and/or systems in which the definition of life is drawn up in terms of relations. These zones define heterogeneous discourses about life, that is, different ways
of speaking about this phenomenon, which are based on different ontological and
epistemological assumptions.
The idea of conceptual profile has been used as an instrument to analyze the structuring of ideas about concepts in the spheres of physics and chemistry. Our proposal
contributed to widen the uses of the idea of conceptual profile, using it as an instrument to analyze the heterogeneity of meanings of the concept of life in biology.

5 Building a Profile for the Biological Concept of Life

139

Finally, the idea of a conceptual profile indicates there isnt a single rule for teaching
and learning of a given scientific field, since a range of strategies appropriate to each
profile zone can be established for each concept, once the profiles it covers are identified.
In summary, if a concept is heterogeneous in its meaning, its teaching and learning
process should be correspondingly heterogeneous.

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(65)90241-X.

Chapter 6

Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual


Profiles of Life Among University
Students of Biology and Pharmacy:
The Use of Statistical Tools to Analyze
Questionnaire Answers
Fbio Augusto Rodrigues e Silva, Eduardo F. Mortimer,
and Francisco ngelo Coutinho

6.1

Introduction

This chapter reports the results of a research on the biological concept of life
addressed from the point of view of the conceptual profile theory (Mortimer 2000).
The investigation dealt with the evolution of life concept profiles along undergraduate courses of Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences of a Brazilian Federal
University, namely, Federal University of Minas Gerais.
To carry out this investigation, the three modes of thinking or zones that constitute the conceptual profile of life, as proposed by Coutinho (2005, see also Chapter
5 of this volume and Coutinho et al. 2007a, b), were considered: the externalist
zone, which concerns an understanding of life as an attribute provided by something
external to the material organization of a system. In this case, life can be seen as a
gift from God or as a purposeful process or a process tending toward some state of
harmony. The internalist zone is characterized by an understanding of life as being
associated with internal processes or properties of living beings. These internal
characteristics are considered as necessary and sufficient conditions for life.
Coutinho highlights that these characteristics may refer to macroscopic, such as

F.A.R. e Silva (*)


Department of Biodiversity, Evolution and Environment, Federal University
of Ouro Preto, Campus Universitrio Morro do Cruzeiro,
35.400-000, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: fabogusto@gmail.com
E.F. Mortimer
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Av. Antnio
Carlos 6627,30.270-901 Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
F.. Coutinho
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais,
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_6, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

143

144

F.A.R. e Silva et al.

being born, growing, and reproducing, or microscopic properties of living beings


such as having cells, genes, and DNA. Finally, the relational zone considers life as
a relationship between entities or defines it in terms of a relation between
concepts.
Another goal of the research reported here, besides the study of the evolution of
the profiles in different courses, was to develop a new methodology to study conceptual profiles through questionnaires. This methodology includes the use of statistical methods for obtaining profiles and permitting the study of how they evolve
with increasing schooling and the analysis of the potential accessibility of different
zones of the life concept profile through each item of the questionnaire.
In a previous research, with the same undergraduate biological course, Coutinho
(2005) suggested that a tendency of using the internalist mode of thinking about life
grew throughout the semesters of the Biology course of the Federal University of
Minas Gerais. However, he considered that this conclusion might be seen with caution due to limitations of the methodology employed in that study. For example, the
questionnaire used for the investigation was made up of only four open questions
and, thus, was limited with regard to the possibility of accessing all the modes of
thinking about life used by the informants. Moreover, the conclusion could not be
generalized beyond the students investigated. The lack of statistical procedures in
the construction and analysis of the data can be regarded as yet another limitation,
since it weakens possible comparisons and considerations derived from the study.
Given these limitations, a new investigation which is discussed in this chapter
was carried out with the objective of refining the methodology of studying conceptual profiles with the use of questionnaires. The methodological procedure involved
the construction of a new questionnaire, the diversification of the sample of informants, and the use of statistical treatment in order to obtain and study the profiles
found along the undergraduate courses where the study was performed. Moreover,
a key point was the analysis of the potential of each item of the questionnaire of
accessing different zones of the conceptual profile of life.

6.2

Methodology

The investigation discussed here employed a questionnaire with ten open questions
concerning the concept of life (Table 6.1). These questions sought to create different
situations so that the informants could access the largest possible number of zones
or modes of thinking composing their conceptual profile of life. Since ten questions
were divided into subitems, the subjects of the survey were asked to provide 19
answers. For the purpose of the analysis, each subitem was considered as an independent question. Since question 5a was discarded because most of the informants
answered it with just yes or no, 18 answers were used to construct and analyze
the data.
This questionnaire was answered by 237 students from different semesters of
the Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences courses, producing a sample of

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

145

Table 6.1 The questionnaire used in the study


1. For you, what is life?
2. Imagine the following situation: you are asked to give your opinion about a being in order to
identify it as a living or an inanimate being. How do you solve this question?
3. In a class, a student asked the teacher: Organisms are made up of substances containing the
same chemical elements present in many inanimate objects. Why, therefore, do organisms
have life and objects not? How would you answer this question?
4. Among many scientists working in the field of artificial life, there is a conviction that
some computer programs can be considered living beings. That is, what can be seen on
the screen of the computer is not only the simulation of living beings but legitimate
living beings.
(a) In your opinion, what are the bases used by these scientists to defend this argument?
(b) In your opinion, can the processes that occur on the screen of the computer be considered as living beings? Explain.
(c) Computer viruses and invasive programs have some characteristics which are similar to
those of living beings. Could they be considered living beings?
5. Nowadays, efforts are made to find evidence of life in other planets. These efforts are
concentrated in a branch of research called Exobiology.
(a) For you, is there extraterrestrial life? Explain your answer.
(b) Considering that there really is extraterrestrial life, what criteria should be used to decide
if they are living beings or not?
6. Viruses are very simple beings made up of a protein capsule which contains a DNA or RNA
molecule. A lot of research is done on viruses and a question remains: Are they or are they
not living beings? In your opinion, can viruses be considered living beings or not? Explain
your answer.
7. There are some scientific hypotheses about the origins of life on Earth. Scientists try to
reconstruct this story through laboratory experiments that attempt to recreate conditions
found on our planet a long time ago.
(a) Considering what you know about the origins of life on our planet, the appearance of life
would coincide with the appearance of:
( ) The first organic molecules
( ) The first cells
( ) The first metabolic systems
( ) The first systems of replication of organic molecules
Explain your choice.
(b) When scientists are carrying out experiments in a laboratory, trying to recreate primitive
conditions on Earth and the first forms of life, such as a coacervate, for example, are they
creating living beings? Explain.
8. There is a hypothesis defended by some researchers that all the chemical and biological
environment of the surface of the Earth makes up a single living being. This hypothesis is
called Gaia. In your opinion, could planet Earth, as a whole, be considered as a single living
being? Explain your answer.
9. Many organisms are multicellular, with extremely differentiated cells.
(a) Could we say that an organism is alive but its cells are not? Explain.
(b) When a multicellular organism dies, some cells continue to be active. Are these cells,
which carry out metabolic activities and have genetic material, living beings? Explain.
10. Biology has shown curious and problematic cases which demand that researches evaluate if
certain entities are living beings or not. Observe and reflect on the examples below and
evaluate if the entities presented are living beings or not. Explain your answer.
(continued)

F.A.R. e Silva et al.

146
Table 6.1 (continued)

(a) The red blood cell of mammals is a curious case. During its development, it loses its
nucleus, being composed only by the plasma membrane and the cytoplasm. It is capable
of metabolism but unable to replicate.
(b) Prions are protein molecules that induce similar proteins to adopt their own configuration. In this way, new prion molecules are formed.
(c) A mule is a hybrid resulting from the reproduction of different species horse and donkey and
they are unable to reproduce.
(d) Viroids are only segments of RNA capable of infecting a living being.
(e) A stem cell, capable of becoming different kinds of cells, can be taken from an embryo.

Table 6.2 Number of students per course


Biological Sciences
1st semester
2nd semester
3rd semester
4th semester
5th semester

Number of students
35
14
42
18
23

Total

132

Pharmaceutical Sciences
1st semester
2nd semester
3rd semester
4th semester
5th semester A
5th semester B
Total

Number of students
20
0
25
30
15
15
105

individuals with different levels of schooling and from different courses


(Table 6.2). The students from the Biological Sciences course included 132 individuals from the first to the fifth semester, and they answered the questionnaire in
the first semester of 2005. These students were doing the core curriculum, a fivesemester stage common to the teacher education in Biology and the various
Bachelors emphasis. At the end of this phase, the student decides which emphasis they intend to follow. The students from the Pharmaceutical Sciences course
comprised a sample of 105 individuals from the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th semesters.
In the Pharmaceutical Sciences Course, there were two groups in the 5th semester.
All the informants answered the questionnaire in the second semester of 2005.
The students from the 2nd semester did not respond to the questionnaire because
the professors responsible for the courses did not answer the contacts made by the
researcher.
The students answered the questionnaire in the presence of the researcher and
were told to do the task individually and without any kind of consultation. They
spent between 50 and 90 min to answer all the questions.
The filled-out questionnaires were read and categorized. The analysis of answers
given to the 18 questions was carried out considering that, when answering a question,
the interviewee might or might not access different zones (externalist, internalist, relational) that make up their conceptual profile of life. Therefore, in each question, when
the student used in their answers modes of expression characteristic of a conceptual
zone of the profile, a value (1) was attributed to this zone, and when she/he did not use

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

147

it, it was given a value (0). Even when the student used more than one form of expression
related to the same zone of the profile, it was attributed value (1).1
For example, in question 4a, which asks what arguments scientists would use to
support that certain computer programs can be considered living beings, an interviewee stated: Capacity to make decisions and reproduce itself. In this answer,
the interviewee used expressions characteristic of the externalist zone (bold) and
internalist zone (underlined). In the recording of the data, these zones of the profile
received value (1). As the student did not use expressions characteristic of the relational zone, it received score (0).
Through the use of this categorization procedure, data from the 237 questionnaires were consolidated and loaded in a program built on the assumptions of Item
Response Theory (IRT). According to Martins (2006), when estimating skills or
proficiencies, interest should be directed to the latent variables responsible for all
the relations between the manifest variables. The latent variables, such as the intensity of expression of a zone of the profile, cannot be measured directly, requiring
mathematical models that provide an interval scale that permits the estimation of an
investigated skill. This interval scale can be produced using software developed for
analyses using IRT and assume values from to +.
IRT offers conclusions from the items making up the test, considering parameters such as the difficulty of the item, its capacity to discriminate, and the probability of getting a right answer by chance (Valle 2000). Therefore, with the use of the
IRT statistical procedure, the intention is to obtain more efficient methods to estimate access of subjects to the conceptual zones of the profile and the potential of
each question for accessing these zones.
However, the mathematical models used by IRT are extremely complex and
require specific computer programs in order to be used. Therefore, we processed the
data from the questionnaire responses by using the GGUM 2004 software, created
and described by Roberts (2004) and Roberts and Cui (2004). By means of this
software, scores were produced for both the individuals and the questions.
GGUM 2004 is a software based on the IRT unfolding models. These are
models of proximity, where higher scores of items are more probable (indicating
stronger levels of agreement) when the distance between an individual and an item
in an underlying latent continuum reduces (Bortolotti 2003).
For this research on conceptual profiles, the individuals were placed on a continuum according to the intensity of expression of a given zone of the profile and the
items, according to the potential to establish contexts to express the different zones
of the profile.
The individual scores produced through GGUM 2004 for the questionnaire were
named expression intensity scores of a zone of the profile and were represented by
theta (). The data of each one of the three zones of the profile were calculated separately, with the formation of three interval scales with values ranging from 3 to +3.

For a discussion of the characteristic forms of expression of the zones constituting the model of
conceptual profile of life used in this work, see Coutinho (2005), and Chap. 5 in this volume.

148

F.A.R. e Silva et al.

The 3 score indicates an absence of expression of a given zone of the profile in the
questionnaire and +3, the maximum provided by this questionnaire.
These expression intensity scores () were used in the analysis of individual
profiles, in the construction of groups of profiles and in the monitoring of the
evolution of these groups in the Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences courses
during the semesters. The construction of profile groups was done through cluster
analysis. This procedure made it possible to obtain patterns or groups of profiles
according to the similarities of gross scores or of expression intensity of the zones
of the profile for each individual. The frequency of these groups was monitored to
verify if there was some characteristic pattern of evolution of the profiles of the
Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences students during the semesters, as well as
to compare these patterns of evolution between the courses.
Besides the individual values of , another important parameter of GGUM 2004
is delta (i), which measures the characteristics of the item. Each item of the questionnaire received independent values of for each zone of the profile externalist,
internalist, and relational. The values when put in relation to the values made it
possible to distinguish the questions with regard to their potential of accessing different zones of the profile. For this survey, the closer to zero was the difference
between {j i},2 the greater the probability of an individual expressing a given
zone of the profile. Analyzing the i values, it was possible to make inferences about
the potential of each question to access the zones of the profile.
The next section will introduce and discuss the results obtained in this study.
Initially, we will analyze the characteristics of the items of the questionnaire, seeking to show how far the questions made it possible to evoke the zones of the conceptual profile of life. Later, we will present a study of individual profiles, with the
groups of profiles created, and, through a cross-sectional study, we will discuss the
characteristic pattern of evolution of the profiles of the Biological and Pharmaceutical
Sciences students throughout the semesters and compare these patterns between the
courses.

6.3
6.3.1

Results and Discussion


The Questions and the Subjects: Building Contexts
for the Expression of the Zones of the Conceptual
Profile of Life

The study of the characteristics of the 18 items that make up the questionnaire had
the objective of evaluating the potential of the questions to stimulate the manifestation of the zones of the profile. The intention was to understand how different

j is the parameter of location of an individual j and i is the parameter of location of an item i.

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

149

1
.9
.8
.7
Probability of
expression of a
zone of the
profile

.6
.5
.4
.3
.2
.1
0

0
Theta

Fig. 6.1 Example of a characteristic curve of an item

contexts3 were established for accessing the modes of thinking about life represented
by the different zones of the profile in relation to the students investigated for each
one of the questions. It is assumed that the context has been built by means of the
interaction of the individual with each question and that the themes and structure of
the questions were identified as important factors for the individuals to access the
different zones of their profile throughout the questionnaire.
As mentioned in the section presenting the methodology, the information about
the quality of the questions was obtained with the assistance of parameters theta ()
and delta () produced by the GGUM 2004 program. The values are the individual
scores of the informants, representing the expression intensity of a zone of the profile. The values measure the characteristics of the questions. The relation between
these two parameters informs how each one of the questions encourages access to
the zones of the profile, because the probability of expression of a given profile zone
in a question will be greater the closer to zero is the difference {j i}.
Figure 6.1 helps in understanding this relation. This figure presents a characteristic curve of an item produced by GGUM 2004, according to the parameters of the
item (Roberts 2004). The curve represents the probability of accessing a profile
zone on that item given some , or scores of expression intensity of a zone of the
profile.
According to Fig. 6.1, for an item used as an example, which showed equals to
3.496, an individual with close to 2.9 has a probability of approximately 50 % of
expressing this zone of the profile, while another subject with close to 1.000 would
3

Through studying the questions, it was possible to incorporate into the theory of conceptual profiles an explicit discussion of the concept of context. As used in this analysis, the concept of context
comes close to Erickson and Schultzs (1997) idea, when they discuss that the context is not
defined a priori by a physical or interpersonal situation, but is made up by what people do and by
when and where they do it.

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F.A.R. e Silva et al.

have a probability of about 15 %. In another example, which showed equals to


1.965, an individual with close to 2.9 has a probability of approximately 99 % of
expressing this zone of the profile.
In the research reported here, when the questions are compared, a high i value
of a question for a given zone of the profile indicates that this question is not a good
context to manifest this zone. After all, in order to attain a difference close to zero,
which would show a greater probability of the manifestation of the zone of the profile, it would be necessary for the interviewee to have high scores of expression
intensity () for that zone. In turn, the questions that create more appropriate contexts to express a zone of the profile present lower values of i when compared to
other questions.
The values of i for the externalist zone vary from 0.346 to 3.791; the values for
the internalist zone lie between 0.426 and 5.41, while for the relational zone, i
oscillates between 3.068 and 6.305. In an initial analysis of the questionnaires, it
was found that the modes of expression characteristic of an internalist zone were
more used by the subjects in this research. This zone of the profile is characterized
by covering modes of thinking about life associated with processes or properties
that are internal to living beings, either macroscopic or microscopic. It is an essentialist categorization, establishing necessary and sufficient conditions to attribute
the condition of living being to an entity.
One of the explanations for the greater expression of this zone of the profile
among the informants may be related to the fact that this understanding of life is
very present in the discourses of school science and academic science (Emmeche
and El-Hani 2000; Coutinho 2005). Therefore, the internalization of this zone of the
profile may have been privileged in the teaching and learning processes of the subjects involved, who were students of Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences
courses.
However, because the items are open, they make it possible that some informants
express other zones of the profile. In this study, we seek to identify and highlight
which elements and/or subjects most contributed to the differentiated expression of
the zones of the profile. In order to do so, we select, for each of the three zones, five
items of the questionnaires which have the smaller value of . This choice aims at
analyzing the elements that favor the expression of each zone. The value of i for
each of the zones will be different, and some of them the ones related to the relational zone will be greater when compared with the other two zones. They are,
nevertheless, the smaller five values in each zone.
The values of i for the internalist zone are shown in Table 6.3.
Even with regard to the internalist zone, comparing the items of the questionnaire, it is possible to highlight some questions that showed contexts more favorable
for their expression: questions 7a, 1, 2, 5b, and 6. Questions 1, 2, and 5b demand
from the interviewee a definition of life in positive terms. In this type of context, the
great majority of the students must have felt that it would be adequate to use knowledge from school science, typical of the internalist zone. In turn, question 6 is a
favorable context to access the internalist zone because of the theme of this item
the viruses. These entities are constant themes in discussions in the classroom and

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

151

Table 6.3 Values of of the internalist zone of the conceptual profile of life for the 18 questions
No.
1
2
3
4a
4b
4c

0.426
2.619
2.995
4.129
4.302
4.359

No.
5b
6
7a
7b
8
9a

2.615
1.964
2.303
4.481
5.417
3.156

No.
9b
10a
10b
10c
10d
10e

3.681
3.544
4.038
3.379
4.017
3.399

Table 6.4 Values of of the externalist zone of the conceptual profile of life for the 18 questions
No.
1
2
3
4a
4b
4c

0.824
3.280
1.864
0.346
1.824
2.129

No.
5b
6
7a
7b
8
9a

3.085
3.159
3.426
2.663
2.021
2.810

No.
9b
10a
10b
10c
10d
10e

3.031
3.348
3.495
3.351
3.791
3.684

textbooks on the status of living beings. In these discussions, internalist conceptions


are often regarded as invaluable in establishing viruses as living beings. Finally,
with regard to item 7a, the structure of the question must have been the main factor
leading to the creation of a context adequate for the expression of the internalist
zone. This semi-open question had as its theme the origins of life and asked,
Considering what you know about the origins of life on our planet, the appearance
of life would coincide with the appearance of, and then presented four alternatives
for the interviewee to choose and justify or explain the option chosen. Among the
alternatives offered, there are entities identified with modes of expression typical of
the internalist zone: organic molecules, cells, metabolic systems, and replication
systems. The presence of these entities probably limited the chances of appearing
responses closer to the externalist or relational.
With regard to the externalist zone (Table 6.4), the five questions or items with
the lowest values of and, therefore, identified as contexts most favoring its manifestation were 4a, 4b, 1, 3, and 8. Questions 1 and 3 are similar because they asked
the informants to express their criteria to identify living beings. These items must
have been good contexts to express common sense modes of expression, typical of
the externalist zone, because the use of criteria based on their perception and daily
experience may be useful in defining life (question 1) and for the distinction between
what they consider to be a living being or an inanimate object (question 3).
With regard to questions 4a, 4b, and 8, they are characterized by dealing with
themes which often are a novelty for undergraduate students. Questions 4a and 4b
cover considerations on artificial life and question 8, on the Gaia theory. These
themes present counterintuitive ideas, provoking in some students the use of teleological or anthropomorphic thinking, typical of the externalist zone.

F.A.R. e Silva et al.

152

Table 6.5 Value of in the relational zone of the conceptual profile of life for the 18 questions
No.
1
2
3
4a
4b
4c

4.052
4.092
4.830
5.107
5.528
5.300

No.
5b
6
7a
7b
8
9a

4.373
5.104
5.702
6.305
3.068
4.026

No.
9b
10a
10b
10c
10d
10e

3.660
4.780
5.374
4.980
4.827
4.874

In the items quoted above, it seems that some subjects, when unable to employ
internalist ideas, adopted strategies of maximum gain and minimum cost (Piaget
1976) in order to accommodate the disturbance and solve the problems, changing as
little as possible their original mode of thinking. In items 4a, 4b, and 8, some subjects seemed to have managed this accommodation more easily by returning to
more intuitive and familiar notions, which characterize common sense conceptions
in the externalist zone. This return to prescientific thinking in limit situations had
already been found in other studies about alternative conceptions, as, for example,
in Galili and Bar (1992).
With regard to the relational zone, most of the questions have high values
(Table 6.5), which may highlight the lack of consistency among the students when
dealing with the modes of thinking characteristic of this zone, or, alternatively, the
fact that the questions do not contain attributes or elements that stimulate their manifestation. Only question 8, which has Gaia theory as the theme, recorded a very low
: 3.068. Therefore, compared to the other questions, question 8 was identified as
a context which more easily favored the expression of the relational zone. This low
value seems to be related to the requirement that the informant thought about possible arguments that could justify considering planet Earth as a living being. The
informants may have been stimulated to reflect about the importance of the relations
of living beings with each other and with the environment.
The other four questions that had lower values for the relational zone were 9b,
9a, 1, and 2. Questions 1 and 2 asked for a definition of life in positive terms. They
are questions that can provide answers including modes of expression that highlight
the interactions between living beings. Items 9a and 9b are about multicellularity,
addressing the issue of the dichotomy organism-cell. The items raise the issue of the
existence or nonexistence of rigid or well-defined borders for the definition of life.
In this kind of context, the existence of life may have been highlighted in the relations between entities at different levels, and, consequently, there may have been
stimulus to the manifestation of modes of expression associated with a relational
understanding of life.
It is important to highlight that besides questions 8, 9a, and 9b, items 4a, 4b,
and 4c, which deal with artificial life, also appeared as good contexts for the
expression of the relational zone. These six items have in common the fact that
they refer to controversial or counterintuitive issues. As already mentioned, in
some cases, these issues raised the expression of teleological and anthropomorphic

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

153

components of the externalist zone, closer to common sense views. This happens
because these types of item have a great potential to make it explicit the limitations of the internalist discourse. In these cases, the expression of the relational
zone may not be identified with an appeal to a more familiar notion, closer to the
experiences of common sense, but rather to an alternative conceptual scheme that
is more sophisticated from a scientific point of view. This alternative scheme may
result in a more productive compensation of the disturbance in these conflictive
situations (Rowell 1989).
The greatest expression of the relational zone in questions addressing issues
such as artificial life, the origins of life, the Gaia theory, and multicellularity
seems to indicate that these themes have a good potential to encourage more consistent discussions about the concept of life. If incorporated into Biology teaching
and learning, these themes could make it possible that students enter into contact
with different definitions of life present in the current biological research
programs, favoring a more integrated construction of biological knowledge
(Coutinho 2005).

6.3.2

The Construction and Evolution of Groups of Profiles


in the Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences Courses

In this section, we discuss the most frequent types of conceptual profiles found
among the students in the courses of Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences. We
also present an analysis of how these profiles evolve throughout the semesters and
compare their evolution in the two courses investigated. We performed, thus, a
cross-sectional study, comparing the different groups of profiles found in each
semester. This choice is justified by the difficulties of carrying out a longitudinal
study, which, besides requiring a greater time, entails the problem that the subjects
of the research could be influenced by the very research tools, which could interfere
in the learning processes of the concept under study.
The study of the most frequent profiles throughout the semesters was carried out
using cluster analysis. According to Mingoti (2005, p. 155), the analysis of clusters
has the objective of dividing the elements of the sample or population in groups
so that the elements belonging to a same group are similar amongst themselves for
the variables (characteristics) that are measured in them, and the elements in different groups are heterogeneous for these same characteristics.
Through this statistical method, the Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences students were divided into eight groups identified with letters A to H. These groups
were proposed due to the similarities and differences in the expression of the three
zones of the conceptual profile of life. This choice to work with groups of profiles
takes into account the notion that a profile is defined in relation to the individual. In
fact, the groups of profiles are groups of individuals which have similar levels of
expression of zones of the conceptual profile.

154

F.A.R. e Silva et al.

Table 6.6 Groups of profiles and expression of the zones of the profile

Groups
A

Number
of expressed
zones
1

Characteristics
related to the intensity
of expression
Expressed only the
internalist zone
Expressed the internalist
and externalist zones
Expressed the internalist
and relational zones
Showed positive values for
the externalist and
internalist zones and
high values for the
relational zone
Showed higher values
of expression intensity
for the externalist zone
Showed the highest values
for the relational zone
Showed the highest values
for the internalist zone
Showed low values for all
three zones of the profile

Number
of Biological
Sciences
students
5

Number of
Pharmaceutical
Sciences students
4

23

23

23

12

13

12

42

24

13

20

Besides the results of the cluster analysis, the choice of these eight groups4 was
based on the decision to choose as many groups as necessary to express the diversity
of expression levels of the zones of the profile. The eight groups made it possible to
distinguish the individual profiles with regard to both the expression intensity of the
zones and the number of zones accessed. Therefore, a profile group was obtained in
which the individuals manifest only one zone, group A. Groups B and C contain
subjects of the survey who access two zones of the profile, and groups D, E, F, G,
and H have students who express the three zones of the profile. These groups are
presented and described by Table 6.6 and Fig. 6.2.
Initially, we should stress the total distribution of students according to the number of zones of the conceptual profile of life accessed when answering the questionnaire. Of the 237 students of the Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences courses
who answered the questions, those that expressed only one zone of the profile were
only 9, that is, 3.8 % of the total. The number of students manifesting two zones was
81, that is, 34.18 %, while 147 students showed three zones, a total of 62.02 % of
the sample. The results of this research are different from those found by Coutinho
(2005), who observed that, of the 120 subjects of his sample, 45 (37.5 %) expressed

According to the ANOVA test, these groups have significant differences with regard to the average
of levels or intensity of expression for the three zones of the profile.

155

1.5
1
0.5
0
-0.5
Externalism

-1
Internalism

Group H

Group G

Group F

Group E

Group D

Group C

Group B

-1.5
Group A

Fig. 6.2 Representation


of groups of profiles
generated with the scores
of intensity of expression

Expression intensity of the zones of the


profile

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

one zone of the profile, 61 (50.8 %) expressed two zones, and 14 (11. 7 %) expressed
three zones.
These different results may be related to the types of questionnaires used in the
two surveys. Coutinho (2005) used a questionnaire with only 4 questions. This limited number of items may not have been sufficient to stimulate the emergence of all
zones of a subjects profile during the task of answering the questionnaire. This
would explain the high number of subjects that manifested only one zone of the
profile. The questionnaire applied in the current research, in turn, had 18 questions
covering a great variety of themes and conflicting situations. The greater number of
questions and the diversity of themes seem to have made this new tool more effective, offering conditions for the informant to express a larger number of zones of the
profile, which can be confirmed by the significant percentage of students who
expressed the three modes of thinking about life included in the model of conceptual profile used in the study.
The data concerning the evolution of these groups of profiles in the courses surveyed are shown in Tables 6.7 and 6.8.
In the Biological Sciences course (Table 6.7), the percentages of groups A, C, D,
E, F, and H were below 25 % in all semesters. In the case of these groups, the tendencies of evolution were discrete, with groups C, D, and H showing a slight
increase of frequency and groups A, E, and F a slight reduction during the
semesters.
In the evolution of the profile groups, groups B and G stand out. Group B is made
up of subjects who manifested the internalist and externalist zones, and group G has
students who manifested the three zones, with a greater expression intensity of the
internalist zone. These two groups stand out because in some semesters, they have
frequencies much higher than the others, establishing some predominance. The

F.A.R. e Silva et al.

156

Table 6.7 Evolution of groups of life concept profiles throughout the semesters of the Biological
Sciences course
Groups
of profile
Group A
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F
Group G
Group H

1st semester

2nd semester

3rd semester

4th semester

5th semester

28.57
14.29

14.29
7.14
28.57
7.14

7.14
4.76
21.43
9.52
9.52
7.14
30.95
9.52

5.56
5.56
11.11
16.67

55.56
5.56

4.35
21.74
8.70
4.35
4.35
43.46
13.04

(%)
2.86
42.86
14.29
11.43
2.86

14.29
11.43

Table 6.8 Evolution of the groups of life concept profiles throughout the semesters of the
Pharmaceutical Sciences course
Groups
of profile
Group A
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F
Group G
Group H

1st semester

3rd semester

4th semester

5th semester A

5th semester B

8.00
24.00
24.00
4.00
8.00

20.00
12.00

6.67
16.67
10.00
6.67
13.33
6.67
20.00
20.00

26.67

13.37
6.67
6.67
20.00
26.67

33.33

6.67

13.33
26.67
20.00

(%)

15.00
15.00
5.00
5.00
10.00
30.00
20.00

evolution of these two groups along the semesters of the Biological Sciences course
was quite different. Group G had a great increase in its percentages and group B, a
significant reduction. For example, the members of group B were 42.86 % of the
students in the first semester and 4.36 % in the fifth semester. The members of group
G were 14.29 % of the students of the first semester and 43.48 % of the fifth
semester.
These data show that the Biological Sciences students may be subjected to teaching that favors an internalist mode of thinking about life, in the context of a school
science discourse that gives privilege to an essentialist view of life and living beings
(Emmeche and El-Hani 2000; Coutinho 2005). This tendency toward a growing
representation of the internalist zone found among the students of the Biological
Sciences course in this study comes close to Coutinhos (2005) results. In his crosssectional study of the evolution of the internalist zone, Coutinho concluded that
there was a growing frequency of usage of modes of internalist thinking throughout
the semesters of the Biological Sciences course.
Returning to the data on the evolution of other groups among the Biological
Sciences students, the slight increase of frequency presented by groups C and D,
characterized by a greater expression of the relational zone, stood out because of

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

157

some co-occurrences. It was noticed that group C had an increase in the number
of students classified in them in the third and in the fifth semesters of the
Biological Sciences course. Group D had an increase in the number of students
in the fourth semester. The co-occurrences were identified because it is in the
third and fourth semesters that the Biological Sciences students attend two
courses on Ecology, in which there is a great concern with the relations of living
beings with each other and with the environment.
These co-occurrences are indications that show the importance of the courses
above as well as of the professors discourse in giving the students a possibility of
accessing other modes of thinking about life and, thus, enriching the conceptual
profile. This leads us to think about how the discursive interactions in courses like
these can contribute to the internalization of more powerful ideas about life, such as
the understanding of this phenomenon as an instantiation of relationships between
entities.
In the evolution of the groups of profiles in the Pharmaceutical Sciences course
(Table 6.8), it was found that there is a greater dispersion of the students in the different groups, with no clear predominance of one group over another.
The frequencies of the groups vary between 4 % and 33.33 %. With regard to the
tendencies of evolution of the groups A, D, E, F, and H, there are very discrete
changes. Groups D, F, and H have a slight tendency to increase percentages and
groups A and E show a tendency of slight reduction along the semesters. Among the
Pharmaceutical Sciences students, the only group which had a stronger variation
was group C, with a very strong tendency toward reduction.
It is interesting that groups G and B in the Pharmaceutical Sciences course
showed a tendency of evolution which was opposite to that observed in the Biological
Sciences course. Group B exhibited a tendency of increasing its frequency: in the
first semester, 15 % of the students were included in this group, while in the fifth
semester B, a total of 33.33 % students were classified in it. Group G, in turn,
showed a slight tendency of decreasing its frequency: in the first semester, it included
30 % of the students and in the fifth semester A, 20 %, while in the fifth semester B,
26.67 % of the students were in this group.
These different tendencies in the evolution of groups G and B in the courses
investigated suggest that the process of learning an internalist mode of thinking
about life is stronger among the Biology students than among the Pharmaceutical
Sciences students. The number of students in group G, in which all three zones were
present, but with greater expression intensity in the internalist zone, tended to
increase during the semesters of the Biology course and to reduce in the
Pharmaceutical Sciences course. In turn, group B, which is made up of subjects that
expressed the internalist and externalist zones, tended to reduce in the former and
increase in the latter course. Compared to the Pharmaceutical Sciences course, the
Biology course appears to have a greater impact on the students, changing their
profiles, reinforcing the internalist modes of thinking about life, which are compatible with school science.
Therefore, it can be said that the Biological Sciences course shows more efficacy
with regard to students learning, even though it favors an internalist, essentialist

158

F.A.R. e Silva et al.

view of life and living beings. It may also indicate the lack of or limited occurrence
of discussions and/or studies about competing paradigms which move away from
internalist modes of thinking. In these terms, the education of biologists, no matter
if future teachers and/or researchers, would gain a lot if the curriculum incorporated
discussions about distinct modes of thinking about life, from a historically and philosophically informed approach (Coutinho 2005). This would allow the students to
have contact with the principles and theories of various research programs currently
found in Biology, but rarely represented in the curriculum. In this manner, they
might come to understand the possibilities and limitations of these research
programs in understanding life and living beings, and this might favor, in turn, the
awareness of the students about the various meanings that may be ascribed to a
single concept, such as life. Therefore, it would be possible to raise their awareness
of the zones of their own profile, a key learning goal in the conceptual profile theory.
This can be particularly important for prospective teachers, who will have to deal
with a diversity of understandings of life in their pedagogical experience, including
those related to prescientific modes of thinking.

6.4

Final Remarks

As mentioned in the previous sections, the work discussed in this chapter focused
on building new procedures for carrying out researches about conceptual profiles
using questionnaires. Therefore, it is important to mention the contributions provided by the implementation of the new methodological strategies addressed here.
In the first place, we should consider the efficiency of the new questionnaire
applied in this study. This tool is composed of 18 discursive questions on the concept of life and may be seen as an innovation compared to other researches about
conceptual profiles. In previous investigation, as in Coutinho (2005), the
questionnaire had open questions, but they were fewer. In Crespo (2005), there were
more items, but they were all closed. The new structure of the questionnaire used in
this study resulted in a greater cognitive mobilization of the informants, which
allowed them to express a greater number of zones that make up their conceptual
profile of life.
Another innovation found in the study reported here concerns the use of statistical tools. These tools were employed in the construction of groups of individual
profiles, which allowed, in turn, the study and comparison of the evolution of students modes of thinking about life throughout the semesters of Biological Sciences
and Pharmaceutical Sciences courses. We found that the choice of the GGUM 2004
program, using mathematical models of the Item Response Theory (IRT), proved to
be very profitable.
These models provided a good interval scale and good parameters to measure the
expression intensity of the zones of the conceptual profile of life: the scores of
intensity of expression (). These scores were extremely useful to build the groups
of profiles by providing a separation of the subjects who participated in the

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

159

investigation with regard not only to the intensity of expression but also to the number
of zones accessed.
Moreover, the use of GGUM 2004 made it possible to analyze the potential of
each of the 18 questions to access a given zone of the profile through the information provided by the relationship between the score of expression intensity () and
a parameter related to the specific characteristics of the item. This relation made it
possible to show that the different questions provided different contexts for the analysis of life and living beings, an important working hypothesis of the conceptual
profile theory. According to this theory, each individual has a set of conceptions
related to a specific concept, which are accessed in the appropriate contexts. Through
studying how the questions favor the emergence of different conceptual zones, it
was possible to incorporate into the theory of conceptual profiles an explicit discussion of the context. As used in this analysis, the concept of context is not defined a
priori by a physical or interpersonal situation, but is made up by what people do and
by when and where they do it.
The context was built in the study by means of the interaction of the individual
with each question of the questionnaire, and this made it possible for the individual
to access the different zones of their profile throughout the questionnaire.
The study showed that many individuals were able to employ in different situations internalist modes of thinking about life and living beings learned in school.
However, the discursive nature of the questions enabled some subjects of this survey
to also access externalist and relational modes of thinking. This occurred mainly in
the questions which demanded an explanation of their criteria to distinguish between
living and inanimate beings and/or in questions that addressed controversial and
counterintuitive themes.
With regard to the questions about the differences between living and inanimate
beings 1, 2, 3, 5a many of the students used criteria derived from sensory perception, drawing on teleological and anthropomorphic thinking, typical of the externalist zone, probably because the questions referred to a task carried out in daily life
rather than in a scientific context. In these same questions, some of the informants
may have found a context which allowed them to recognize the importance of the
relations of living beings with each other and with the environment.
The other questions, which dealt with more controversial themes 4a, 4b and 4c,
8, 9a, and 9b may have triggered students contexts which suggested potentially
disturbing situations for the use of internalist ideas. Themes such as artificial life,
Gaia theory, the origins of life, and multicellularity may have led the informants to
use two strategies. The first one, adopted by some of the subjects who participated
in the study, was a minimum cost and maximum gain strategy, seeking to accommodate the disturbance by means of a return to prescientific thinking. This prescientific thinking was characterized by common sense ideas related to the externalist
zone, which are more intuitive and familiar. The other strategy consisted in a more
complete compensation of the disturbance, with an awareness of the limitations of
the internalist mode of thinking, leading to the use of the relational zone. This latter
mode of thinking seemed to be a more productive alternative conceptual scheme
when dealing with the conflicting situations at stake.

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F.A.R. e Silva et al.

Another innovation of the study reported here was the diversification of the
sample with the application of the questionnaire in two different undergraduate courses: Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences. This procedure made
it possible to infer the characteristics of the learning processes in which the subjects were involved. The study of those two groups of students brought the understanding that the internalization process undergoes disturbances according to the
type of course but also according to the disciplines and professors giving these
courses. The data indicates some co-occurrences between disciplines of the given
course and the evolution of the groups of profiles that helped in reflecting and
inferring about the elements present in the process of creating the conceptual
profiles of life.
With regard to the results from the analysis of the evolution of the profiles in both
courses, they showed a growing tendency of using internalist modes of thinking
about life throughout the semesters. These results are similar to those found by
Coutinho (2005). However, comparing the two courses, we found that this learning
process of an internalist mode of thinking seems to be stronger among the Biological
Sciences than the Pharmaceutical Sciences students. The analysis also allowed us to
show that some Biology courses, such as Ecology I and Ecology II, may have a
significant influence on the appropriation of a relational understanding of the concept of life.
The data obtained in the study about the groups of profiles made it possible to support one of the basic hypotheses of the conceptual profile theory, namely, that the
profiles have sociohistorical and cultural origins, just as any higher mental function,
since they are a way of characterizing conceptual thinking (Vygotsky 1978).
Therefore, the profiles are influenced by the different experiences of individuals, by
the relation of these individuals with different mediation tools and symbol systems, as
well as by the different social and interpersonal relations that these individuals establish. The work also made it possible to show the influence of sociocultural experiences
in establishing the profiles of each individual as well as in their evolution. The differences in the evolution of these profiles between two undergraduate courses of the
biological sphere, Pharmaceutical and Biological Sciences, showed the sensitivity
of the profiles to the different experiences these students have undergone, as they
attended different courses, at different stages.
In conclusion, in spite of its limitations, we believe this work contributed to the
research program on conceptual profiles, supporting important hypotheses related
to it. However, before taking the evidence discussed here as conclusive, we believe
there is a clear need of further studies on the conceptual profile of life. The inclusion
of other information, as, for example, the students religious beliefs, could bring
further elements for the analysis. Moreover, interviews with professors and coordinators of the investigated courses would probably provide important inputs to
understand their structure, philosophy, and pedagogical intentions, which might be
related with the evolution of students conceptual profiles. Another interesting
research strategy would be to analyze the discursive dynamics of the classes of the
undergraduate courses. This study could use the methodological tool developed by
Mortimer and Scott (2003) to analyze science classroom discourse, which has

6 Investigating the Evolution of Conceptual Profiles of Life Among University

161

already been used in studies about the conceptual profile applied to the second law
of thermodynamics (Amaral 2004, see Chap. 8, this volume) and the conceptual
profile of adaptation (Sepulveda 2010, see Chap. 7, this volume).

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Chapter 7

Conceptual Profile of Adaptation:


A Tool to Investigate Evolution
Learning in Biology Classrooms
Claudia Sepulveda, Eduardo F. Mortimer, and Charbel N. El-Hani

7.1

Introduction

There is a range of situations in which the conceptual profile can be applied to


investigations about conceptual learning (see Chap. 3 of this book). In this chapter,
we will report the process of construction, application, and improvement of a conceptual profile model of adaptation, employed as a tool to investigate processes of
meaning making about the Darwinist theory of evolution through discursive interactions in the classroom.
The idea of evolution has a central and organizing role in the structure of biological
thinking and is indispensable for the understanding of many explanatory models of
biology. The teaching of the Darwinist theory of evolution is very important in basic
education, not only for this reason but also for its relevant role in citizenship education,
since a satisfactory understanding of several biological processes that have social
impact depends on evolutionary thinking, such as bacterial resistance to antibiotics and
the pandemics brought about by emerging viruses (Futuyma 2002; Meyer and El-Hani
2005). However, since the 1980s, it was shown that students face many difficulties in
solving problems and interpreting biological phenomena from a Darwinist perspective,

C. Sepulveda (*)
Department of Education, State University of Feira de Santana,
Feira de Santana, Bahia, Brazil
e-mail: causepulveda@ig.com.br
E.F. Mortimer
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais,
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
C.N. El-Hani
Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Rua Baro do Geremoabo, s/n,
Campus de Ondina, Ondina, 40170-290 Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
e-mail: charbel@ufba.br
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_7, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

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C. Sepulveda et al.

even after formal instruction about it (e.g. Clough and Wood-Robinson 1985; Bishop
and Anderson 1990; Bizzo 1994; Demastes et al. 1995; Jensen and Finley 1996).
In this study, we depart from the assumption that the conceptual profile of
adaptation may be a theoretical-methodological tool for investigations about the
understanding of Darwinist explanatory models in the socio-cultural sphere of the
classroom. We also suggest that, to fulfil this role, the profile should be used as a tool
for the analysis of classroom discourse, integrated to the analytical structure developed
by Mortimer and Scott (2003). We expect that the conceptual profile will greatly assist
in investigating the semantic dimension of discourse, while this analytical structure
will allow us to integrate the social and linguistic dimensions to this investigation.
The concept of adaptation, among the various concepts of evolutionary biology,
is particularly adequate to the construction of a conceptual profile model to be
applied to the context of evolution teaching. After all, adaptation is a central concept
in Darwinist explanations and is also largely polysemous, in both the specific
domain of biology and other domains of general culture and language.
We conducted, thus, an investigation to evaluate the heuristic potential of a conceptual profile model of adaptation in the investigation of evolution teaching and learning
from a socio-cultural perspective. This investigation included the following stages:
1. Construction of a conceptual profile model of adaptation
2. Application of this model to the discursive analysis of episodes of evolution
teaching produced in the context of high school biological education
3. Improvement of the model through the characterization of ways of speaking
about adaptation employed by students and teachers when negotiating meanings
around explanations for evolutionary changes
Here, we will first explain the methodological design that integrates these three
stages of the research. Then we will describe the process of constructing the zones
of our initial adaptation profile model, reviewing the polysemy of this concept in
different genetic domains. After characterizing the profile zones, we will show how
the model can be employed as a tool to investigate the discursive dynamics in the
classroom, by applying it to the analysis of three teaching episodes produced in the
context of high school evolution teaching. Finally, we will show how the results of
this discursive analysis suggested guidelines for the improvement of the initial
model, more specifically through the introduction of a characterization of the zones
in terms of ways of speaking about adaptation.

7.2
7.2.1

Methodological Design of the Study


Construction of the Zones of an Adaptation
Profile Model

The first stage of the investigation began with a review of the different sources of
information that could enable us to understand the genesis of the concept of adaptation in the sociocultural, ontogenetic, and microgenetic domains. The analysis of

7 Conceptual Profile of Adaptation: A Tool to Investigate Evolution Learning

165

these sources was carried out dialogically, not sequentially, in the sense that the
information related to each genetic domain was all the time articulated with the data
concerning other domains.
We used the following sources: (1) secondary sources about the history of biology
and epistemological treatments of the adaptation concept, (2) literature on students
alternative conceptions about the concepts of adaptation and natural selection,
(3) empirical data collected through interviews and questionnaires with high school
and higher education biology students, and (4) data from video recording of discursive
interactions in the classroom.
The questionnaires and interview protocols were drawn up based on scenarios
addressing phenomena of evolutionary adaptation previously studied in biology and
frequently discussed in the literature, such as the diversification of the shape and size
of the beaks of finches in the Galapagos Islands, the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, and insect camouflage. The classroom data were collected by videotaping a
teaching sequence about evolutionary adaptation and the theory of evolution by natural selection, carried out in a biology high school class in a Brazilian public school.
From the dialogue between these sources of information, we produced a tool that
we called an epistemological matrix about the concept of adaptation (Fig. 7.1).
This matrix amounts to a table where epistemological themes from which one can
signify the concept of adaptation are organized, and, for each of them, a set of ontological and epistemological commitments was identified, structuring the interpretations of this concept. This epistemological matrix will be described in Sect. 7.3. The
zones of the profile model were established through a combination of different ontological and epistemological commitments referring to each of the epistemological
themes shown in this matrix.

7.2.2

Application of the Conceptual Profile Model


to the Analysis of Teaching Episodes

In the second stage, this initial profile model was applied to the discursive analysis
of teaching episodes produced in the high school context. The characterization of
the zones of the profile was employed to epistemologically guide the semantic analysis of discourse, integrated to the analytical structure developed by Mortimer and
Scott (2003) to describe the way teachers and students interact in meaning making
in the science classroom.1 The categories that make up this analytical structure were
used to guide the analysis of the social and linguistic dimensions of the discourse
produced in the classroom (Fig. 7.2).
We investigated the discursive dynamics in the classroom by means of microgenetic analysis, which can be described as the detailed study of the formation of a
psychological process, in which actions of subjects and interpersonal relations in a
1

A detailed description of this structure can be found in Chap. 3 and in Mortimer and Scott (2002,
2003).

Organization of sets of
epistemological commitments

Sources from history of


biology and
epistemological
treatments of the concept

Data of discursive
interactions in the
classroom

Literature on
alternative
conceptions

Data from questionnaire and


interviews with high school
and higher education
students

EPISTEMOLOGICAL
MATRIX

Construction of
zones

CONCEPTUAL
PROFILE OF
ADAPTATION

Fig. 7.1 Design of the first stage of the research: the construction of a profile model of adaptation

Fig. 7.2 Design of the


second stage of the research:
application of the profile
model to classroom discourse
analysis

CONCEPTUAL
PROFILE OF
ADAPTATION

Analytical structure of
classroom discourse
(Mortimer and Scott 2003)
Models the social and
linguistic dimensions

Models the semantic


dimension

ANALYSIS OF DISCURSIVE
INTERACTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM
(Episodes of evolution teaching)

167

Analytical structure of
classroom discourse
(Mortimer and Scott 2003)

Models social and


linguistic dimensions

IDENTIFICATION
OF WAYS OF
SPEAKING
Social languages
Typical forms of
utterances

CONCEPTUAL
PROFILE OF
ADAPTATION

Models semantic
dimension

Enunciative characterization
of the zones

7 Conceptual Profile of Adaptation: A Tool to Investigate Evolution Learning

ANALYSIS OF DISCURSIVE
INTERACTIONS IN THE
CLASSROOM
(Episodes of evolution teaching)

Fig. 7.3 Design of the third stage of the research: improvement of the initial profile model through
the enunciative characterization of the zones

short period of time are described in detail (Wertsch and Hickmann 1987). Our units
of analysis were teaching and learning episodes, defined as sets of utterances that
create contexts for the emergence of one or more meanings related to the learning
of a given concept (Amaral and Mortimer 2006).
The teaching episodes analyzed were obtained through the following methodological steps: (1) collection of empirical material through videotaping of discursive interactions in the classroom; (2) systematic organization of the data by
means of the construction of activity maps, a strategy suggested by interactional
ethnography (Gee and Green 1998); and (3) the transcription of the set of speech
turns composing the selected episodes.

7.2.3

Identification of Ways of Speaking Related


to the Zones of a Conceptual Profile

In the third stage of the research, our efforts were directed to the improvement of
the initial adaptation profile model, based on the results of its application to the
analysis of teaching episodes. We proposed an enunciative characterization for
each zone of the profile, through the identification of typical ways of speaking
about adaptation. These ways of speaking were described in terms of Bakhtins
notion of social language (Bakhtin 1981) and typical forms of utterances produced
in meaning making about the concept of adaptation during discursive interactions
in the classroom (Fig. 7.3).

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In order to identify and characterize the social language used in the discursive
contexts in which each of the zones of the profile emerged, we used as a support
epistemological studies about the structure of the explanations employed in different domains of investigation about the living beings and in given moments of
the history of the biological sciences (e.g. Caponi 2002, 2005; Lewontin 1983). The
literature on alternative conceptions, in turn, provided us with information about the
characteristic aspects of everyday social language which make up the nonscientific
ways of speaking about adaptation (e.g. Molina 2007; Ash 2008).
We also checked if it was possible to find regularities in themes and/or structures
among the utterances produced in meaning making about each of the ways of thinking about adaptation represented by the zones of the profile model. In an initial
inductive treatment of the data, it appeared to be possible to describe the typical
forms of utterances produced in meaning making about this concept, during interviews and discursive interactions in the classroom. To further refine this analysis,
we took as an inspiration Bakhtins notion of speech genres. More specifically, we
considered the elements recognized as identifiers of the stable types of utterances
that generate the speech genres (Bakhtin 1986): the thematic content, the compositional structure, and the style.
According to Rodrigues (2005), the thematic content constitutes the object and
purpose of the discourse; the style is made up by the choice of lexical, phraseological, and grammatical resources employed to bring forth what the speaker wants to
say; and the compositional structure entails generic devices used for the construction of the speech as a whole, its finalization as well as the relation between the
speaker and other participants in speech communication.
Rojo (2005) proposes a necessary methodological order in the Bakhtinian analysis of utterances, always beginning from the analysis of the sociohistorical aspects
of the enunciative situation the will, intention, and value judgement of the speaker
about his/her interlocutors and the speech themes and moving towards the analysis of the properties of the text, the compositional structure, and other linguistic
ways of configuring meaning. Following the working method that Rojo (2005,
p. 199) calls top-down, in which we constantly move from the social situation of the
utterances to the text itself, and back, it is expected that the analyst can arrive at
the regularities of the genre, which are not due to the fixed norms of language but to
the regularities and similarities of the social relationships in the sphere in which
specific communication takes place.
Analogously to the methodological procedure proposed by Rojo (2005), in our
study the analysis of the textual regularities of the utterances was subordinated to
the analysis of the relationship between the speakers and the discursive contexts in
which each zone emerged. These discursive contexts, in turn, were related to the
strategies used by the interviewer and the teacher, which led to the establishment
of certain intersubjectivity contracts between the participants of the discursive
interaction.
The integration between this third stage of the research and the two previous
stages can be seen schematically in Fig. 7.4. With this research design, we are

Organization of sets of
epistemological commitments

7 Conceptual Profile of Adaptation: A Tool to Investigate Evolution Learning

169

Dialogue between
data from different
genetic domains

EPISTEMOLOGICAL
MATRIX

Social languages
Typical forms of utterances

Analytical structure of
classroom discourse
(Mortimer and Scott 2003)

Models social and


linguistic dimensions

IDENTIFICATION OF
WAYS OF SPEAKING

CONCEPTUAL
PROFILE OF
ADAPTATION

Models semantic
dimension

Enunciative characterization
of the zones

Construction of
zones

ANALYSIS OF DISCURSIVE
INTERACTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM
(Episodes of evolution Teaching)

Fig. 7.4 Methodological design of the construction of a conceptual profile model of adaptation

proposing a methodological pathway for the construction of models of conceptual


profiles in which, dialectically, an initial profile model informs the analysis of
classroom discourse, and the data produced by this analysis inform, in turn, the
improvement of the initial profile model, by enabling a more robust enunciative
characterization of the profile zones. In this manner, conceptual profile models can
be improved, just as any other model, through cycles of construction, application,
and revision.

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7.3

C. Sepulveda et al.

Construction of an Epistemological Matrix: Organizing


the Polysemy Around the Concept of Adaptation

From the dialogue between epistemological and historical studies, the literature on
alternative conceptions, data obtained in students interviews and questionnaires,
and the analysis of some teaching episodes (Sepulveda 2010), it was possible to
identify six epistemological themes from which the concept of evolutionary
adaptation can be signified: (1) ontology, (2) causal factor, (3) causal mechanism, (4) nature of adaptation as a solution to problems challenging the survival
and successful reproduction of the organism, (5) necessary and sufficient conditions
for a trait being an adaptation, and (6) the role of the concept in the explanation of
organic form.
A distinctive feature of the concept of adaptation is that it has been described,
even in the specific sphere of evolutionary biology, as belonging to two different
ontological categories, as a physical entity a discernible phenotypic trait of an
organism or as a process (see theme 1 in Table 7.1). In the sphere of general culture
and even in the discourse of biology, an adaptation can be also understood as a state
of being or, else, as a biological property of being adapted to the environment.
West-Eberhard (1992, p. 13) also points to the fact that the word adaptation is
applied sometimes to individual organisms, denoting the propensity to survive and
reproduce in a particular environment. This use of the term has been criticized by
evolutionary biologists and philosophers, such as Mayr (1988), Sober (1993), and
Burian (2005), based on the argument that the word adaptation should be conceived in historical terms, designating traits resulting from a process of natural
selection, while the term adaptedness (Mayr 1988; Sober 1993) or adapted
(Burian 2005) could be employed in ahistorical terms, to designate the supposed
propensity of organisms to show reproductive success. These two uses of the term,
whether to designate the propensity of organisms to survive and reproduce or, in a
more restricted sense, traits resulting from natural selection, give rise to two ways
of ascribing meaning to adaptation in ontological terms: a prospective and a retrospective view (see theme 1 in Table 7.1).
Another ontological aspect related to the polysemy of the concept of adaptation
refers to the hierarchical levels where we can find adaptations. Adaptation can be
seen as a change that occurs during the life cycle of an individual, in ontogeny, or
as a change that occurs at the population level over evolutionary time, in phylogeny.
In the evolutionary synthesis, adaptive evolutionary changes are explained in terms
of alterations in the genetic composition of populations, throughout the generations,
and, therefore, as a process that occurs in phylogenetic time. The conflation between
the organism/ontogenetic and the population/phylogenetic levels is one of the most
common difficulties to understand the Darwinist concept of adaptation.
A second relevant epistemological theme concerns the origins of adaptations: the
causal factors and mechanisms that explain the why of their existence and how
they originate. The literature on alternative conceptions and our own empirical data
give us indications that an early stage in the ontogenesis of the concept of adaptation

Internalism
Externalism
Constructionism

Absolute adaptation

3. Causal factor

4. Nature of adaptation as solution


to problems for survival
and reproduction

Relative adaptation

Absence of etiological
explanation
Finalism
Transformational
Variational

Population/phylogenetic level

Retrospective view
Organism/ontogenetic level

Prospective view

State of being

Categories
Process
Trait

2. Causal mechanism

Epistemological theme
1. Ontology

(continued)

Adaptation as sufficiently explained by the purpose, end (telos), or goal it fulfils


Adaptation as resulting from the transformation of individual members of the species
Adaptation as resulting from changes in the proportions of the different variants
found in populations
Adaptation as an internally controlled process
Adaptation as an externally controlled process
Adaptation as resulting from a process of coevolution of organisms and their
environments. Changes in the organisms are at the same time cause and effect
of changes in the environment
Adaptation as the optimum design of an organism or organic structure for facing
the challenges posed by environmental conditions
Adaptations as provisional solutions which are relatively better than other solutions
to the environmental problems faced by organisms at a given moment of their
evolutionary history

Ontological and epistemological commitments


Adaptation conceived as a process (to adapt itself to)
Adaptation conceived as a phenotypic trait that can be distinguished through its
effect on the way the organism interacts with the environment
Adaptation as a state of being, or biological property of being adapted to the
environment, observed in the population or organism
Adaptation as the current propensity that an organism or organic structure be
preserved by natural selection, due to its adaptive value
Adaptation conceived as the result of a past history of natural selection
Adaptation as a change that occurs in ontogeny, during the life cycle of an
organism
Adaptation as a change that takes place in phylogeny, along the evolutionary
history of the species (as a series of populations in space and time)
Adaptation as a self-evident phenomenon, not requiring causal explanation

Table 7.1 Epistemological matrix for the signification of the concept of adaptation

7 Conceptual Profile of Adaptation: A Tool to Investigate Evolution Learning


171

6. Role of adaptation in the


explanation of the organic form

Historical genesis

5. Necessary and sufficient


conditions for a trait
to be an adaptation

Pluralism

Adaptationism

Increased fitness
Historical genesis + Increased
fitness

Categories

Epistemological theme

Table 7.1 (continued)

To be an adaptation, it is necessary and sufficient that the trait arose by natural


selection
To be an adaptation, it is sufficient that the trait increases fitness
To be an adaptation, it is necessary but not sufficient that the trait arose by natural
selection. Another necessary condition should be met, namely, the trait should
increase fitness
Causal primacy is attributed to the phenomenon of adaptation in the explanation of
the origins and diversification of organic forms
Three possible (but not mutually exclusive) determining factors of the organic
form are recognized: current constraints, current adaptations, and the past
history of both inherited constraints and adaptations

Ontological and epistemological commitments

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173

is the absence of an etiological causal explanation for the existence of adaptive


traits, or the view that adaptation is a self-evident phenomenon that does not require
an explanatory mechanism. On the one hand, there are students who do not even
recognize the Darwinist problem of adaptation, that is, the relationship between the
complexity of organic form and the struggle for survival. On the other hand, other
students employ the expressions to adapt itself or adaptive process to explain the
diversification of organic forms, taking adaptation as a sort of self-explanatory principle (see theme 2 in Table 7.1).
Another way of thinking about the origins of adaptations is in finalistic or teleological terms, when an adaptation is taken to be sufficiently explained by the purpose, end (telos), or goal it fulfils. Finally, there are two additional manners of
interpreting this concept in relation to the causality of organic form. Both are marked
by the introduction of a historical perspective in the explanation of the existence of
adaptations, but they differ as to the nature of the causal mechanism responsible for
the adaptive changes. They are the transformational and variational explanations, as
originally described by Lewontin (Levins and Lewontin 1985; Lewontin 2000) and
discussed by Sober (1993) and Caponi (2005). According to transformational explanations, the evolution of a system occurs because of simultaneous and combined
changes of all the components of the system, that is, evolutionary change is understood as the result of transformations that take place simultaneously in all and each
of the individual members of a species. Darwins theory of evolution, for its part,
proposes a variational or selectional explanation for evolutionary change. In this
case, the changes of a system are explained as a consequence of changes in the proportions of its components and not as a result of a transformation of each individual
constituent (see theme 2 in Table 7.1).
Besides the nature of the causal mechanism, the explanations of the origins of
adaptations may differ with regard to the nature of the causal factors that control the
adaptive process. Factors external (as the selective regimen) or internal to the organism
(as the developmental process leading to morphological variation) or a dialectic relationship between these two types of factors can be assumed to cause adaptive evolution.
In this respect, adaptation can be signified from externalist, internalist, and constructionist perspectives of interpreting evolutionary change (see theme 3 in Table 7.1).
The fourth epistemological theme around which there is polysemy in meaning making about adaptation refers to its nature as a solution to problems that challenge the
survival and successful reproduction of the organism. When adaptation is seen as a
phenotypic trait, it can be conceived as the best possible state of that character, be it a
structure or behaviour, or as a provisional and relatively better solution to real environmental problems faced by organisms at a given moment of their evolutionary history.
The fifth and sixth themes are the ones that dominate the processes of signification of the concept of adaptation in the debates that take place in both evolutionary
biology and philosophy of biology. The fifth theme concerns the necessary and sufficient conditions for a trait to be an adaptation, including three different positions,
as we describe in theme 5 of Table 7.1: (1) to be called an adaptation, it is necessary
and sufficient that the trait arose by natural selection; (2) the fact that a trait
increases fitness is regarded as sufficient for it to be called an adaptation; (3) it is

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necessary but not sufficient that a trait is shaped by natural selection to be called an
adaptation. In the latter case, it is required that the trait also meets another necessary
condition, namely, that it currently increases fitness.
Concerning the polysemy resulting from the sixth theme, that is, the role of the
concept of adaptation in the explanation of organic form, we identified two categories: (1) an adaptationist view that attributes causal primacy to the phenomenon of
adaptation in the explanation of the origin and diversification of organic form and
(2) a pluralist view that recognizes three possible (but not mutually exclusive) determining factors of the organic form current constraints, current adaptations, and the
past history of both inherited constraints and adaptations.
For each of the epistemological themes mentioned above, we identified, thus, a
set of ontological and epistemological commitments that can ground the interpretation of evolutionary adaptation. In Table 7.1, we present this set of epistemological
and ontological commitments as categories for interpreting the concept of adaptation according to each of the six themes discussed in this section. This is the epistemological matrix built as a fundamental methodological step for establishing the
zones of our conceptual profile model, based on the information derived from the
several sources of data used in the study.

7.4

Construction of the Zones of a Conceptual


Profile of Adaptation

Analyzing the epistemological matrix (Table 7.1), we can see that the zones of a
profile of adaptation would be made up by a combination of ontological and epistemological commitments related to each of the six epistemological themes structuring that matrix. Moreover, if we consider different educational contexts, such as
high school, preservice biology teacher education, or the education of biological
researchers, we will be able to see that the relative importance of each of these
themes will vary. In each of these contexts, the negotiation of meanings will be
more focused on some epistemological themes and sets of commitments.
The goal of this study is to investigate the heuristic power of a conceptual profile
of adaptation as a tool to analyze discursive interactions in high school biology
classrooms. Therefore, when building our profile model, we made a greater investment in individuating zones that could model the heterogeneity of ways of thinking
and speaking about adaptation that are more likely to emerge in these classrooms.
For this purpose, we focused our attention on the themes of ontology, causal factor,
and causal mechanism, constructing a profile model containing four zones: intraorganic functionalism, providential adjustment, transformational perspective, and
variational perspective.2
2

When using our profile model of adaptation in the context of higher education dealing with both
preservice biology teachers and future biological researchers we add to the model two other ways
of thinking, conceived as two alternative interpretations of the variational zone. On the one hand,

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175

In this section, we will present an epistemological characterization of these


zones, analyzing both the difficulties posed by their epistemological and ontological
commitments for the construction of the variational zone, and the perspectives they
open for meaning making processes that can lead to the emergence of this latter
zone. This focus on teaching and learning about the variational way of thinking is
explained by the fact that it is characteristic of Darwinism, and to learn the Darwinist
conception of the evolutionary process is a major goal of evolution education at
high school, since this is the view currently accepted by the scientific community, in
spite of the legitimacy of the other zones in different social contexts.

7.4.1

Intra-organic Functionalism

This zone includes interpretations of adaptive traits which do not conceive them as
phenomena that require evolutionary explanations, i.e. explanations invoking ultimate, not just proximate causes, to use a distinction introduced by Mayr (1982, 1988).3
Explanations of an etiological nature for the existence of adaptive traits are
lacking in the subjects committed to this way of thinking, being replaced by explanations that appeal preferentially or exclusively to proximate causes, particularly to
physiological and biomechanical processes, taken to be sufficient to account for the
organic structure and function. We found instances of this zone, for example, in the
explanations presented by some high school students in classroom discursive interactions, in which the shape and colour of camouflaged insects were conceived as
mere consequences of their feeding habits.
Another way of explaining the existence of adaptive traits without searching for
ultimate causes consists in emphasizing the description of the functional attributes
of these traits, focusing only on their role in the maintenance of the organic system
itself. In our empirical data, this view frequently emerged when students were asked
during interviews or classes to interpret a scenario concerning the morphological
diversification of the mammalian jaw:
The organization is different. () And each one has a different action. The canine holds the
prey and grinds, this [indicating the molars] has the function of converting food into a paste
to facilitate digestion. Here, that of the cat has even less teeth than man, man has more
The horse itself, the horse, if I am not mistaken, has only these [points to the picture of the
molar teeth]. (High school student, interview)

we have an adaptationist interpretation, mostly focused on adaptive evolution by natural selection,


and, on the other, a pluralist approach, which gives more attention to the role of other evolutionary
factors, such as constraints, drift, and niche construction (see Sepulveda 2010).
3
Mayr (1982, 1988) proposes that every biological phenomenon is the result of two kinds of
causes, proximate and ultimate causes. The former refers to the causation of physiological, developmental, and behavioural processes and is part of responses to questions with the form how?
They concern how organisms function. The latter refers to evolutionary processes and events,
answering questions with the form why? They explain why organisms are structured and function the way we observe today.

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In this passage the variation in the morphology and number of teeth that compose
the dental arch of different groups of mammals is being explained by the function
played by each tooth in the operation of the whole dental arch during the chewing
process. The intention, thus, is to describe the role of these morphological structures
in the functioning of the system to which they belong, with no purpose of explaining
their origin through this functional attribution. Functionalist views of this kind differ from the Darwinist perspective, since they do not address the biological role
(Bock and Wahlert 1989, p. 131) played by the structure through a connection to its
contribution to the survival and successful reproduction of its bearers in the struggle
for survival.
Three epistemological commitments seem to be involved in the genesis and structuring of this way of thinking: (1) a conception that adaptation is a self-evident and/
or self-explanatory phenomenon, (2) an emphasis on proximate causes, and (3) an
intra-organic teleology, from which the existence of structures is explained in virtue
of their causal role in preserving the intra-organic harmony (Caponi 2002, p. 59).
This way of thinking imposes, therefore, a first difficulty to the construction of
the Darwinist interpretation of adaptation in the classroom, since the Darwinist
problem of adaptation, focused on the relation between the complexity of the
organic form and the struggle for survival, is not even formulated.

7.4.2

Providential Adjustment

This zone comprises interpretations in which adaptation is conceived, in ontological


terms, as a state of being or property of an organism being adjusted to its conditions
of living. Such an adjustment is explained by appealing to either some principle of
the economy of nature or a teleological perspective about the organization of living
forms. In these terms, adaptation is explained as a phenomenon resulting from a
necessary harmony between the structural organization of an organism and the environmental conditions in which it lives.
The following explanation given by a high school student to the origins and
diversification of the beaks of the Galapagos finches offers a typical example of this
way of interpreting adaptation:
I think that the fact that it is different, it had to be born different. Mostly the difference of
the beak () because that is where it feeds itself, since it already has the appropriate food:
the seeds. For example, here he has to stick his beak in to get what is inside. If he was born
only with this beak, it would be impossible. So each one is born being adequate to one kind
of food, with the type of the race, species. (High school student, interview)

This utterance involves the following epistemological and ontological commitments: the principle of the economy of nature, a teleological perspective on the
explanation of organic form, the ideal of a preordained and harmonious natural
world, and an essentialist view about the identity of species.
This way of thinking about adaptation embodies one of the aspects of the organic
world which the Darwinist view brings to the fore: the functional correlation

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between organic structure and living conditions. Accordingly, it may be used in the
classroom as a manner of turning the students attention to this aspect. However,
this functional correlation is explained in this zone in finalistic or teleological
terms, as the result of the fulfilment of a predetermined goal. Moreover, the
assumption of a preordained world, in which everything is arranged so as to
guarantee that the best possible state of things can be attained, is an ontological
commitment of the providential adjustment zone that makes it difficult to build the
notion of the struggle for survival and, also, the historical perspective on the problem of the functional correlation between organic structure and living conditions
which is typical of Darwinism. These are, then, difficulties to be carefully dealt
with in the classroom, whenever one attempts to use the construction of the idea of
this functional correlation as a seed for conceptual evolution towards the goal of
understanding the variational perspective.

7.4.3

Transformational Perspective

The main difference between this zone of the profile and the previous one is the
introduction of a historical, evolutionary perspective to explain the diversity of
organic forms. Adaptation is interpreted as a process of transformation of the
essence of the species towards an optimum state of adjustment to the environmental
conditions. Moreover, this process occurs through simultaneous changes in each
and all of the individual members of a species. That is, evolutionary (phylogenetic)
changes are taken to be the result of accumulated ontogenetic changes.
Below, we cite a passage from an interview carried out with a second semester
female student of a preservice biology teacher education course which illustrates
this way of thinking in the context of the explanation of the diversification of the
beaks of the Galapagos finches:
Through morphological differentiation, slow accumulation of characteristics favourable to
maintain its survival, of the species, which is normally transmitted to its descendants, this
is what we call evolution. () the individuals are in constant competition for females, food,
etc. Those that do not adapt need to seek a new way of developing themselves, that is, there
are very slow changes which are cumulative and, as they do not result in completely adapted
individuals, many die, however, when the change takes place completely, as in the example
of the morphological change of the beak, making it possible to feed on other resources.
(Preservice biology teacher, questionnaire)

Another characteristic feature of this zone lies in the idea that the transformation
suffered by organisms has a definite direction, i.e. all the members of the species
undergo changes oriented in the same direction and, moreover, follow a common
sequence of steps in their evolution. A teleological state of optimum adjustment to
the environmental conditions follows from this linear progression.
Even though these transformational views amount to an evolutionary approach,
they still retain a core of essentialist thinking, as we can see in the idea that change
takes place in the species as a whole. Variation is not a central feature of these

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views. Thus, an essentialist and typological view about the species is a commitment
shared by this zone and the previous one. If a subject entertains the idea of evolutionary change, but is also committed to typological and essentialist thinking, she
will be likely to endorse transformational perspectives.
Essentialist thinking, the focus on the individual organism, and the emphasis on
proximate causes are ontological and epistemological commitments of this zone that
create difficulties to the development of a variational perspective for interpreting
adaptation. However, there is also an important difference between the transformational perspective and the way of thinking typical of providential adjustment, which
concerns a change in the ontological category in which adaptations are classified.
They are no longer conceived as states of being or properties of a morphological
structure or organism; rather, adaptations are described as processes of evolutionary
change. This change in the ontological categorization of adaptations is a seed for the
development of a variational way of thinking.

7.4.4

Variational Perspective

This zone consists of interpretations in which adaptation is conceived as a trait


resulting from natural selection, which leads to the spread and fixation of variants in
a population under a given selective regime.
The following explanation, offered by a second semester male preservice biology teacher to account for the diversification of the beaks of the Galapagos finches,
illustrates this way of thinking:
Among the offspring there will always be birds with a small variation in the size of the
beaks and other phenotypes. The bird with the beak that is best adjusted to the type of food
present in that environment will succeed in reproduction, sending genetic information of
this beak to its offspring. It begins, thus, a process of differentiation that can lead to the
formation of different beak sizes. (Preservice biology teacher, questionnaire)

The demarcation between these latter two zones is grounded on Lewontins distinction between variational and transformational explanations of evolutionary
change, discussed in Sect. 7.3. In variational accounts, biological evolution is conceived, as we saw above, as the result of changes in the proportion of variant organisms in a population. Successful organisms in a generation tend to originate, through
reproduction, organisms with the same phenotypic traits they show. Thus, while the
population changes from generation to generation, inheritance plays the role of
keeping invariance in the traits manifested in the organisms. This tension between
change at the population level and invariance at the organismic level plays a central
role in variational explanations.
We need to consider, then, how to differentiate the functional explanations characteristic of intra-organic functionalism and variational accounts. In the former,
what is at issue is how a structure or behaviour functions or operates so as to assure
the maintenance of the organic system to which it belongs. In the case of the variational, selective explanation, we explain how the structure or behaviour plays a

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given function in a better or more efficient way than feasible alternatives, or under
which selective pressures the structure or behaviour can result in organic forms that
are better than equally viable alternatives from the morphological, physiological, or
phylogenetic point of view (Caponi 2002, p. 77).
We will provide below another illustrative utterance of a male preservice biology
teacher, aiming at explaining the diversification of the dental arch in different groups
of mammals. He departs from a hypothesis about the problems of survival faced by
these organisms and then analyzes how certain kinds of dental arches constitute a
more efficient solution than their alternatives. This amounts, generally speaking, to
the Darwinist way of investigating organic form (Caponi 2000):
The feeding habits say a lot about these organisms. For habits closer to the carnivorous, the
canine teeth tend to be more efficient and, for those closer to the herbivorous, the chewing
teeth (molars) tend to be more efficient. Therefore, natural selection randomly privileged
those organisms that had more efficient teeth for each feeding habit. (Preservice biology
teacher, questionnaire)

We find in this zone, in sum, many ontological and epistemological commitments typical of the Darwinist explanations: population thinking, the idea that
organic structures have a central role in the struggle of organisms to survive and to
successfully reproduce given the demands placed by their constantly changing ecological setting, and a historical perspective on the investigation of organic form.
In Table 7.2, we present the sets of epistemological and ontological commitments that enable us to individualize the four zones of the profile model we constructed. It is also possible to examine the commitments shared by the zones of this
profile model.

7.5

Application of the Conceptual Profile of Adaptation


in Discourse Analysis of a High School Classroom

This section presents a discursive analysis of episodes of evolution teaching employing the conceptual profile of adaptation alongside with an analytical tool developed
by Mortimer and Scott (2003). The teaching episodes were included in a teaching
sequence on the theory of evolution by natural selection, applied to a third-year high
school classroom in a Brazilian public school, in the State of Bahia. The sequence
comprised seven weekly 60-min classes.
In the study carried out to evaluate the heuristics of the profile model (Sepulveda
2010), 13 episodes were selected that described together how meaning making
about the theory of natural selection took place throughout the sequence. We will
present here the analysis of three of these episodes. The intention is to show how
this analysis allows us to identify different ways of thinking about adaptation, produced in discursive interactions in the classroom, as the teacher sought to develop
the scientific story (Mortimer and Scott 2003, p. 18).
We interpreted the episodes with regard to the following: (1) the teaching purposes and the discourse content, (2) the communicative approach and the patterns of

Adaptation is conceived as a state of being, a fixed property of the organism


or groups of organisms
Intra-organic and external teleology
Agency of a supernatural force or another type of ordering force of nature
Harmony and perfection in the relationship between organic structure and
environment or conditions of living

Evolutionary (phylogenetic) changes as the result of accumulated ontogenetic


changes
Tendency of transformation of the essence of the species to reach a greater
complexity or adjustment to environmental conditions (implying the idea
of progress and teleological thinking)

Darwinian function: assumption that all (in adaptationist account) or many


(in pluralist account) organic structures play a role in the struggle for survival
and primarily respond to the demands imposed by the ecological setting
Population thinking

Transformational
perspective

Variational
perspective

Distinctive ontological and epistemological commitments


The phenomenon of adaptation as the adjustment of the organic form to the
ecological circumstances or conditions of living is not recognized as such
Intra-organic teleology
Proximate causes taken to be sufficient to explain the living phenomena

Providential
adjustment

Zones of the
profile model
Intra-organic
functionalism

Evolutionary perspective to explain adaptation

Economy of nature
Essentialist thinking
Focus of investigation at the level of the organism
Perfection in the functional relationship between
organic structure and conditions of living
Optimization (progressive improvement)
Evolutionary perspective to explain adaptation

Economy of nature
Essentialist thinking
Functional attribution is employed as explanatory
strategy
Perfection in the functional relationship between
organic structure and conditions of living
Optimization (optimum design)

Commitments shared with other zones


Economy of nature
Focus of investigation at the level of the organism
Functional attribution is employed as explanatory
strategy

Table 7.2 Epistemological and ontological characterization of the zones of a conceptual profile of adaptation

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interaction, (3) modes of thinking and ways of speaking about organic diversity that
interanimate one another along the discursive interactions, and (4) the social languages employed (including everyday and school science language).
The first episode analyzed here was produced in the first class of the teaching
sequence, more specifically when the teacher presented the phenomenon of the
diversity of life as one of the issues to be answered by the theories of evolution.
Episode 1: Each Being Adapts Itself to Each Environment
1. Teacher: Then I ask/We can see/you know/as biology students/about diversity/
about BIODIVERSITY/the number of organisms there are on Earth. So I
ask/why are these living beings found in SUCH diversity? Why are they so
diverse/these organisms? From single cell organisms with incredible variations/of the plant kingdom/animals/why does such a variation exist? And why
do they show such variable sizes and shapes? Do you imagine/why this happens?
2. Student 11: Phenomena of nature.
3. Teacher: Phenomenon of nature. Say a bit more about this phenomenon of
nature.
4. Student 11: Man/my mind here now/Teacher ((laughters))
5. Teacher: Come on. Anybody else? The question I asked/Why do living beings
have such varied sizes and shapes?
6. Student 1: They are different species.
7. Teacher: They are different species/And why do they present/
8. Student 2: Because one needs the other to live/Teacher.
9. Student 3: Yes if the world was perfect/the sky wouldnt be blue/the sea
wouldnt be green/and we wouldnt drink water.
10. Student 1: Because each one adapts to its environment/its habitat.
11. Teacher: What?
12. Student 1: Each person/each being adapts itself/
13. Teacher: To each environment. Right/depending on the adaptation to each
environment/it will present this variation or not/Is that it?
14. Student 1: Yes.
In the first speech turn, the teacher establishes the perspective from which the
phenomenon of organic diversity should be interpreted. Before asking the question
why are these living beings found in SUCH diversity?, she puts forward the
following claim: you know/as biology students/about diversity/about BIODIVERSITY
emphasizing the latter term, which is typical of the social language of biology. In
this way, the teacher situates the students in a given social group of speakers, biology students, and evokes the social language to be used, thus seeking to constrain
the discourse to the perspective of school science.
Student 11, between turns 2 and 4, in spite of using a term belonging to the natural
sciences, phenomena, continues to use everyday social language. It seems that he
does not see organic diversity as something that requires an explanation and/or think
it is sufficient to explain it merely through its classification as a natural phenomenon.

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The teacher interacts with this student between turns 1 and 4, through an I-R-P-R
pattern, and, in turn 5, encourages other students to bring new contributions.
In turn 6, student 1 answers using a term typical of biology, species. By doing
this, she continues to describe the phenomenon theoretically, which had already
been done by the teacher in her first initiation. The teacher makes a new initiation,
stimulating the students to suggest an explanation for the origins of diversity, some
mechanism for the diversification of organisms.
Student 2 answers in turn 8 by presenting an explanation committed to a providential perspective on adaptation. Based on the principle of the economy of nature,
he proposes that each species needs another to live, seemingly within a stable and
harmonic order in the natural world.
In the next speech turn, we see an utterance that may be a satirical joke and/or
indicate that student 3 does not see the point of the question asked by the teacher. If
we adopt the latter interpretation, we will be able to say that he takes the issue of
organic diversity as given, as not requiring an explanation, as it would be the case of
other phenomena observed in nature, such as the colour of the sky and sea, or the
fact that living beings need water.
As Mortimer and Scott (2003, p. 15) argue, from the point of view of everyday
language, it is not clear why a great number of events and phenomena that bring
about the elaboration of scientific explanatory models deserve an explanation. Many
natural phenomena, such as organic diversity, adaptation, and free fall, only exist as
problems to be solved from the point of view of the social language of science. This
interpretation of the utterance of student 3 is consistent with the reaction of student
11 in turns 2 and 4.
Then, in turns 10 and 12, student 1 presents an explanation in which, for the first
time, an expression related to adaptation (to adapt itself) is made available on the
social plane of the classroom and employed to explain the existence of organic diversity.
The teacher selects this student as a privileged interlocutor, and their linguistic
exchanges produce an explanation for the origins of organic diversity in which individual organisms are agents of their own process of adaptation to the environment.
In this discursive context, the expression adapts itself is employed as a synonym
of an active process, possibly presupposing a teleological basis.
Student 1 uses a way of speaking typical of the transformational perspective
when she places organisms as protagonists of the adaptive process. However, her
utterances contribute to the construction of the scientific story in the classroom,
since they establish a relationship between adaptation and the origins of diversity, as
well as set up a historical, process perspective for elaborating the explanation asked
for by the teacher.
In turn 13, the teacher reshapes the utterances put forth by student 1, producing
an account in which adaptation is no longer an act performed by the organism, while
the relationship between this phenomenon and the diversification of species is reaffirmed. This idea is made available to the whole class through a confirmatory
exchange with student 1.
In this episode, the teacher intends to explore the students ideas about the origins of biological diversity, while introducing the notion of evolution. A theoretical

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description of organic diversity under the light of concepts such as biodiversity and
taxonomic classification is presented to the students. Along the exchanges, the
teacher tries to direct the discourse towards the recognition of the necessity of proposing a scientific explanation to the phenomenon of biological diversity. For this,
she uses an authoritative/interactive communicative approach (Mortimer and Scott
2003). Although the students present different views about the phenomenon, she
only accepts what is in agreement with the school science point of view.
Regarding meaning making about the concept of adaptation, we can say that this
episode shows a negotiation between some epistemological commitments typical of
the modes of thinking represented in the first three zones of our profile model.
The answers given by students 11 (turn 2) and 3 (turn 9) have in common the fact
of considering the existence of biodiversity, as well as other natural phenomena, as
given, not requiring an explanation. This is one of the commitments typical of the first
zone of the conceptual profile of adaptation, that of interpreting it as self-evident.
The way student 2 speaks in turn 8 can be interpreted in terms of ontological and
epistemological commitments related to the providential adjustment zone, such as
the idea that there is harmony in nature and the tendency to interpret the existence
of organic diversity based on the principle of the economy of nature.
Student 1 (turns 10 and 12), when using the expression adapt itself in the way
she does, in order to put forth an explanation for organic diversity, introduces a
transformational way of speaking about adaptive change. She develops the idea that
the diversity of life can be explained as originating through a process carried out by
individual organisms as a result of their relationship with the environment. This
process is designated by the expression to adapt itself.
Table 7.3 presents a summary of modes of thinking and ways of speaking negotiated in this episode, as well as the discursive aspects involved in this process.
The second episode to be analyzed was produced during the second class of the
sequence, in which the teacher discussed with the students the case of diversification of the species of finches in the Galapagos Islands. After providing information
concerning the geographical distribution of the species of finches in the islands, the
relationship between their beak morphology and feeding habits, and the diversity of
environmental conditions in each island, the teacher asked the students to formulate
explanations for both the morphological diversity of the beaks and the origins of the
13 species of finches found in the Galapagos.
Episode 2: Had to Adapt to Survive and This Led to the Change of the Beaks
1. Teacher: Given this information/how do you explain the difference of the
beaks of finches of the Galapagos Islands?
2. Student 1: Because of the food/they fed/they fed according to the climate/
3. Student 2: Depending on what they fed.
4. Student 1: And also because/each island had its birds/its animals/So they
adapted/different individuals on each island/because of this. Because of the food
they ate/also because of the climate/because each island had a climate/so each
island had a kind of vegetation for them to feed on. So/because of this variation.

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Table 7.3 Discursive aspects that interact in meaning making about the concept of adaptation in
teaching episode 1
Teaching purposes

Discourse content
Communicative approach
Interaction patterns
Modes of thinking

Ways of speaking

Perspectives on meaning
making about the concept

Exploring students ideas: explanations for the origins of organic


diversity
Introducing the idea of evolution
Description and theoretical explanation
Authoritative/interactive
(14) I-R-P-R
(514) I-R1-P-R2-R3-R1-P-R1-S/I-R1
Biological diversity as a given phenomenon that does not require
explanation (students 3 and 11)
Biological diversity explained in terms of the principle of the
economy of nature (student 2)
Adaptation as a process that gives origin to diversity (student 1)
Everyday social language: phenomena of nature are self-evident
and do not require an explanation (students 3 and 11)
Individual organism is protagonist of an adjustment process to
the conditions (each one adapts itself) (student 1)
Negotiation between ontological and epistemological
commitments, as well as ways of speaking, of three zones:
intra-organic functionalism, providential adjustment, and
transformational perspective

5. Teacher: And?/Ok. Anyone else? Yes/student 3. How do you explain the


difference of the beaks?
6. Student 3: According to the/type of food they used to survive and according to
his habitat.
7. Teacher: Right. According to the environment in which they lived/and the
food/that explains the difference of the beaks. Isnt that right? Ok. On the
continent we find only one species of finch/while on the islands THIRTEEN
species of this same bird genre. What explains this diversity of birds/of
the group of finches on the islands? Han? What explains it/Folks? Hello!/on the
continent we have one finch species/right? And on the island we have
THIRTEEN different species. What explains the diversity of this group of
finches/What explains the diversity? On the continent, we have only one
species and, on the islands, we have THIRTEEN species? What explains
that? Tell me.
8. Student 3: The others did not adapt/to the continent. Lets say that the kind of
food that the continental one eats/the others are unable to eat.
9. Teacher: Yes. Anybody else? What explains that on the continent we have only
one and there we have thirteen?/How does this happen?
10. Student 4: Because his feeding habit is different from that of the other birds?
11. Teacher: The feeding habit is different? How could this be? We are working
from the point of view of evolution. So what happens? We have seen that/one
of the points of the theory of evolution is the common ancestor. Is that true?
And here is the information from the text that probably the species from the

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12.
13.
14.
15.
16.
17.
18.
19.

20.
21.
22.
23.
24.
25.
26.
27.

28.
29.
30.
31.
32.
33.
34.
35.

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continent ((raising her voice, as student 3 tries to say something)) is the ancestor
of these thirteen species/right? This helps to improve/
Student 3: Teacher/lets say that the one on the continent does not have a good
evolution/yes? It does not evolve itself/
Teacher: On the continent he would not have a good evolution. What would be
a good evolution/Student 3?
Student 3: Does not adapt to other kinds of/
Teacher: What happened?
Non-identified Student: The capacity to adapt.
Teacher: The capacity to adapt.
Non-identified student: To the new environment.
Teacher: The capacity to adapt to the environment. If we work with the idea of
a common ancestor/What is a common ancestor? It is a species that originates/
that is there from others. How can we explain this? What happened? If these
thirteen are originated from a common ancestor/how could this have/
Student 2: From the continent went to the islands/
Teacher: Yes.
Student 2: And he ended up adapting itself there. And there he/
Teacher: Yes. From the continent/the occupation went to the islands ((a gesture
that gives the idea of migration)) and arriving there/what happens?
Student 2: He had to feed/so he/
Student 1: It is like that theory that the ancestors/there werent/they didnt
have forks
Student 2: He goes on adapting himself/
Student 1: The teeth were like the canine tooth due to feeding/because they
had to tear/and as time passed/they started to handle/cutlery and so on/and
because they did not have to feed that way/so their teeth changed over time and
got to be like ours.
Teacher: Right. And turning back to the birds ((laughter)).
Student 1: So/it is that he moved from the continent/he had to learn/
Teacher: He left the continent to the island/the population went there. Arriving
there/he found?
Student 2: Food/
Teacher: Different food. It is showing there/that on the islands we found there
a great variety of food and environments/right? And then?
Student 2: And then he had to adapt to survive.
Teacher: They had to adapt to survive.
Student 2: And then the change of the beaks occurred.

The way of speaking about the diversity of the beaks of the Galapagos finches
used by student 3 in these speech turns shows a linguistic mark characteristic of the
providential adjustment mode of thinking, namely, the use of the term according
to as a manner of establishing a relationship of a necessary adjustment between a
morphological structure, the beak, and the carrying out of a vital activity for the
organism, the exploration of a feeding resource.

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In turn 4, student 1 causally associates the morphological diversity of the beaks


with the environmental conditions found in the islands. We can say, thus, that this
student shows a tendency of perceiving the role played by the relationship between
organisms and their ecological circumstances in the explanation of the diversification of organic forms, an important commitment for the development of a variational (Darwinist) perspective for interpreting adaptation.
In this same speech turn, this student refers to adaptation by using the verb to
adapt in the past tense, denoting the idea of a process that already occurred. We
have, thus, a first attempt to use an evolutionary perspective to interpret organic
diversification. However, as in the previous episode, the term adaptation continues
to be employed in the sense of an active process of adjustment of the organisms to
the environment.
Between speech turns 1 and 7, the teacher interacts with the students using a pattern I-R-P. In turn 7, she makes a new initiation, proposing that the students explain
the diversity of the species of finches in the Galapagos by considering that only one
species of such birds is found on the South American continent.
Student 3 proposes, then, an explanation using a variant of the term adaptation
(turn 8), previously made available by student 1. In this context, however, the verb
to adapt is employed in the present tense, denoting the situation of a group of
organisms being adjusted to the environmental conditions. In turn 10, student 4
presents a point of view similar to that expressed by student 3, but in a hesitant manner (turn 10). The teacher negatively evaluates her answer in turn 11 and makes a
new initiation.
It is important to pay attention to some linguistic aspects of the teachers utterances. Between the speech turns 1 and 10, the most frequent questions posed by her
had the following forms: how do you explain and what explains. This way of formulating the questions turns the focus to proximate causes of a mechanistic nature, or
to the presentation of explanatory factors, making it less likely that the students give
attention to ultimate, evolutionary causes. After turn 11, she begins to formulate questions for the students by using lexical resources that denote the ideas of succession of
events or occurrence of processes. We can see this happening in questions of the form
what happened and in the use of the terms evolution and originate.
Between turns 11 and 19, the teacher interacts with student 3 and another unidentified student through a triadic pattern I-R-E. These students contributions bring a
point of view characteristic of the providential adjustment zone, since they produce
utterances in which evolution and adaptation appear as properties or capacities of
the organisms being adjusted to environmental conditions, using constructions such
as have a good evolution and [have] the capacity to adapt.
In turn 19, the teacher tries to change the direction of the students explanations
by highlighting the concept of common ancestry and offering clues concerning how
it can be used to explain the origins of the diversity of Galapagos finches. Then, she
insists on the question what happened? suggesting that the students needed to
consider a chain of events, from which they could build a narrative.
Students 2 and 1 accept the teachers proposal and begin to build an explanatory
model that is closer to the one she expects, by means of the construction of

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narratives. Student 2 proposes, between turns 20 and 22, that the ancestral species
went to the islands and adapted there. The teacher makes an intervention, then,
that changes the order in which the event of adaptation takes place. The narrative
begins, then, to show the following sequence of events: the ancestral bird went from
the continent to the islands, and, when it arrived there, it had to feed, and, then, it
began to adapt itself. This was an important operation to move meaning making
about the concept of adaptation towards an evolutionary perspective: the term
adaptation, previously used to designate a self-evident phenomenon, begins to
refer to a phenomenon resulting from some other event or process. In this narrative,
adaptation results from the need of the bird to feed itself.
The meaning ascribed to the term adaptation, a process resulting from a necessity felt by the organism, and the type of agency in the narrative, the organism as the
protagonist of the adaptive process, produce a way of speaking that reveals a negotiation towards the construction of a transformational perspective.
In turns 25 and 27, student 1 builds a narrative with the purpose of creating an analogy between the situation interpreted by student 2 the diversification of the beaks of
finches and the change in the morphology of the human dental arch throughout the
evolution of our species. The narrative is made up of the following sequence of events:
our ancestors handled cutlery and stopped eating in other ways, that is, tearing the
meat, and teeth changed gradually until getting to the current morphology.
By contrast to the previous narrative, it is not the organisms that bring about the
adaptive change, but it is the morphological structure of the species that undergoes
the change: the teeth changed over time.
In turn 28, the teacher asks the students to come back to the development of a
narrative for the problem that was initially proposed, and, between turns 29 and 35,
a third narrative is built by the teacher and students 1 and 2, through a triadic pattern
of interaction I-R-E.
The narrative resulting from this interaction has the following sequence of
events: the ancestor bird migrates from the continent to the islands, finds different
feeding resources and environments, and adapts itself to survive, and the change of
the beaks occurs.
This new narrative presents some changes when compared to the previous one.
The connection between the events arrive in the islands and having to feed themselves or having to adapt themselves is better qualified by introducing the event in
which the ancestral bird found a range of resources in the archipelago. This addition
is made possible by the evaluation by the teacher in turn 32. In this second narrative,
differently from the first, the end point is the diversification of the beaks, not the
adaptation of the birds to the island. Another important aspect is that the birds appear
as protagonists of the actions of migrating, finding different feeding resources, and
adapting themselves, but they are not the protagonists of the change of the beaks.
Rather, this change appears as a consequence of the process of adaptation the
change of the beaks occurred.
We can say, therefore, that the discursive interactions are moving throughout this
episode towards the development of the scientific story and the construction of a
way of speaking closer to the perspective of school science.

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In this episode, the teacher had two intentions: to explore the students ideas and
to introduce and develop the scientific story. The interactions between the teacher
and students relate to the theoretical explanation of the diversification of the beaks
of the finches. Although the teacher encouraged the students at the beginning of the
episode to present their explanatory models, without making evaluations, after turn
11, she established the direction for the students to develop their explanations.
Therefore, the communicative approach that prevailed in this episode was authoritative/interactive.
Concerning meaning making about the concept of adaptation, we can conclude
that there was a negotiation around the commitments that ground the way of thinking corresponding to the providential adjustment zone, towards the development of
a transformational perspective for interpreting adaptation (the third zone in our profile model).
In the beginning of the episode (turns 1 to 19), an interpretation of the concept of
adaptation as a state of being of the organisms, namely, that of being adjusted to the
environmental conditions, prevails. This is an ontological commitment typical of
the providential adjustment zone. The use of the expressions according to and
capacity to adapt is a linguistic hallmark indicating this perspective (turns 6, 16,
17). However, a change in the way of thinking and speaking about adaptation takes
place, more specifically in relation to its ontological nature. As students 1 and 2
propose to interpret the diversification of the finches through the construction of
narratives, the term adaptation is used to designate a gradual process of change.
The use of the expression goes on adapting itself (turn 26) is a linguistic hallmark
of this new way of signifying the concept. This new ontological commitment
provided the development of an evolutionary perspective for interpreting the
origins and diversification of organic form, an epistemological commitment shared
by the transformational and variational zones of the conceptual profile.
At the very beginning of the episode (turn 4), student 1 provided a seed for the
development of a distinctive epistemological commitment of the variational zone:
the focus on the relations between the organisms and their ecological setting.
However, this point of view was not explored.
In Table 7.4, we present a summary of the aspects involved in the process of
meaning making about the concept of adaptation during this episode.
The third episode occurred at the end of the second lesson. The teacher was concluding the lesson by checking the students understanding about some notions
introduced in it, such as common ancestry and intrapopulational variation, and about
the explanatory models for the diversification of the beaks of birds that were
collectively constructed.
Episode 3: Then, What I Said Was Wrong
1. Teacher: Folks/this case here/that we just talked a little about/is it clear? It has
some things/No/student 2?
2. Student 2: Then/why/in this case/Why does she change the beak?

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Table 7.4 Discursive aspects that interact in meaning making about the concept of adaptation in
episode 2
Teaching purposes

Discourse content
Communicative approach
Patterns of interaction

Modes of thinking

Ways of speaking

Perspectives on meaning
making about the concept

3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.

Exploring students ideas: explanations for the diversity of the


beaks of finches in the Galapagos Islands
Introducing and developing the scientific story: introducing the
notion of common ancestry and an evolutionary
perspective
Theoretical explanation
Authoritative/interactive
(17): I-R1-R2-R1-P-R3-S
(719): I-R-E triads
(1928): I-R2-P-R2-E/I-R2-R1-R2-R1-E
(2835): I-R-E triads
(119) Adaptation as a property or state of being of the
organism
(1935) Adaptation as the process of evolutionary change
(119) Affirmation of the relation of necessary adjustment
between morphological structure and vital activity of the
organism
Recurring terms and expressions: according to, capacity to
adapt
(1935) Narrative in which organisms or groups of organisms
are protagonists of a transformation towards the adjustment
to the needs of survival
Recurring expressions: it goes on adapting itself, had to adapt
Negotiation around the commitments of the zone of providential
adjustment towards the development of commitments of
the transformational zone

Teacher: Why does she change the beak?


Student 2: Due to feeding. Doesnt it?
Teacher: Yes (in a categorical tone). It has to do with feeding.
Student 6: Due to feeding or is this inherited?
Teacher: What?
Student 6: Due to feeding or is this inherited?
Teacher: We have the following data/the shape of the beak is an inherited trait.
What do we have? We have in a population some variations. We read here in
the text/in a given population of finches there will be a variety of beak sizes.
Then/what happens? Depending on the environment in which that population
is? What the type of food will do? It will select? ((The teacher makes a gesture
with her hand, as if she was bringing something to herself))
10. Student 1: The species.
11. Teacher: Those organisms/the species that have? ((she makes a gesture indicating a large beak)) that will have conditions for feeding on that type. Then as time
goes by this population goes changing/it goes passing by/Because we have two
main factors/when we study evolution/in the variability of a population/which
are mutations and genetic variability itself/which we will study soon.

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12.
13.
14.
15.
16.
17.

Student 2: Then/what I said was wrong.


Teacher: No. It is not wrong what you said/we are in this process in which we will/
Student 2: But I was harshly criticized/teacher. ((Laughters in the classroom))
Teacher: Criticized for what?
Student 2: Because I said that it was genetic.
Teacher: Folks/I want you to do/quickly/the registration of these/Have you
already returned the guides/havent you? ((The teacher turns to the organization of the activities for the next week)).

We consider this episode as initiated by student 2, since it is his initiation that


defines the interaction that follows. Student 2 asks a question in which he seeks to
verify the plausibility and correctness of his ideas about the causal mechanism of
evolutionary change. This action was motivated by the fact that student 6, in other
moments during the lesson, argued that the beak of the birds was hereditary and,
therefore, could not grow as the birds tried to eat larger seeds, as the explanations
given by student 2 assumed.
Between turns 2 and 5, student 2 asks for confirmation from the teacher about the
proposal that the bird population changes their beaks due to feeding. Student 6
speaks to the teacher in turns 6 and 8, trying to confirm which causal factor, after all,
is responsible for the change in the morphology of the beaks of the birds. By doing
so, she opposes, as mutually exclusive, genetic inheritance, a factor internal to the
organism, and feeding here meaning the supply of food a factor external to the
organism.
In the face of this students intervention, in turns 9 and 11, the teacher seeks to
clarify not only the type of causal role feeding may have in evolutionary change in
natural populations but also the role of genetic inheritance in this process.
It is indeed necessary to distinguish between the causal role of environmental
conditions in variational and transformational explanations of adaptation. In the
explanations given by student 2 during the class, feeding appears as a factor which
directly affects individual organisms, generating changes in the size of their beaks.
At the end of turn 9 and the beginning of turn 11, the teacher seeks to make it clear
that the supply of food will affect the population by selecting organisms with beak
sizes that enable them to exploit the available resources, that is, that the type of food
acts as a selective agent.
Once she has clarified the role of the external factors in adaptive change, the
teacher briefly mentions, at the end of turn 11, the role played by factors that are
internal to the organism, related to genetic inheritance, focusing on the production
of variability in the population.
After the teachers intervention, student 2 concludes that the model proposed by
him is not correct even if this was not explicitly said by her. The teacher opposes the
students conclusion, suggesting that they were still elaborating these ideas in the
classroom, so that what he said was not wrong, but needed to be further worked out.
Student 2 argues, then, that his colleagues had harshly criticized his model because
it contradicted the hereditary nature of the size of the beaks. But the teacher ignores
the students argument and finishes the class by turning to the orientations for the
students homework.

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191

With regard to the modes of thinking about adaptation, epistemological commitments of the transformational perspectives are put into discussion in this episode,
and there is an effort to build univocality around the variational perspective.
The notion that adaptive changes occur at the level of individual organisms begins
to be negotiated towards the idea that they are phenomena at the level of the population. This happens since the first speech turns, when student 2 no longer mentions the
individual (he) or the individual organisms (they), but the population (as indicated
in his utterance by the use of she, as population is feminine, in gender, and in
Portuguese we use she or he to mark the gender of a word). The aspect queried by
student 6 and which gave rise to this episode is based on the impossibility of an adaptive change, an increase in the average size of the beaks in the population of finches,
to occur at the ontogenetic level, giving rise, through accumulation, to a phylogenetic
change. What is put into discussion, thus, is one of the key assumptions of the transformational explanations held by students 1 and 2, so far.
Having analyzed the aspects related to the modes of thinking about adaptation
that interact in this episode, we need to highlight the ways of speaking being
negotiated.
In the utterances of student 2, the population of organisms is the protagonist of
adaptive change why does she change the beak? (turn 2). In the teachers narrative,
in speech turns 9 and 11, there is a change of the agent that acts as the protagonist
of the evolutionary change. It is no longer the population of organisms, but, rather,
environmental factors which are external to the organisms, in this case the supply of
food the type of food () will select () those organisms. Also, the term select
is used by the teacher on the social plane of the classroom. This is a term associated
with the central concept in the Darwinist narrative of adaptive change, natural
selection.
If, on the one hand, two aspects of the teachers speech make the variational way
of speaking available in the classroom, on the other, there are two slips that work
against its stabilization. One of them is the improper use of the term species in the
beginning of turn 11, when repeating the contribution of student 1 in turn 10.
Another is the repetition of the construction in which the population is the subject
of evolutionary change, typical of transformational utterances this population
goes changing/it goes passing by (also in turn 11). A more adequate way of formulating this utterance from the perspective of school science could use the following
form: the population undergoes a modification.
In general, however, the teacher guided the discourse towards the construction
of univocality around the variational perspective. Through two long speech turns
(9 and 11), the teacher constructed a narrative of the evolutionary change of the
beaks in the population of finches, using, for this purpose, the social language of
school science. She brought concepts related to the variational perspective into this
narrative, such as natural selection and genetic variability, and produced ways of
speaking typical of the variational approach, as in the examples of utterances in
which external factors are the agents of evolutionary change. At the same time, she did
not provide the opportunity for other points of view to be explored and developed,
as, for instance, the transformational perspective brought by student 2 in speech

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Table 7.5 Discursive aspects that interact in meaning making about the concept of adaptation in
episode 3
Teaching purposes
Discourse content

Communicative approach
Patterns of interaction

Modes of thinking

Ways of speaking

Perspectives on meaning
making about the concept

Checking students ideas


Description and theoretical explanation: mechanisms
of adaptive change of the beaks of finches
Generalization: role of internal and external factors
in evolutionary change
Authoritative/interactive
(13) I-R-E
(317) Verbal exchanges difficult to fit
in question-and-answer patterns
Variational perspective
Interpretation of the causal processes involved in the evolution
of organic form through the investigation of factors external
and internal to the organisms
Utterances in which environmental factors appear as agents
of the evolutionary process (environmental conditions
select/favour well-equipped variants)
Construction of an authoritative discourse around the
variational perspective

turns 2 and 4. The communicative approach was, therefore, predominantly authoritative and interactive, since only the voice of school science was considered.
Table 7.5 summarizes the discursive aspects that characterize the context in
which this process of meaning making about the concept of adaptation occurred.
By using this type of analysis in a set of 13 episodes produced throughout the
teaching sequence as a whole, it was possible to describe, in semantic, linguistic,
and social terms, the discursive contexts in which there was negotiation of meanings
around different explanatory models for evolutionary change, as well as those in
which univocality towards a variational perspective was built.
We concluded that the construction of narrative explanations was a fundamental
step in negotiating between a providential and a transformational (and, thus, evolutionary) perspective in the interpretation of adaptation. The emergence of an evolutionary explanation of this kind occurred after the introduction of the notion of
common ancestry, through an authoritative communicative approach and the use of
phraseological resources that led to the development of a historical narrative.
The emphasis on the phenotypic variation in the populations, the comparison
between the efficiency of the variant forms in performing the same task, and the
treatment of demographic phenomena were, in turn, conditions for the development
of a way of thinking characteristic of the (Darwinist) variational perspective for
interpreting adaptation.
A change in the way of speaking that was important for the development of this
perspective consisted in the change of the agents in the narratives. Initially, the narratives constructed in the classroom had the organisms as agents responsible for
their own adaptive change. A distinctive mark of this way of speaking was the recurring use of the expression had to adapt. When proposing challenges and supporting

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193

the students in their elaboration of narratives, the teacher managed to move this role
to the populations of organisms and, later, to environmental factors. Starting in the
fourth lesson, in a noninteractive manner, she herself used narratives in which there
were no clear agents, but a chain of events leading to the evolutionary change of
populations of organisms. In this new way of speaking made available in the classroom, populations and organisms became objects of a process of evolution by natural selection. The use of expressions such as were selected, were favoured, and
underwent change is a representative linguistic mark of this variational way of
speaking about adaptation.
The application of the adaptation conceptual profile model to the analysis of
teaching episodes made it clear, therefore, the fact that, in the signification of
Darwinist explanations, not only epistemological and ontological commitments
structuring modes of thinking about adaptation are negotiated but also ways of
speaking about this concept.

7.6

Identification of Ways of Speaking About


Adaptation and the Enunciative Characterization
of the Profile Zones

One of our investments to increase the heuristic power of the conceptual profile
model proposed in this study was to characterize ways of speaking typical of each
of its zones in terms of the social languages employed and the typical forms of utterances produced in meaning making about the concept of adaptation. Departing from
Bakhtins (1981, 1986) notions of social language and speech genre, we proposed
an enunciative characterization of each of the four zones that make up our conceptual profile of adaptation.

7.6.1

Enunciative Characterization of the Intra-organic


Functionalism Zone

This zone includes two ways of speaking about adaptation which have in common
the fact that they do not recognize the Darwinist problem of adaptation as a question
demanding an etiological answer.
The aspect that makes these ways of speaking distinguishable from the others is
the fact that they take the natural phenomena at stake as given, not demanding,
therefore, an explanation. Among the expressions that identify utterances related to
this zone, we have the following: it is the very nature [of something] and it came
from nature itself. This speech genre tends to be used by the students in situations in
which they are asked generic, non-contextualized questions about what might
explain the diversity of existing living organisms or how a given organic structure
may have arisen or, even, how the morphology of an organism could be explained.

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This occurs especially when these questions bring with them the idea of a great
mystery to be solved. This is the case, for instance, of the following questions
asked by the teachers in high school classrooms, in two teaching sequences used as
sources of data in this study: So, I ask/why do these living beings present themselves in SUCH diversity? Why are they so diverse/these organisms? or How did
these organisms get to these structures that help them survive in this environment?
How? What led to this?
The second way of speaking found in this zone is marked by a functional analysis of adaptive organic structures that is non-etiological in nature. In this case,
when asked for an explanation about the origin and diversification of adaptive
structures, the students analyze how each of the parts that make up this structure
fulfils their function, so as to contribute to the functioning of the whole system and,
therefore, to a vital activity of the organism.
This kind of explanation is structurally similar to a systemic functional ascription, as we found in Cummins functional analysis ([1975]1998). Cummins states
that such functional explanations can be regarded as a distinct (from etiological,
evolutionary explanations) and legitimate form of explanation in biology, in which
the goal is to explain the capacities of a system in terms of its parts dispositions.
However, this is obviously not the explanatory goal of an evolutionary explanation,
which is focused on the origin of a structure, behaviour, or mechanism in a living
system. Therefore, this type of functional analysis, although legitimate, is not prone
to lead, in the context of evolution teaching, to learning about variational explanations, which are the major goal of school science, among the zones of the adaptation
profile model.
In the primary data obtained in our research, this way of speaking was predominantly used in the interpretation of a scenario related to the diversification of mammalian jaw (see, e.g. the utterance quoted in Sect. 7.4.1). The reasons for this finding
can be realized if we consider that the text and picture used, besides comparing the
shape and disposition of the teeth in groups of mammals with different feeding
habits, also presented a description of the different types of teeth that make up the
mammalian dental arch. Some of these pictures were extracted and adapted from a
higher education textbook (Purves et al. 2005, p. 895). As in other higher education
and high school textbooks, these pictures are found in chapters that discuss the morphology of mammalian jaws from the standpoint of functional rather than evolutionary biology. We can assume, then, that the students identified in this scenario the
speech genre of school science, but it was, in this case, a speech genre characteristic
of functional, not evolutionary biology. For this reason, although the question following the scenario prompted them to reflect upon a phenomenon studied by evolutionary biology organic diversification the students tended to use the speech
genre proper of functional biology.
From this analysis of the relationships between the speakers utterances and the
discursive context in which they find themselves, the following characteristics of
the way of speaking related to the intra-organic functionalism zone can be identified: (1) use of an everyday social language in which the natural phenomena at stake
are taken to be given, not requiring causal explanations; (2) use of a functional

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language typical of school science, commonly related to the way of speaking of


functional biology; (3) utterances starting with the description of the function fulfilled by each part of an organic system and ending by showing how these functions
contribute to the functionality or capacities of the system as a whole; (4) use of the
term adaptation as a self-explanatory principle.

7.6.2

Enunciative Characterization of the Providential


Adjustment Zone

The utterances produced in the discursive contexts in which the zone of providential
adjustment emerged are characterized by establishing a relationship of necessary
conformity between, on the one hand, a morphological structure and, on the other,
a vital activity of an organism or its capacity to carry it out. Generally speaking,
these utterances show the following structure: a structure x, or a morphology x of
this structure, enables organism y, or group w of organisms y, to carry out a vital
activity z or to fulfil its role in the economy of nature. Moreover, it is this adjustment
between a structure and the capacity to carry out a certain vital activity that explains
the existence of the former. The term adaptation, when employed in these utterances, refers to a property or a state of being of a structure and is, also, taken to be
a sufficient explanation for its existence. The following expressions are commonly
used in such utterances: is adapted, has adaptations, and has the capacity of
adapting.
The use of a teleological language is also frequent in the utterances related to this
way of thinking. The social language used to produce them is also characterized by
praising the complexity of the living form and its perfect adjustment to function.

7.6.3

Enunciative Characterization of the Transformational


Perspective Zone

In the classroom discursive interactions, the transformational way of speaking is


used more frequently in situations in which students are challenged for the first time
to predict what could occur with natural populations in the face of environmental
changes. This occurs especially in cases in which the teacher uses phraseological
resources that suggest the occurrence of a sequence of events, such as the question
What happened?
The social language used in these discursive contexts is marked by the use of personification or anthropomorphization to speak about the process of evolutionary
change, by the use of teleological statements, by the emphasis on the idea of progress,
and by the focus on processes occurring at the level of the individual organism.
The utterances are structured as a narrative lived by an organism, or a group of
organisms, which guides its own transformation towards a final stage of adjustment

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to the survival needs in certain environmental conditions. The themes of these


utterances are phenomena related to the constitution and functioning of individual
organisms, efficient mechanisms that operate at the level of the organism, and the
accommodation of the organic form to the environment.
The distinctive discursive marks of this way of speaking lie in the fact that the
organisms are represented as agents of their own evolutionary change, as well as in
the recurring use of the expression have to adapt itself. The term adaptation designates the very process of evolutionary change and is generally employed as a verb,
to adapt itself.

7.6.4

Enunciative Characterization of the Variational


Perspective Zone

The students generally begin to use this way of speaking in classroom discursive
interactions when an authoritative discourse, characterized by univocality around
certain concepts characteristic of the social language of school science, has been
built. For instance, this way of speaking tends to appear after the students understand the concept of common ancestry, the principle that organic diversity should be
explained from a historical point of view, and, fundamentally, that one needs to
analyze the relationship between available resources and the differential efficiency
of the organisms in using them. The analysis of data about demographic changes in
natural populations as a result of environmental transformations also favours the
production of variational narratives. This way of speaking comes to be employed
with greater fluency by the students only when a kind of intersubjective contract
(Rommetveit 1979) to accept the perspective of school science is univocally
established.
The variational way of speaking about adaptation is characterized by the focus
on the relations between organisms and their ecological setting, the tendency of
considering factors internal and external to the organism when analyzing the origins
of organic forms, and the comparison between the efficiencies of phenotypic variants to carry out a given function in specific environmental conditions.
Utterances are structured as narratives in which the organisms are the objects
of evolutionary forces, both internal and external to them. The commonly
mentioned events are the production and/or existence of variation in the population, environmental change, differential survival and reproduction, selection of
variants, and changes in the phenotypic and/or genotypic frequencies in the
population.
In stylistic terms, the utterances are marked by the frequent use of comparatives
of superiority used to express the differential efficiency of phenotypic variants
as well as by the recurrent use of the expressions have more success than, have
greater capacity to, be favoured, and be selected. The term adaptation designates
the result of a process of evolutionary change by natural selection and appears in the
utterances as something to be explained.

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7.7

197

Final Remarks

We seek to contribute in this study with two of the three tasks to be faced by the
research programme on conceptual profiles, according to El-Hani and Mortimer
(2007, p. 677): (1) determining the zones that constitute the profile of central concepts in the understanding of a field of scientific knowledge in this case, a central
concept of evolutionary biology and (2) to investigate the relation between modes
of thinking and ways of speaking in meaning making in the science classroom.
In this chapter, we emphasized two methodological contributions that the
construction of a conceptual profile of adaptation brought to the research programme: (1) the proposal of constructing an epistemological matrix as an important
methodological step to organize the polysemy around the concept under study, so as
to generate categories from which the zones of a profile model can be derived, and
(2) the indication that data resulting from the analysis of classroom discourse can be
incorporated into the process of building conceptual profile models, since these data
make it possible to characterize the ways of speaking typical of each of the zones,
described in terms of social languages employed and typical forms of utterance
produced in meaning making about a concept. In this manner, it is possible to integrate an epistemological and an enunciative characterization in the construction of
the zones of a profile.
Finally, we would like to indicate some implications of the study to the construction of pedagogical practice in the science classroom. First, it entails that a
teacher needs to be concerned not only with promoting the understanding of the
epistemological and ontological commitments that structure new ways of thinking
about the concepts being taught but also with the students appropriation of the
social language of school science and the speech genres used to build utterances
related to certain perspectives for interpreting the concept. In the case of teaching
about the theory of evolution by natural selection, it is important to guide the students in mastering the ways of speaking closest to the variational perspectives.
This can be done, for example, through the production of utterances in which
organisms are represented as objects of the evolutionary process, as in the statement the resistant bacteria were favoured, instead of utterances in which the
organisms appear as subjects of evolutionary change, as in the claim that the bacteria
developed (or evolved) resistance.
A second implication relates to the fact that some epistemological and ontological commitments structuring zones of the profile that are genetically previous to
those amounting to the ways of speaking currently accepted as part of school science can be seen not only as epistemological obstacles but also as possible conceptual seeds for the development of the later zones. This claim is supported, for
example, by the analysis of the role that the transformational narratives can have in
the construction of a variational evolutionary perspective in the classroom, from
non-evolutionary accounts of adaptations. Even though the former narratives are
structured around epistemological commitments characteristic of a transformational
perspective, their production in the classroom discursive interactions was the first

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step for the students who interpreted adaptation as a providential property of the
organisms to begin interpreting adaptation from an evolutionary, although not
Darwinist, perspective.
In view of this finding, we advance that the construction of conceptual understanding can be seen as a process in which many ideas that are initially taken as supposed ontological and epistemological obstacles can or even should be converted
into thinking tools that draw the students gradually towards the social language and
perspective of school science. In this process, those ideas are re-signified so as to give
way to the appropriation of new ways of speaking and new modes of thinking.
Therefore, our teaching effort should not aim at merely promoting students breaking
away with the ontological and epistemological commitments that structure zones
that are genetically older than those related to school science. These commitments
should be rather negotiated so that their heuristic aspects that may serve as conceptual seeds are conserved, while other aspects which can be seen, in fact, as obstacles
to the appropriation of school science are re-signified. In the case of the transformational narratives frequently built by the students, two heuristic aspects should be
valued: the historical approach to the explanation of adaptations and the notion that
environmental changes play a role in the evolutionary process. However, it is necessary to re-signify other aspects, such as (1) the idea that the environment acts directly
on the organisms, which is distinct from an understanding of the environment as
playing a selective role, and (2) the type of agency in the narratives, shifting agency
from organisms themselves to selective pressures from the environment.

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Cincias, 7, 283306.
Mortimer, E. F., & Scott, P. (2003). Meaning making in secondary science classrooms. Maidenhead:
Open University Press.
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The science of biology] (Vol. 3, 6th ed.). Porto Alegre: Artmed.
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de Bakhtin [The discourse genre in the dialogic perspective of language: The Bakhtins
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genres and textual genres: Theoretical and applied issues]. In J. J. Meurer, A. Bonini, &
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Keywords in evolutionary biology (pp. 1318). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chapter 8

A Conceptual Profile of Entropy


and Spontaneity: Characterising Modes
of Thinking and Ways of Speaking in
the Classroom
Edenia Maria Ribeiro do Amaral, Eduardo F. Mortimer,
and Phil Scott

8.1

Introduction

In this chapter, we present results of empirical studies for characterising zones of a


conceptual profile combining the concepts of entropy and spontaneity of physical
and chemical processes. We have dealt with two dimensions for the concept of
energy, as it is usually approached in the natural sciences transfer and distribution
of energy. For the first case, transfer of energy, we proposed zones for a conceptual
profile of heat (see Chap. 1; Amaral and Mortimer 2001). In the second case, distribution of energy, zones were constituted for the entropy concept associated to the
spontaneity idea (Amaral and Mortimer 2004, 2006; this chapter).
We are aware that other dimensions are implicated in a wider comprehension of
energy, for instance, availability, conservation, and storage. Nevertheless, it seems for
us reasonable to consider that, starting from the two dimensions introduced in this
chapter, important questions can be explored in the science classroom, such as the following: Why natural and artificial processes occur? How is energy transferred or modified in these processes? Comprehension about heat, endothermic, and exothermic
mechanisms can contribute to understand the role played by energy in transformations
of matter, and a profile of conceptions about entropy can be helpful to understand reasons for the spontaneous occurrence, or not, of physical and chemical processes,

P. Scott (deceased)
E.M.R. do Amaral (*)
Department of Chemistry, Rural Federal University of Pernambuco (UFRPE),
Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil
e-mail: edsamaral@uol.com.br
E.F. Mortimer
Faculty of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Av. Antnio Carlos 6627, 3840440
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
e-mail: mortimer@ufmg.br
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_8, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

201

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highlighting how energy can be distributed in matter. Long-term studies might progressively include other dimensions related to the energy concept in a similar framework.
Three zones were proposed for the conceptual profile of entropy and spontaneity.
They are theoretically supported by ideas proposed mainly by Bachelard (1936/1978),
Putnam (1995), and Van Fraassen (1993). The perceptive/intuitive zone comprises
ideas about spontaneity related to immediate notions, perceptions, intuitions, and
sensations, which are not organised in a coherent framework. They are strongly associated to the social and historical context in which spontaneous processes just occur
naturally. In the empirical zone, the scientific point of view begins to be considered:
Spontaneous processes can occur when we provide some physical conditions for that
(such as appropriate temperature and pressure). Considering observation as being
theory laden, the empirical zone can also be characterised by ideas related to the use
of algorithms and mathematical equations in deciding if familiar processes are spontaneous or not. In this case, frequently, students handle exercises without knowing
the meaning of mathematical symbols and conventions, which are used for practical
purposes. In the rationalist zone, finally, scientific ideas about the distribution of
energy in atomic-molecular dimensions and also about random spatial distribution of
particles are found. Meaning for entropy and free energy of Gibbs can be reached
starting from the particulate model of matter.
Finally, in this chapter, we analyse classroom situations and point out that in the
science classroom, students can reveal ideas such as the ones identified in the above
zones. These ideas when structured in a conceptual profile can be useful for the students to make distinctions among different modes of thinking and different meaning
for scientific concepts associated to specific contexts. In this sense, conceptual profiles can be useful for teachers in planning and performing chemistry lessons.
In the analysis of classroom situations, we focus not only on the epistemological
aspects of the content of the lessons but also on the discursive aspects in relation to
the nature of the interactions between teacher and students. We then look for any
relationships between these epistemological and discursive aspects.
The epistemological aspects are analysed in relation to the zones of a conceptual
profile of entropy and spontaneity of physical and chemical processes. In the analysis of the discursive aspects, we draw upon the framework proposed by Mortimer
and Scott (2003) for the analysis of the dynamics of classroom interactions.
The conceptual profile theory (Mortimer 1995, 2000) was initially inspired in
Bachelards (1936/1978) idea of epistemological profiles. Bachelard introduced
the idea that the concepts of any individual are dispersed across different philosophical views, depending on their stage of development, emphasising the pluralism of culture and philosophy. Just as in Bachelards epistemological profile, the
conceptual profile is composed of different conceptual zones distributed according to a genetic order, with each zone having a greater complexity than the previous one. In subsequent developments, conceptual profiles went far from
Bachelards ideas by being integrated into a theoretical framework which treats
science learning as learning the social language of school science through classroom discursive interactions. In this framework, aspects from different theories
the theory of language of the Bakhtin circle, Vygotskys theory of the development
of higher mental functions, and Mortimer and Scotts analytical framework (2003)

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203

for research into classroom communicative approaches are integrated into a


synthesis made coherent by several shared assumptions, characteristic of sociointeractionist or sociocultural approaches. The discussion about the theoretical
bases for the conceptual profile theory is available in Chap. 1 of this book. In turn,
a discussion of the methodology used to build conceptual profiles and apply them
to classroom discourse analysis is available in Chap. 3.
As outlined in the discussion presented above, our focus here lies on the conceptual
profile developed for the complementary concepts of entropy and spontaneity, which
will be discussed later in this chapter. We will deal with ideas found in different contexts and sources the history of science, the literature on science education, and the
chemistry classroom in order to develop zones for this particular conceptual profile.
Then we will analyse some chemistry lessons to identify how these zones can emerge
from the discursive dynamics produced by teacher and students in the classroom.

8.2

8.2.1

Constitution of the Zones of the Conceptual Profile for


Entropy and Spontaneity: Theoretical and
Methodological Aspects
Constructing the Zones of the Conceptual Profile

In order to construct the conceptual profile zones, we considered ideas drawn from
different contexts the history of science, science education research, and the actual
science classroom such that the proposed profile represents a broad and significant
range of ideas concerning the concepts of entropy and spontaneity of physical and
chemical processes. As discussed in Chap. 3, using multiple data sources to develop
a conceptual profile is based on Vygotskys idea that there are different genetic
domains for the development of higher mental functions. In bringing together actual
classroom data with ideas found in secondary sources of the history of science
considering aspects of the historical development of the concepts which relate to the
discussions in the science classroom we try to work with at least three genetic
domains: the sociocultural, the ontogenetic, and the microgenetic. As discussed in
Chap. 1, these genetic domains cannot be associated to a specific data source in a
straight line; nevertheless, some sources seem to be more related to the emergence
of ideas in a specific genetic domain than in others, for instance, concepts from the
history of science tend to be related to the sociocultural domain.

8.2.2

The Concepts of Entropy and Spontaneity

In this research, the concepts of spontaneity and entropy are addressed from a
perspective that fosters a deeper understanding of the physical and chemical transformations in the context of chemistry teaching and learning. Research on how

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students understand chemical reactions usually describes the students conceptions


related to important questions such as: What is a chemical reaction? To what extent
do they occur? How fast? Do they absorb or release energy? Another important
question related to this topic does not receive the same attention: Why does a
chemical reaction occur? Since this question is very broad and refers to cases
involving both the atomic-molecular structure of substances and energetic aspects
of physical and chemical transformations, a way of restricting the focus addressed
in this work is to reformulate the question as: Under what conditions may a chemical reaction happen or not happen? The answer to this question must address the
consequences of the second law of thermodynamics for the study of physical and
chemical transformations, which implies an understanding of the concepts of
entropy and spontaneity.
For the purpose of developing a conceptual profile for entropy and spontaneity,
we also sought the contribution of formal thinking about natural phenomena, which
includes historical studies. Questions about the behaviour of matter and changes in
nature date back to the period of the Greek philosophers and still appear in modern
times, giving rise to a wide diversity of ideas. In discussing the historical development of aspects of spontaneity and entropy, we had no intention of making a deep
study of the history concerning the various concepts related to the transformation of
matter or exhausting the possibilities of philosophical analysis of those ideas.
Rather, we intended to point to ideas that emerged in different periods of the history
of science which, in our point of view, are involved in the genesis (Wertsch 1985) of
the concepts of entropy and spontaneity and, also, have some relation to contemporary ideas in the context of science teaching.
We must consider one final point regarding the conceptual approach taken to
spontaneity. Although strongly rooted in everyday experience, spontaneity is
often not explicitly addressed as a concept in higher education physics and chemistry textbooks. However, all of these books use the word spontaneous to characterise processes that occur under certain conditions. Our choice for treating
spontaneity as a concept is justified in considering that this idea can work as a
link between everyday conceptions that students have about changes and more
formal concepts of entropy and free energy, which address the scientific conditions under which these changes may or may not occur. In that sense, our
approach recognises that the process of scientific education should include more
than simply transposing concepts developed in the academic context of science
to the school context.
For the constitution of school knowledge, we consider not only the characteristics of the concept to be taught from the scientific point of view but also the necessary mediations which help to make the concept meaningful for the student. This
involves pursuit of the relationships between scientific concepts and everyday reasoning in order to make the former relevant to the everyday experience that students
already possess.

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8.3

205

Procedures to Obtain and Analyse Classroom Data

The classroom data were collected in year 11 (students aged 1617 years) at the
High School of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The analysed
teaching was included in the usual lessons of the teacher for the unit on thermochemistry. We analysed three sessions of 1 h and 40 min each: Two lessons were
videotaped and transcribed in full, whilst another was analysed from field notes.
Each lesson had three episodes selected for analysis, as representative of the interactions that took place and, also, because they allowed a synthesis of the whole
teaching sequence. The observations focused on a group of five students, who
were located closest to the camera. A wireless microphone was placed on their
table to allow recording and transcribing their talk in the analysed episodes. The
group chosen as the object of the research was proposed by the teacher, according
to the criterion of their greater participation and interest in classroom discussions.
From these data, we identified zones of the conceptual profile that emerged in the
sequence of the three lessons, as well as performed a discursive analysis based on
the framework proposed by Mortimer and Scott (2002, 2003), which is discussed
in Chap. 3. This analytical framework includes five interrelated dimensions that
focus on the role played by teachers in classroom discussions, considering their
choices for actions and approaches to teaching. Here, for the analysis of classroom data related to the entropy and spontaneity concepts, we used four of these
aspects: teaching purpose, the content of classroom discourse, communicative
approach, and patterns of interaction.

8.4

Zones of the Conceptual Profile of Entropy and


Spontaneity

As outlined earlier, the zones of the conceptual profile were developed using
data obtained from the historical context, the science education literature on
alternative conceptions, and observations from chemistry classrooms. We
proposed three zones for the conceptual profile of entropy and spontaneity: the
perceptive/intuitive zone, the empirical zone, and the rationalist zone. The
zones of the conceptual profile comprise a set of ideas linked to three genetic
domains, as referred to earlier: sociocultural, ontogenetic, and microgenetic
domains. Ideas stemming from different sources were characterised by considering epistemological and ontological commitments underlying them, and the
zones of the conceptual profile were proposed from a coherent set of those
ideas. Here we present, in summary, the main ideas which characterise the
proposed zones.

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Perceptive/Intuitive Zone

The perceptive/intuitive zone of the conceptual profile of entropy and spontaneity


consists of ideas which involve immediate perceptions, sensations, and/or intuitions
that guide individuals in the construction of their notions according to the social and
historical context in which they live and interact with their peers. In this zone, ideas
and understandings can arise from empirical experience and personal interpretation
of a phenomenon. In such situations, we do not deal directly with perceptions of
entropy, since this concept involves a more scientifically elaborated understanding
of the phenomena at stake. So, spontaneity is the focus of this zone, being related to
ideas about phenomena that occur naturally, without outside interference.
From an epistemological perspective, perception is a way of accessing the external world that leads individuals to construct their notions (Putnam 1995). Building
on ideas proposed by William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Putnam highlighted
the role played by individuals and their forms of life (Anscombe and Rhees 1953)
in the interpretation of objects and phenomena, bearing in mind that perception is
informed by previous knowledge. Norman (1998) considered that, despite perception being informed by previous conceptions, it is not necessarily linked to an interpretative effort. In this work, we consider that in the perceptive/intuitive zone of the
conceptual profile, ideas can emerge from perceptions of phenomena leading individuals to construct non-reflective, immediate, or intuitive conceptions. Such an
immediate response is in line with Normans idea of a non-interpretative response.
In this latter sense, it is important to emphasise that conceptions supported by
immediate impressions, sensations, and intuitions prompt subjective understandings of phenomena (Bachelard 1938/1996). According to Bachelard, these ideas are
out of reach of any rational criticism, constituting a nave realism, and once they are
formed at an unconscious level, they are difficult to approach at an intellectual level.
For Bachelard, these ideas are fundamentally different from those which emerge
from the scientific context.
In relation to students ideas about spontaneity discussed in the science education
literature, we find conceptions about chemical reactions (changes of matter) that
also suggest views of spontaneity. For example, Andersson (1986) proposed five
categories for students conceptions on chemical reactions. In the first category, he
found that 10 % of the students justified the appearance of a thin and dark crust on
copper water taps, over time, in terms of it being expected (it just occurs), without
any consideration of the nature of the phenomenon. Rosa and Schnetzler (1998)
analysed the results obtained by Andersson, highlighting that the students consider
that the changes occur in materials because they are natural or expected to take
place. These authors point out that students usually experience difficulties in understanding chemical reactions from an atomic-molecular perspective and only the
phenomenological dimension tends to be used when they try to elaborate explanations for the changes.
Mortimer and Miranda (1995) also drew attention to students ideas as they
tried to explain iron rusting as a natural tendency of this material. Stravidou and

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Solomonidou (1989), in turn, emphasised that students tend not to go beyond the
description stage when examining chemical phenomena, because they are not
aware of scientific concepts, but they recognise that changes are occurring and tend
to form categories based on the phenomenon, using the visible aspects of the transformation of matter. From these research findings, we can recognise that some
students tend to express intuitive ideas, based on their immediate perceptions of
phenomena when dealing with chemical reactions or changes in matter. In this
sense, understanding spontaneity of physical and chemical processes tends to be
related just to the processes that can be seen to occur naturally.
In the classroom which was the focus of our research, students were not asked to
perform experiments or to observe phenomena, but we investigated the classroom
discussions relating to spontaneity and entropy concepts applied to some commonly
known physical and chemical processes. For the perceptive/intuitive zone, representative ideas emerged mainly in the initial discussions, when students were not concerned with the scientific concepts to be studied. For example, before introducing
the entropy concept, the teacher asked the students about what they understood by
spontaneous processes. Some students said that spontaneous processes are those
that occur without an external force or catalysis. They mentioned examples such as
iron rusting, evaporation, and water condensation. This suggests that, for the students, spontaneous processes occur naturally, without any explicit action to drive
them and without any imposed or needed conditions.
The ideas discussed above, and others not presented in this text (e.g. related to
chemical affinity, Justi (1998), and transmutation, Andersson (1986)), reflect an
understanding of spontaneity that is similar to the common sense, where people
refer to any situation occurring naturally as being a spontaneous one. To reach an
explanation for the occurrence of phenomena in terms of energy distribution, students must deal with the concept of entropy (Atkins 1984/1994). In this sense, the
concept of entropy supports an understanding of spontaneous processes that goes
beyond those occurring naturally (without external interference) and/or with macroscopic evidence. For example, the formation of water from oxygen and hydrogen
can be considered a spontaneous process from the scientific point of view; however,
it is not easy to visualise and requires certain conditions to take place, i.e. it does not
occur naturally.
Generally, our first contact with phenomena is strongly influenced by everyday
experience and language. The idea of spontaneity included in the perceptive/intuitive zone is not necessarily linked directly to the scientific view, but it is a mode of
thinking deeply rooted in daily life. In putting forward these ideas in the school
context, students are rarely asked to reflect on the differences between everyday and
scientific views about phenomena. In daily life, usually, thoughts and actions are
developed through these types of first approach to the phenomena and they become
an automatic mode of thinking, which involves a lower cognitive effort for the individual. In the school context, we believe that it is important for subsequent learning
that ideas from the perceptive/intuitive zone are discussed in an attempt to make
students aware of the different meanings of concepts associated with different contexts and perspectives.

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E.M.R. do Amaral et al.

Empirical Zone

In the empirical zone of the conceptual profile, ideas about spontaneity are related to
the prevailing conditions for the occurrence of processes. Some conditions might
relate to specific values of the physical properties of a system or substance (temperature, pressure, etc.) and ideas about the disorder of the system and a specific
mathematical formalism which leads to decision making on familiar processes as if
they were spontaneous or not. Here, besides the empirical view of getting data from
technical instruments, we also consider as characteristic of an empirical approach the
reference to observable events (for instance, a broken cup), values attributed to
entropy representing a measure of disorder, and spontaneous processes occurring
when there is some evidence for the increase in the entropy of the universe.
In the same direction, we also consider as typical of an empirical approach the
use of conventions related to the entropy and free energy changes when processes
are studied. This occurs by the application of algorithms and mathematical formulae in analysing physical and chemical processes without a complete understanding
of the conceptual relationships involved in it. In general, students use the expression
of entropy or the equation for free energy a more complex concept that relates
entropy, enthalpy, and temperature but often, they do not clearly understand what
these expressions represent. The spontaneous occurrence of a process is indicated
by a value which represents an increase in the entropy of the universe and/or a
decrease in the free energy of a system. In terms of a mathematical expression, this
is represented by Suniverse > 0 (change in the entropy of the universe is greater than
zero) and G < 0 (change in free energy is less than zero).
The entropy of the universe is defined by the expression Suniverse = Ssystem +
Ssurroundings (change in the entropy of the universe is equal to the sum of the change
in the entropies of the system and of the surroundings). Usually, the value of the
change in free energy is calculated from established data for temperature, T, change
in the entropy of the system, Ssystem, and change in the enthalpy, H, according to
the expression G = H TSsystem. So, if values for S and H are known, we can
determine the temperature at which a given process will occur spontaneously. We
consider ideas related to the use of these mathematical expressions and conventions
strongly related to the empirical point of view when mathematical formalism is used
just to inform empirical parameters about phenomena, which should be possible to
get if we have a machine to measure such parameters (Atkins 1984/1994).
According to Bachelard (1949/1977), empiricism is not far from theories because
theories are implied in experience (technical materialism). For Norman (1998),
empiricism is challenged in its central issues by the idea of observation as being
theory laden. Norman considers that interpretation is used to justify what you see,
and that the effort to interpret an experiment involves thought and time. From a similar perspective, Bueno (1997) presented Van Fraassens ideas (1993) to the effect that
an empirical theory must distinguish or choose a specific part of the world, establish
a reference to that part, and, eventually, establish a substantial proposition about the
world, to be represented by a model. This author outlines the constructive empiricism

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proposed by Van Fraassen, highlighting that it avoids the instrumentalism from the
early empirical views by considering theories as families of models more than as
instruments when they can be applied to real values (Bueno 2000).
Bearing in mind these philosophical points of view, in this work the empirical
approach is characterised by ideas related to some experience with phenomena by
physical or remote means (such as simulation or experience recovered from memory), in which technical instruments may have been used or not. This empirical
experience is likely to be laden with scientific understandings or mathematical
tools which lead students to construct ideas about phenomena from a scientific
viewpoint. The steps of interpretation and analysis distinguish the empirical zone
from the perceptive/intuitive one. The use of mathematical formalism without a
complete understanding about implicated theories distinguishes the empirical zone
from the next one, the rationalist zone.
Data on conditions under which processes occur can come from empirical measurements and symbolic representations or be given in tables. The point is that the
student is taken beyond immediate perception of phenomena through discussion of
the physical conditions or values (for entropy, enthalpy, temperature, free energy)
under which the process occurs spontaneously or not. Although values for the
change of entropy and/or free energy cannot be obtained from direct measurement
by scientific instruments, in science teaching and learning, teachers often encourage
students to use these values as an empirical measure. This provides a first empirical
approach to the concept of entropy.
Atkins (1984/1994) points out that the lack of a direct measure for entropy distances us from this concept, and he argues that a value for entropy could help to
demystify the idea, making it less difficult to understand. According to him, entropy
measurements would appear less complex than temperature and time, as displayed
in thermometers and watches. Despite the absence of direct measurements, the
application of the entropy concept in empirical situations can be made from values
indirectly obtained for its change and using the established conventions and mathematical equations.
In the historical context, in order to reach more consistent explanations about the
nature of phenomena and the identification of substances, analytical techniques
became more rigorous and meticulous (Vidal 1986). According to Vidal, in the seventeenth century, ideas from alchemy had not been abandoned at all but technical
procedures had improved mainly due to the use of chemical interventions for medical care. Furthermore, at different periods, ideas about chemical substances brought
different contributions to the understanding of matter and its transformations.
Changes could be investigated in terms of the substances present in matter and their
properties by using more elaborated techniques, and so the reasons why substances
react with each other were considered (Bachelard 1949/1977). In this sense, knowing the properties of substances and the conditions for change became essential and
this led towards an empirical dimension. According to Bachelard, studies of chemical substances resulted in the evolution of chemistry as a recognised science.
After such studies, the relationship between substance and energy was investigated and changes of materials were studied from the point of view of energy

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exchange. Studies of chemical reactions also considered energetic aspects of the


processes. The merging of two fields of knowledge chemistry and thermodynamics resulted in important contributions to the understanding of physical and chemical processes in energetic terms. In this context, the concept of entropy was proposed
as a property of matter related to the capacity for transformation (Baron 1989),
supported by Rudolf Clausius (1850) studies. This concept emerged from a rigorous mathematical treatment given to the Carnot cycle by Clausius, focusing on ideas
of conversion between heat and work. The interpretation of the physical meaning
for the entropy concept was difficult mainly due to a complicated mathematical
apparatus associated with the use of intuitive impressions (Laidler 1993). According
to Laidler, the mathematical approach was predominant in the years after the concept of entropy was proposed.
Attempting to apply the principles of thermodynamics to chemical issues began
15 years after the proposition of entropy. Free energy was proposed by Gibbs in
about 1870, as a result of studies related to chemical thermodynamics (Laidler
1993). In this sense, we can suppose that for some years, there was not a complete
comprehension of the physical meaning of entropy applied to the thermodynamic
models. This is akin to the use of formalism to support empirical ideas, but not
rational ones, which is a common situation in the historical development of scientific models and seems to constitute one of the early origins for superficial approaches
to the entropy concept even nowadays.
In several educational studies (e.g. Baron 1989; Bickford 1982; Stylianidou and
Ogborn 1999), researchers have discussed and developed ways to approach entropy,
which is considered a hard subject for teaching and learning. In a general sense,
students tend primarily to associate entropy with the idea of disorder or clutter
(Lowe 1988). The increase of entropy is related to the increase in disorder and is
taken as the indicator of the occurrence of spontaneous processes. Those phenomena that occur spontaneously are seen as promoting disorder, which means higher
entropy (Lowe 1988). In the chemistry teaching and learning context, questions
about the spontaneity of physical and chemical processes are often addressed from
the expressions for entropy and free energy, and then the mathematical approach is
established. A conceptual discussion about symbols used in these expressions is
rarely found in classrooms (Baron 1989; Ben-Zvi et al. 1993), and, normally,
emphasis is given to the application of the mathematical expressions in order to
determine the direction in which the processes can occur spontaneously.
Ribeiro and colleagues (1990) investigated how students in higher education
used the criterion G < 0 to decide on the spontaneity of some chemical reactions.
In general, the students knew how to determine the change in free energy, using
data provided in a table, but few of them seemed to understand the meaning of
free energy. Despite the results from applying the mathematical expressions, most
students used the observable aspects of the reactions as the main criterion to judge
spontaneity for the demonstrated processes. They got confused when data from
empirical observation and mathematical evaluation were in disagreement.
Granville (1985) pointed out that students often get confused about definitions for
the entropy of the system and of the surroundings in the application of the

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expression for entropy. This author also found that they often overlook or modify
the algebraic signs of the values found for the change in entropy, which contributes to the misinterpretation of the concept. These situations bring evidence for
the use of mathematical formalism as an example of the empirical zone, and not
of the rational one.
In the classroom investigated in this study, the students considered the increase
of entropy for a broken cup, linking the idea of disorder to the larger number of
pieces, thereby trying to bring the understanding of entropy to a macroscopic scale.
These considerations were made from the point of view of the empirical referents.
A second example involved the analysis of the vaporisation of water using values of
temperature and pressure to define the physical conditions for which this process
should be spontaneous (at 100 C and 1 atm). The students ideas were formed from
the analysis of a particular chemical or physical process (such as the vaporisation of
water), and discussions were conducted in attempting to reach explanations or generalisations. Despite the familiarity of the process for the students, they got confused in reaching the physical conditions in which it could be considered spontaneous
from a scientific perspective, probably because 100 C is not the temperature for the
natural environment. In this sense, when students established conditions to consider
vaporisation of water as a spontaneous process, they were faced with a difference
between the commonsensical idea about naturally occurring phenomena and the
scientific view on spontaneity. In this case, empirical evidence played an important
role in promoting their understanding beyond the mathematical formalism involving entropy change.
Subsequently in the lessons, the discussion about Gibbs free energy took place
by focusing on the signs, symbols, and mathematical relationships present in the
expression of free energy, as proposed by the textbook, which suggested an innovative pedagogical approach to science teaching. Nevertheless, we consider that in
practice greater emphasis was given to the mathematics than to the conceptual
approach in the classroom discussion. In this way, some questions made no sense.
For example, a student asked about the possibility of absolute temperature being
less than zero, suggesting a situation that has no empirical referent. Similar results
have been revealed when students questioned about the spontaneity of iron rusting
by incorrectly using values for changes in entropy and free energy, with no association with this familiar process in everyday life. We recognise that in such situations,
students get into conflict about possible empirical evidence and mathematical formalism. In this sense, the empirical zone of the conceptual profile of entropy and
spontaneity can be characterised by transitions between perceptive and rational
ideas. So, ideas involved in this zone play an important part in the teaching and
learning context.
We believe that ideas supporting the use of mathematical formalism can have a
close relationship with rational thought; however, equations do not hold an explanatory power in themselves and cannot be considered equal to the latter. Ideas linked
to the mathematical formalism are quite common in studies of entropy and spontaneity and, also, in other more complex concepts of thermodynamics. We have found
that these ideas are important as a step forward to the rational understanding of

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entropy and spontaneity. Nevertheless, it seems to us that, in the school context,


teachers and students very often do not go beyond this stage and students often do
not reach an underlying understanding for the mathematical approach.
An important point to consider for the empirical zone of the conceptual profile is
the nature of the concepts involved. Spontaneity is not a property of the system, but
the concept of entropy provides a value associated with it. The empirical approach
for spontaneity is often first addressed in school by observing processes that occur
naturally in any context (daily life or school), although those cases do not include
all the spontaneous processes, from a scientific perspective. Entropy cannot be measured directly by an instrument, but the values assigned to the entropy change are
presented to the students as a measure of disorder, giving an empirical approach to
it. We are quite sure that these points must be considered in attempting to make
these two concepts easier for students understanding. In the analysis of a particular
empirical situation by using the concept of entropy, students can start a rationalisation process for the concept of spontaneity, providing a relationship between phenomena and theory.

8.4.3

Rationalist Zone

The rationalist zone includes ideas relating to entropy and spontaneity of physical
and chemical processes that draw on the distribution of energy in an atomicmolecular level. We consider that in this zone ideas represent a deeper comprehension of the concepts, since students address entropy and spontaneity in relation to
microscopic models of energy distribution of molecules. In this way, they can
understand entropy as part of a more complex notion related to free energy. The
relationship between entropy, enthalpy, and temperature, presented in the expression for free energy, can be discussed as a path to determine a set of conditions
which enable us to know the direction of a spontaneous physical or chemical process, when free energy change is lesser than zero (G < 0). In this case, spontaneity
is related to the conditions to be provided in order to promote transformations in a
specific direction. Spontaneity is related to a specific configuration for the distribution of energy in an atomic-molecular level, which provides conditions for the
occurrence of processes in a specific direction. This concept of spontaneity is very
different from the idea of natural occurrence of processes.
This zone of the profile draws on applied rationalism as proposed by Bachelard
(1949/1977). In his work, Bachelard made a criticism of the rationalism from
classical philosophy, considering it as a rationality built on a vacuum. He proposed applied rationalism to contrast with the traditional idea that rationality prevails in the isolated individual. Applied rationalism was proposed in conjunction
with technical materialism. From this perspective, theory and experiment come
together by considering that ideas arising from a theoretical approach tend to get
their application and data obtained empirically tend to be organised by theories.
On the one hand, in the academic context of science, a general aim is to develop

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213

new theories or models in order to explain and predict phenomena. On the other
hand, in the school context, teaching and learning scientific concepts is the main
goal, and practical work can support the discussion of a particular concept by using
theoretical models. In this sense, applied rationalism sounds like an appropriate
epistemological approach to characterise ideas in the rationalist zone of the conceptual profile.
Moreover, this approach can be related to Putnams (1995) pragmatism. In the
school context, theoretical ideas can be used to reach explanations about some
empirical situations in order to understand generalisations offered by the scientific
perspective. In this case, empirical phenomena and theories are interrelated and
complement each other. This interrelationship involves questions of value and interpretation in the pragmatist sense proposed by Putnam (1995). Putnam argues that
pragmatism does not deny the importance of the formal models applied to specific
contexts, despite some authors who put pragmatism as standing in opposition to a
theoretical approach. In the classroom, we realise that ideas on a conceptual understanding of entropy and spontaneity are developed when processes are discussed,
considering the distribution of energy and organisation of the particles at an atomicmolecular level. The occurrence of a spontaneous process is related to an increase
in the number of ways of distribution of energy in a system at a molecular level and
can also be related to a greater spatial randomness (Lowe 1988). Theoretical models
are used to determine the conditions for physical and chemical processes to occur
spontaneously.
The discussion about the distribution of energy at the molecular level is a step
towards the rationalisation of the entropy concept, but it is not an easy task to
address in classrooms (Bickford 1982; Lowe 1988). For these authors, the introduction of atomic and molecular entities in classroom discussion could lead students to
a rational way of thinking about spontaneity. Sometimes, the idea of energy becoming distributed across molecules was reported by students in terms of spreading as
evenly as possible, and not in terms of the probable states of a system. This idea
sounds like an approximation to the meaning of disorder, as outlined earlier. Ribeiro
et al. (1990) found that few students used the G values to decide whether a chemical reaction was spontaneous or not, and they also showed that few students can
understand those values conceptually. Boo (1988) found that only 10 % of students
in higher education were able to associate the occurrence of a chemical reaction
with the decrease in free energy of the system and the increase in entropy of the
universe.
In our classroom study, theoretical ideas about entropy and spontaneity were
discussed to reach explanations about empirical situations and to understand generalisations presented by the textbook. The discussion about the distribution of energy
was addressed in terms of the probable arrangement of molecules in a system, using
a diagram proposed by the textbook. From figures based on coloured balls, the students tried to advance claims related to an atomic-molecular level, firstly seeking to
address what the balls represented. The students seemed to go beyond their perceptions and/or subjective impressions towards an interpretation of empirical data,
starting a process of developing their own hypotheses. For example, in one moment

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of the lesson, a student proposed a hypothesis about the relationship between endothermic and exothermic processes and the change of entropy, based on a similarity
between entropy and energy. Nevertheless, we realised that they did not reach a
complete understanding of the theoretical models for entropy. This is a difficult
achievement even for higher education students and maybe for teachers as well.
The rationalist zone represents a desirable level of understanding to be reached
by the students in the teaching and learning process in the science classroom, despite
the difficulties faced by them. In this case, teachers play an important role in leading
classroom discussions beyond the analysis of empirical conditions for spontaneity
of the processes towards a more abstract mode of thinking, from an atomicmolecular perspective, seeking scientific explanations and generalisations about
phenomena.

8.5

Analysis of Episodes from the Classroom Data

Data collected in chemistry lessons were analysed in relation to the epistemological


and discursive aspects present in the students and teachers discourse, as well as in
the textbook used in the classroom. The epistemological aspects were identified by
using the conceptual profile zones whilst the discursive aspects were analysed
according to the categories proposed by Mortimer and Scott (2002, 2003). The analysis was based on three episodes taken from each of the three lessons, in a total of
nine episodes. The dynamic evolution of the epistemological and discursive aspects
was analysed for the whole teaching sequence.
In this chapter, it is not possible to show the analysis for the entire sequence.
Thus, we will present only data from two episodes in the second lesson. We consider that those data are illustrative with respect to the analysis carried out for the
whole sequence of lessons. In Sect. 8.5.3 we will present some tables that summarise this analysis.
The second lesson was taught 7 days after the first. During that interval, the
students had no lessons in chemistry and had to read some sections from the textbook dealing with entropy of the system, entropy of the surroundings, and spontaneity to be discussed in the second lesson. The students brought to the lesson
written questions about the text and this task was part of their assessment process.
Following the textbook, in the second lesson, they studied the entropy expression
(Suniverse = Ssurroundings + Ssystem), including a discussion of definitions such as thermodynamic universe, system, and surroundings, which support and create a specific context for understanding the entropy concept. Initially, to further develop the
scientific ideas about entropy, the teacher returned to a discussion started in the
previous lesson about the equivalent distribution of energy for molecules, using a
diagram. In the diagram, three possible arrangements of molecules in a system are
proposed. The aim is to create an opportunity for the students to visualise different
possibilities for the arrangements of molecules, which implies a specific distribution of energy among them.

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8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity

For this chapter, we present the analysis of part of two episodes. Their
numbering indicates that they are the first and the third episodes from the second
lesson (2.1 and 2.3). For this analysis, conceptual profile zones were identified
when they emerged during the discussion carried out in these episodes, so the
zones can be considered as defining the units of analysis. Considering that episodes were transcribed in turns, when ideas related to a specific zone were identified in the classroom discussion, the turns at stake were used to create a segment
of the episode, which was taken to be representative of that zone. The patterns of
interaction were identified in terms of initiations, responses, feedback, prompts,
and evaluation. The two episodes are presented below.
Episode 2.1: Discussion of Conceptual Aspects of Entropy (See the Convention
Used in the Transcripts in Chap. 3)
Turns

Patterns of interaction

19. Reading the text: So far, we consider only the entropy of the system,
but we also have the entropy of the surroundings; the second law of
thermodynamics can be written as follows: In any spontaneous
process, there is an increase in the entropy of the universe. In the
case of the systems we are studying, we can consider that the
entropy of the universe is the sum of the entropies of the system and
of the surroundings. Thus, a change in the entropy of the universe
can be defined as Ssystem + Ssurroundings = Suniverse
Initiation
20. T: So far/There were some people who had some difficulties in
understanding what is meant by the entropy of the universe (referring
to the students written questions from the beginning of the lesson)/
So what does it mean?/May I write that here?/(Pointing to the
writing on the blackboard) Or what is the entropy of the universe?
Response
21. S2: The distribution of molecules in general}
22. T: Sodo you have.?

Feedback

23. S4: The general entropy}

Response

24. T: the general entropy?/What is the universe?

Evaluation
Initiation

25. S?: (Inaudible)


Initiation
26. T: Is it all the universe/all the stars/all the planets? Or is it a set of
these things we have?//What is a system? For instance/I can heat
some water/ok? Im heating the water/thats right? (the teacher draws
a container with water on the blackboard)/What is the system?
Response
27. S4: Water/

29. S2: The region/

Evaluation
Initiation
Response

30. T: It is the region around here/(pointing to the drawing in blackboard), is it right?

Evaluation
Initiation

28. T: The water is being heated here/ok? And what could be the
surroundings?

(continued)

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(continued)
Turns

Patterns of interaction

Response
31. A4: All right.
Evaluation
32. T: The universe that is here/it is this set here/(pointing to the
Feedback
drawing)/ok? The system and the surroundings/isnt it?
Surroundings of the system//so this universe is the set here, ok?
(she draws a circle around the water container) Is everything all
right? Is it clear/to who did not understand before? Ok?/Ok/(Is
there) something else that I left? I mean/To consider whether the
process is spontaneous or not/I cannot evaluate/for instance/I
cannot only evaluate the system//I must also evaluate what is
happening in the surroundings of the system/then Ill evaluate the
entropy//how am I evaluating the entropy for this whole set here? It
depends on the entropy of the system/it can decrease or increase/
and depends on the entropy of the surroundings/isnt it? Is it
decreasing or increasing? Of course Ill have to evaluate it here/to
check if the process is spontaneous or not/ok? Starting from this
point, isnt it? Anything else for that piece? Who else would like to
continue reading for us? Do you?
33. S4: Reading the text: If value for Suniverse is greater than zero/
the process is spontaneous. If Suniverse is less than zero/the
process is not spontaneous/in other words/the process is
spontaneous in the reverse direction. If Suniverse is zero, the
system is in balance/the process has no tendency to occur in any
direction.
34. T: Ok/so look down/S of the universe, isnt it? Greater than zero/
you have three situations//Less than zero/and S of the universe
(she was writing on the blackboard)

Initiation

35. S2: Equal to zero/

Response

36. T: Equal to zero/So in this case here, you have the situation in which Evaluation
Initiation
the process is going on in the system/but/I cannot fail to consider
the surroundings//this process is spontaneous, isnt it? When S,
isnt it? When change of the entropy for this set is less than zero/so
this means that the process is not spontaneous/isnt it? Nonspontaneous//and when S is equal to zero/the change of entropy is
zero/it has no entropy change
Response
37. S?: It is in balance/
(The teacher continues the discussion by exploring students ideas about
what means when one says that a system is in chemical equilibrium,
making a parallel with the figures that represent the distribution of
energy at a molecular level.)

During the second lesson, the teacher tried to apply mathematical conventions in order to determine if processes could be spontaneous or not. For
instance, the teacher and students discussed about the vaporisation of water, first
by using the mathematical formalism and then searching for physical conditions
in which this process can occur spontaneously. Episode 2.3 illustrates part of
this discussion.

8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity

217

Episode 2.3: Analysing a Process: Vaporisation of Water


Patterns of
Turns
interaction
1. Reading the text: The process of water vaporisation is a process for which
energy is demanded/it is endothermic/so the change of entropy of the
surroundings is less than zero/that is/Ssurroundings < 0. Remember that the change
in entropy of the universe/Suniverse/can indicate for us whether the process
of water vaporisation is spontaneous or not.
2. T: Thats it/hold on//before you (continue to) read/Lets evaluate, ok?/To know Initiation
if the process is spontaneous or not I have to know the value for this here, isnt
it? (she points to the Suniverse written in the blackboard)/if positive/if it is
negative/if it is equal to zero/ok?/Good/in that case/the vaporisation of the
water/what is S of the system? (she was referring to the previous discussion)/
greater than zero/in the same case//S of the system greater than zero//what is
about the surroundings?
Response
3. S3: Lesser
4. T: S of the system//of the surroundings/lesser than zero//and now?/is it
spontaneous or not?
5. S2: Its not possible to know/
6. T: F./C. (the teacher is demanding attention from two students engaged
in a private talk)/is it spontaneous or not?//Its not possible to know

Evaluation
Initiation
Response
Prompt

7. S2: If you dont know the temperature

Response

8. T: But/If you know the temperature?

Initiation

9. S2: In this case you can.


10. T: Lets do it in this way//consider 5 C for the temperature/at this
temperature/5 C/is this process spontaneous?

Response
Initiation

11. S2: But/you must know the

Response

12. T: What? Is it spontaneous or not? And what about if you have 100 C
or a little more for the temperature?

Initiation

13. S2: Probably not/

Response

14. T: Is vaporisation of water NOT spontaneous at 100 C?

Evaluation

15. S2: OH NO//it is totally spontaneous/


(The teacher and students keep on this discussion trying to articulate empirical
evidence and mathematical formalism for this process)

Response

8.5.1

Analysis of the Zones of the Conceptual Profile and the


Content of the Classroom Discourse

8.5.1.1

Episode 2.1

In the previous lesson, the teacher had introduced the concept of entropy trying to
build connections with the examples mentioned by the students and she also presented a diagram at the end of the lesson. The students had mainly associated

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entropy with the idea of disorder. At the beginning of the second lesson, the discussion came back to the diagram, but the students did not make the same association
and other questions related to the atomic-molecular dimensions of matter arose. To
understand the diagram, the students needed to deal with more abstract ideas. In
facing a representation for molecules as balls, the students found themselves confused in identifying empirical entities (gas) as theoretical tools (molecules). The
absence of empirical referents for the applied atomic-molecular model required a
change in the students way of thinking. In the sequence of the lesson, the mathematical convention which enables students to make decisions about whether a process is spontaneous or not was introduced and the teacher and students discussed the
meaning of the terms in the expression Ssystem + Ssurroundings = Suniverse. Part of this
discussion is illustrated in episode 2.1.
In this episode, from the textbook (turn 19), there is a statement about entropy in
which one finds implicitly the thermodynamic definitions of the universe, system,
and surroundings. These definitions are discussed in the text, which emphasises an
expression of entropy in terms of an empirical generalisation in any spontaneous
process, there is an increase in the entropy of the universe building on the mathematical expression which states that the entropy of the universe is the sum of the
entropies of the system and of the surroundings. We believe that the mathematical
expression involved in the theoretical approach for the entropy concept does not
necessarily support a deeper understanding of it, and thus, this form of thinking was
characterised as an idea linked with the formalism of the mathematical approach to
the concept represented by the empirical zone of the conceptual profile but not
a rational one.
After the textbook reading, the teacher talked with the students about the definitions of thermodynamic universe, system, and surroundings, and, then, they discussed the expression of entropy. Questioned by the teacher about the meaning of
entropy of the universe (turn 20), students tried to explain this definition by starting from the previous discussion and offering ideas about the distribution of molecules in general (turn 21), or trying to extend their current concept of entropy to
general entropy (turn 23). The term general seems to shape the meaning given by
the students to the entropy of the universe, representing a cosmological understanding of the universe that is quite close to the common sense. At that point, the students ideas about the universe are offered as immediate ones and can be related to
the perceptual/intuitive zone. In turn 26, the teacher checked the students conception about the universe by using two explanations for the latter: the cosmological
and the thermodynamic. Then, she presented the idea of a thermodynamic universe,
starting from a drawing of a system for heating water.
It seems interesting to highlight that the entropy concept could be applied to both
the cosmological universe and the thermodynamic universe (Prigogine and Stengers
1997). In a general sense, differences between these definitions are not addressed in
chemistry teaching, where only the thermodynamic universe is mentioned. In episode 2.1, by considering the students previous conceptions about the cosmological
universe, the teacher was able to clarify these differences, when she presented the
thermodynamic universe (turn 32), starting from a discussion about a drawing of a

8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity

219

small system for heating water (turns 2731). Also, definitions of system and
surroundings were discussed.
Following in the reading of the textbook (turn 33), the teacher dealt with mathematical conventions to evaluate the spontaneity of the processes (turns 3436).
Change in the entropy of the universe is introduced as a criterion to make decisions
about whether processes occur spontaneously or not. The students easily accepted
this mathematical convention, and this can be regarded as a progress compared to
the spontaneity idea related to processes which occur naturally or alone.
Nevertheless, they do not seem to present a deep understanding of the mathematical
formalism, although they were able to visualise changes occurring in the systems
and surroundings.
The discussion between teacher and students in this episode included ideas characteristic of a transition between the empirical and the rationalist zones of the conceptual profile, and students began to express ideas close to those that are
scientifically accepted. This indicates that students began to build a scientific understanding of the spontaneity of physical and chemical processes, with the support
given by the teacher and the textbook. The empirical zone of the profile emerged
when it was introduced through the mathematical expression for the entropy concept and the mathematical approach came to prevail in the discussions, but, as previously discussed, without being sufficiently understood by the students. Mathematical
formalism first appeared in the discourse from the textbook and teacher and, at the
end of the second lesson, students started to incorporate ideas related to it in their
speech, when the discussions in the classroom ended.

8.5.1.2

Episode 2.3

In episode 2.3, the teacher and students are involved in a discussion on the vaporisation of water, a familiar endothermic process, trying to apply mathematical conventions as suggested by the textbook (turn 1). Starting from the statement Ssurroundings < 0,
some students had no difficulties to accept that Ssystem > 0, when this was stated by
the teacher (turn 2), considering that the system absorbs heat from the surroundings.
Nevertheless, they found that merely the use of mathematical conventions was not
enough to decide if the process occurred spontaneously or not (turns 36), because
opposite algebraic signals were attributed to Ssystem and Ssurroundings. It is important
to highlight that most of the students probably had some empirical experience in
which they could observe vaporisation of water taking place.
Challenged by this obstacle, a student suggested to consider the temperature as a
parameter from which they could decide about the spontaneity of the process (turns
79). The teacher recommended to fix values for temperature 5 C and 100 C in
order to analyse the occurrence of the process under these conditions (turns 1013),
but the students did not seem to understand the relationship between this parameter
and the spontaneous occurrence of the process. Then, the teacher emphatically put
in words the name of the process related to the value for the temperature 100 C
(turn 14), and this way of speaking seemed to recover from the students memory

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aspects of their empirical experiences in recognising this familiar process (turn 15).
Besides, the statement on the vaporisation of water occurring at 100 C had already
been mentioned in the textbook.
In this part of episode 2.3, we consider that students speeches can be related to
the empirical zone of the conceptual profile. However, differently from episode 2.1,
the empirical zone emerged in the discussion about a familiar process and temperature was the criterion to make decisions about spontaneity. In this case, merely the
use of mathematical formalism was not sufficient to determine the spontaneity of
the process and the students demanded other parameters to continue the analysis.
Some difficulties found by the students seem to relate to the complexity of putting
together an analysis that they previously carried out in terms of mathematical formalism and their empirical experiences. Discussion in episode 2.3 reinforces the
role played by the empirical zone of the conceptual profile in shifting students ideas
from a naive to a more complex understanding of the concepts involved.

8.5.2

Communicative Approach and Patterns of Interaction

In episode 2.1, the textbook reading took most of the time in the lesson and the
teacher often reinforced ideas introduced by the textbook. Consequently, an authoritative communicative approach was predominant in this lesson, although one segment of turns (2026) was more dialogic. Even though the textbook led the approach
towards a noninteractive dimension, the teacher adopted a regular practice of interrupting the reading to promote students participation and, also, some applications
for the introduced concepts, turning the communicative approach more interactive.
The patterns of interaction also alternated in the classroom discourse. We identified a regular pattern with triadic format (IRE) and also chains appeared when the
teacher tried to encourage the students in following with their claims and questions
(e.g. the chain I-RS2-F-RS4-E-I, in the turns 2024). The chains represent an
attempt by the teacher to help students reach a meaningful understanding of the
issues at stake.
In episode 2.3, the teacher adopted a communicative approach predominantly
authoritative, because she intended to present the mathematical formalism for
entropy, and interactive, considering that she often invited the students to participate
in the discussions. The predominant pattern of interaction in this episode was I-R-E
and also chains appeared when the teacher tried to check the students understanding in the discussion on the vaporisation of water (turns 49).
Just as in episodes 2.1 and 2.3, the analysis of all the episodes in this second lesson (2.1, 2.2, and 2.3) showed that the approach to the content predominantly took
the form of explanations and generalisations (empirical and theoretical ones). This
result can be associated with the fact that the textbook reading and the teachers
speech prevailed in the lesson. In the previous lesson, the approach to the phenomena was carried out in terms of empirical descriptions, and in the second lesson, the
teacher was involved in seeking an explanation for the observed situations. In this

8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity

221

way, students should be introduced to the scientific models which could provide
such explanation, so the teacher and textbook played an important role in this
lesson.

8.5.3

Summarising the Analysis of the Episodes

In episode 2.1, the students seem to be organising/building their own notions, which
are expressed in a vague way, and we do not find a well-defined format or genre for
the discourse. Moreover, the teacher and the textbook introduce a school science
genre in presenting the scientific view for the concepts, whilst students do not seem
to recognise all the meanings or ways of speaking used by the teacher.
In Tables 8.1 and 8.2, we summarise the analysis for part of episodes 2.1 and 2.3,
respectively, as showed in this chapter. For episode 2.1, there are six segments, each
one corresponding to a conceptual profile zone or a transition between different zones.
These segments, considered as units of analysis, express the changes in the conceptual
profile zones underlying the speech. For the empirical zone, we have specifically indicated segments where students were dealing with mathematical formalism, in order to
visualise different steps in the transitions that could be going on at this zone.
Following on this work, we present results from the analysis of the whole
sequence, reached by using procedures that were similar to those used in the two
previous episodes. Data are organised in tables to allow for a better visualisation. In
these tables, categories are indicated by letters.

8.6

Some Results from the Analysis of the Three Lessons


Sequence

The same analytical procedure illustrated for episodes 2.1 and 2.3 was performed
for the nine episodes from the three lessons sequence. In this way, it was possible to
obtain summary tables emphasising different aspects of the analysis. In this section,
we present two of these tables related to the emergence of the conceptual profile
zones and to the communicative approaches assumed by the teacher throughout the
sequence. Finally, a third table will show a synthesis in which we point out some
possible relationships between discursive and epistemological aspects identified in
the analysis of the sequence of lessons.

8.6.1

Emergence of the Conceptual Profile Zones

In Table 8.3, we tried to represent the dynamics of the emergence and subsequent
development of the proposed zones of the conceptual profile of entropy and spontaneity. The zones are identified as follows: perceptive/intuitive (PI), empirical (E),

3437 (teacher)

2024 (students
and teacher)
2632 (students
and teacher)
33 (textbook)

Turns

19 (textbook)

Content approach
Empirical
generalisation
Empirical description
Empirical description
Empirical
generalisation
Empirical
generalisation

Zones

Empirical (mathematical
formalism)
Perceptive/intuitive

Empirical

Empirical (mathematical
formalism)
Empirical (mathematical
formalism)

Table 8.1 Summary of analysis: episode 2.1 as analysed in this chapter

Developing
scientific ideas
Checking
students ideas
Developing
scientific ideas
Developing
scientific ideas
Developing
scientific ideas

Teaching purposes

Noninteractive/authoritative

Noninteractive/authoritative

Interactive/authoritative

Interactive/dialogic

Noninteractive/authoritative

Communicative approach

I-R-E/I-R

I-R-E/I-R-E/I-R-E

I-R-F-R-E

Patterns of interaction

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E.M.R. do Amaral et al.

Empirical (mathematical
formalism)
Empirical

25 (teacher)

615 (students and


teacher)

Zones
Empirical

Turns
1 (textbook)

Empirical description

Theoretical description

Content approach
Empirical explanation

Table 8.2 Summary of analysis: episode 2.3 as analysed in this chapter


Teaching purposes
Applying
scientific ideas
Checking
students ideas
Checking
students ideas

Interactive/authoritative

Interactive/authoritative

Communicative approach
Noninteractive/authoritative

815: P-R-I-R-I-R-I R-E-R

27: I-R-E/I-R-P-R-

Patterns of interaction

8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity


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Table 8.3 Emergence of the conceptual profile zones in the sequence


Perceptive/intuitive zone (PI) Empirical zone (E)
Rationalist zone (R)
First lesson
Episode 1.1: Initial ideas on spontaneity and entropy
PI (students)
PI (teacher and students)
PI (students)
Introducing the concept of entropy (teacher and textbook)
Introducing the concept of entropy (teacher and textbook)
Episode 1.2: Analysing spontaneous processes: some examples
E (textbook)
E (textbook)
PI (students)
PI (teacher and students)
E (teacher and students)
E (textbook)
Episode 1.3: Entropy, disorder, and distribution of energy in molecules
E (textbook)
R (textbook)
PI (students)
E (textbook and teacher)
R (textbook and teacher)
PI (students)
R (textbook)
E (teacher and students)
Second lesson
Episode 2.1: Discussing conceptual aspects of entropy

E (teacher and students)


E (math formalism textbook)

R (textbook)
R (teacher)
R (teacher and students)

E (teacher and students)


E (math formalism textbook)
E (math formalism teacher)

R (teacher and students)

PI (students)

Episode 2.2: Endothermic and exothermic processes, enthalpy, and entropy


E (textbook)
E (teacher)
R (teacher)
E (teacher and students)/(students) R (teacher and students)/
(students)
E (teacher)
R (teacher)
Episode 2.3: Analysing a process: vaporisation of water
E (textbook)
E (math formalism teacher)
E (teacher and students)
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
E (textbook)
(continued)

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8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity


Table 8.3 (continued)
Perceptive/intuitive zone (PI)

Empirical zone (E)

Rationalist zone (R)

Third lesson
Episode 3.1: Mathematical formulae for the Gibbs free energy
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
PI (students)
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
Episode 3.2: Applying Gibbs free energy expression to analyse processes
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
E (teacher and students)
Episode 3.3: Solving exercises: the case of the iron rusting
PI (students)

E (math formalism teacher and


students)
E (math formalism students)
PI (students)
E (math formalism teacher and
students)
E (math formalism teacher and
students)

and rationalist zone (R). Each zone is represented along a different column and the
individuals (students, teacher, or the textbook) linked to the emergence of the zone
are indicated in parenthesis. As mentioned before, we highlighted the use of the
mathematical formalism in the empirical zone, considering it as a clue of a transition between zones.
The table shows the three lessons divided into the three analysed episodes, which
are further subdivided into segments centred around a particular zone of the conceptual profile. The segments are made up by different numbers of turns, and each row
of Table 8.3 corresponds to a segment of the episode which represents the prevailing
ideas of a particular conceptual profile zone or a transition between zones. In this
way, we can visualise different zones emerging both from an episode and from the
whole set of them for one lesson or for the whole sequence of lessons.
The transitions between zones are indicated by an arrow, and they represent
an articulation of ideas which are characteristic of different zones of the conceptual profile.

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E.M.R. do Amaral et al.

According to Table 8.3, initially in the first lesson day, the discussion included
ideas which are characteristic of the perceptive/intuitive zone. At that point, the
teacher had the intention of creating a problem and exploring students ideas.
Subsequently in the lesson, the concept of entropy was introduced from the textbook reading. The teacher led the discussion, showing some applications of this
concept to common phenomena and processes. Then, ideas characteristic of the
empirical zone arose.
Despite the movement started by the teacher, the subsequent discussion still
involved students expressing ideas predominantly from the perceptive/intuitive
zone. For instance, they only related spontaneity to naturally occurring processes.
At the end of the lesson, again from the textbook reading, the concept of entropy
was presented through a theoretical approach, introducing a scientific view of the
spontaneity of the processes, and ideas from the rationalist zone emerged. It is
important to highlight that the empirical and rationalist zones emerge from the
teachers and textbook discourse. These zones do not appear spontaneously in the
students speech, but only after the teachers intervention, which was indicated in
Table 8.3, at episode 2.2, by using a slash.
In the first lesson, we recognise the emergence of the three zones of the conceptual profile, but two of them were not addressed by the students. In episodes 1.2 and
1.3, we identify transitions from the perceptive/intuitive zone to the empirical one
and from the empirical zone to the rationalist one, respectively, but it does not seem
representative of a meaningful change in the students mode of thinking.
In the second lesson, ideas characteristic of the empirical and rationalist zones
came from the textbook reading and mathematical formalism was introduced to the
students. In general, the discussion promoted by the teacher represented her attempts
to engage the students in a scientific understanding of the concepts. With this intent,
the teacher applied theoretical ideas presented by the textbook to different empirical
situations. This teaching strategy seemed to promote transitions between empirical
and rationalist zones, now also involving the students, and these transitions can be
illustrative, thus, of how students began to express ideas closer to the scientific point
of view. For example, the students tried to explain the spontaneity of chemical and
physical processes by considering ideas about the distribution of energy. Support
given by the teacher, based on the textbook, was crucial in this process, as we can
see in Table 8.3.
The emergence of the empirical zone of the conceptual profile was closely related
to the use of the mathematical expression for entropy, which was introduced by the
textbook, and the mathematical approach began to prevail in the discussions. Ideas
from this approach first appeared in the textbook and in the teachers speech, and
then the students included those ideas in their discourse throughout the classroom
discussion. We can recognise that the students speech is not yet autonomous, as it
is often supported by the teacher in the discussion.
In the third lesson, the expression for free energy was introduced by the teacher,
supported by the textbook, and the mathematical approach prevailed in the lesson.
The teacher did not introduce a conceptual approach for free energy, neither does
this appear in the textbook, and, thus, the rationalist zone did not emerge in the

8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity

227

classroom discussions. After introducing the free energy concept, the students were
asked to solve problems and discussion followed involving the teacher and the students working in small groups. In solving problems, the students mainly applied the
mathematical expressions without really understanding the symbols they were
using, and, thus, they brought ideas from the empirical zone. Ideas characteristic of
the perceptive/intuitive zone emerged mainly in the discussion among students in
the groups. This provides evidence that these ideas remain and coexist in the individuals even when they are introduced to scientific ideas about phenomena and,
more than that, use them in classroom discourse.
In a general sense, throughout the whole sequence of lessons, we can recognise
the emergence of the three zones of the conceptual profile, although some of them
can be linked just to specific speakers. Firstly, ideas related to the perceptive/intuitive zone appeared when students were freely expressing their conceptions. Shifting
in the zones can be recognised when ideas from the rationalist zone emerged mainly
from the textbook and from the teachers discourse. In order to build bridges
between perceptive/intuitive ideas and the rationalist ones, the teacher brought up
ideas centred in the empirical zone. When trying to apply rationalistic ideas to
empirical situations, the students mainly handled these problems with ideas from
the empirical zone, by using mathematical formalism without a deep understanding
about the meaning of this symbolic language.
An interesting point to highlight is related to the empirical zone of the profile,
which appears significantly in all lessons of sequence, and seems to represent a zone
which could be useful to articulate different understandings of entropy and spontaneity. In a general way, the transitions between zones of the profile included the
empirical zone. First, transitions were observed from the perceptive/intuitive zone
to the empirical one and, later, from the empirical zone to the rationalist zone. These
transitions are strongly linked to the role played by the teacher when she discussed
spontaneous process and entropy, considering different points of view, including
informal ideas of the students and scientific explanations.

8.6.2

Communicative Approaches in the Sequence

Table 8.4 illustrates different communicative approaches adopted by the teacher


throughout the three lessons. The design is similar to that for Table 8.3, in which
each line represents a segment of the episode related to a specific zone for the conceptual profile, and, then, a specific approach is identified for each segment. The
communicative approaches are represented as follows: I/D (interactive/dialogic),
I/A (interactive/authoritative), NI/D (noninteractive/dialogic), and NI/A (noninteractive/authoritative).
According to Table 8.4, the teacher predominantly assumed an interactive communicative approach throughout the whole sequence of lessons, something that
characterises her personal teaching style. In addition, we can consider that the

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E.M.R. do Amaral et al.

Table 8.4 Communicative approaches in the sequence of lessons


Interactive/dialogic
(I/D)
First lesson
Episode 1.1
I/D
I/D
I/D

Interactive/authoritative
(I/A)

Noninteractive/dialogic Noninteractive/
(NI/D)
authoritative (NI/A)

NI/A
NI/A
Episode 1.2
NI/A
I/D
I/D
I/A
NI/D
Episode 1.3
NI/A
I/A
I/A
I/A
NI/A
I/A
Second lesson
Episode 2.1
NI/A
I/A
I/D
NI/A
I/D
I/A
NI/A
NI/A
Episode 2.2
NI/A
I/A
I/A
I/A
I/A
Episode 2.3
NI/A
I/A
I/A
I/A
NI/A
(continued)

8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity

229

Table 8.4 (continued)


Interactive/dialogic
(I/D)

Interactive/authoritative
(I/A)

Noninteractive/dialogic Noninteractive/
(NI/D)
authoritative (NI/A)

Third lesson
Episode 3.1
I/A
I/A
I/A
I/A
Episode 3.2
I/A
I/A
I/A
I/A
I/A
Episode 3.3
NI/A
I/D
NI/A
I/A
I/A

teacher was influenced by the pedagogical approach offered by the textbook. For
instance, encouraging participation of students in classroom discussions is related
to the pedagogical approach suggested in this resource. However, the segments
related to the textbook reading were considered to be representative of a noninteractive/authoritative approach. In this sense, it is important to highlight that interactions were promoted by the teacher mainly starting from the textbook reading.
Two characteristics emerge from this analysis: (1) the majority of segments represent an interactive approach, and (2) authoritative discourse is predominant in the
whole sequence. In trying to understand this finding, we turn to a short analysis of
the different teaching purposes during the lessons. We are presuming that the adoption of a specific communicative approach is closely related to the teaching purposes (Scott et al. 2006; Aguiar et al. 2010). In the first day, the teacher had the
purpose of generating a problem and exploring the students ideas through dialogic
interactions. In the second lesson, the teaching purposes were predominantly to
develop and to apply scientific ideas, and were related to an authoritative approach,
either interactive or noninteractive. In this lesson, dialogic interactions were limited,
because when the students presented their questions and expressed their ideas, they
had little influence in the development of the scientific perspective.
During the third lesson, when introducing the mathematical approach for the
expression of Gibbs free energy, the teacher used an interactive/authoritative communicative approach. However, new opportunities for dialogic interactions appeared

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when the students worked in small groups, applying the mathematical expressions
in order to make a decision on the spontaneity of processes. In this context, an
authoritative position by teacher was assumed just to clarify doubts raised by the
students.
This teacher had a tendency to emphasise dialogic interactions only in the beginning of the teaching sequence, when the students ideas were explored. Afterwards,
the teacher, with some small exceptions, ignored these ideas, as we see in episode
2.1. Although this is a strategy used by many teachers in school science, we still
think that dialogic communicative approaches have their place in all the teaching
sequence, and not only in the beginning.

8.6.3

Looking for Relationships Between Epistemological and


Discursive Aspects

The analyses presented in Tables 8.3 and 8.4 were also carried out for the other three
aspects of the classroom discourse, namely, the teaching purposes, content approach,
and patterns of interaction. From the tables, it was possible to establish relations
between modes of thinking, characterised in terms of the zones of the conceptual
profile of entropy and spontaneity, and ways of speaking, characterised in terms of
the discursive aspects. Table 8.5 suggests relationships between the zones of the
conceptual profile and discursive aspects related to their emergence in classroom
discourse.
The relationships are considered for the lessons investigated in this work. In this
way, they cannot be taken as a generalisation for different situations in which epistemological and discursive aspects are brought together. In Table 8.5, we intend to
show that the emergence of the different zones of the conceptual profile seemed to
be more related to some aspects of discourse than to others. And the reverse is also
true: Some aspects of discourse seemed to be more associated with the emergence
of a specific zone than with others.
According to Table 8.5, the emergence of the perceptive/intuitive zone was
related to an interactive/dialogic communicative approach, through which the students were freely allowed to express their ideas. The teaching purpose was to generate a problem or to explore the students ideas. In this context, the content was
addressed predominantly by the use of empirical descriptions.
When the teaching purpose turned to developing the scientific view of concepts,
the ideas that predominate in the classroom discussion were those included in the
empirical and rationalist zones. The content approach was made by theoretical and
empirical explanations and generalisations. The teacher largely established an interactive/authoritative communicative approach, and triadic patterns of interaction and
chains appeared equally in the speech.
Finally, ideas characteristic of the empirical zone of the profile were present in
the entire sequence of lessons. This zone seemed to include most of the discursive
aspects recognised in this classroom. However, an interactive/authoritative approach

8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity

231

Table 8.5 Relationship between epistemological and discursive aspects


Zones
Discursive aspects
Teaching purposes

Perceptive/intuitive
Generating a problem
Exploring students
ideas

Content approach

Empirical description

Communicative
Interactive/dialogic
approach
Patterns of interaction

Empirical
Generating a problem
Exploring students
ideas
Developing scientific
ideas
Applying scientific
ideas
Empirical/theoretical
explanations/
generalisations

Rationalist
Developing a scientific
view for concepts

Empirical/theoretical
explanations
Theoretical
generalisations
Interactive/authoritative Interactive/
authoritative
I-R-E/chains
I-R-E/chains

was predominant in the discussion of empirical situations. It is important to highlight


that we have found different discursive aspects related to the empirical zone and this
could be linked to transitions always involving the empirical zone. When the teaching
purpose was to apply scientific ideas, the discussion involved the use of the mathematical formalism and empirical generalisations were predominant in approaching
the content.

8.7

Final Remarks

In this chapter, we developed and presented a proposal for a conceptual profile of the
concepts of entropy and spontaneity, when they are applied to understanding energetic
aspects of chemical and physical transformations. In addition, the proposed conceptual profile was used to analyse the epistemological aspects of a chemistry classroom
focusing on the dynamics of the discourse shaped by the teacher and students.
Characterisation of the zones of the conceptual profile was based on a study of
the historical evolution of the concepts, a literature review of students informal
conceptions, and empirical data obtained in the classroom. At least three genetic
domains sociocultural, ontogenetic, and microgenetic were addressed, in order
to articulate the analysis of empirical data from the literature and those obtained in
the classroom with aspects of the historical development of the concepts.
Acknowledging that the development of higher mental functions in each genetic
domain is not caused by the same factor (Wertsch 1985), we did not intend to make
comparisons between these different domains or to draw parallels between their

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E.M.R. do Amaral et al.

contents, but, more broadly, we looked for an understanding of the genesis of


concepts. This genesis allowed us to show the concepts in a dynamic process of
formation and contributed to understanding some ideas that the students presented
in the classroom. From this perspective, we highlight the importance of recognising
how ideas from historical concepts can contribute to the development of student
understanding, seen as a progressive process rather than being based on fixed concepts or phenomena.
Coherently with these observations, the conceptual profile can be used as an
instrument for facilitating the teaching and learning of scientific concepts by making
available to both teachers and students a synthesis from each of the zones. Identifying
zones of the conceptual profile was shown to be a potential tool for the teacher in
recognising and structuring ideas found in the high school classroom. In analysing
the discourse, we found that students expressed ideas related to different contexts,
and, therefore, different forms of thinking about entropy and spontaneity of chemical
and physical processes were identified. However, the discussion in the classroom
was predominantly oriented towards the scientific ideas through the work of the
teacher, and so a particular view of reality was highlighted and constructed in scientific terms.
Despite the fact that scientific ideas tend to predominate in the school context, it
is generally accepted that students construct meanings for scientific concepts from
their previous experiences of everyday life, associated with the social and cultural
contexts to which they belong. The fundamental importance of such previous experiences to learning should be considered for teaching purposes and those informal
ideas can be made more or less prevalent in the classroom, depending on the pedagogical strategies used by teachers, as outlined in the analysis presented above.
Generally speaking, as it has been exemplified throughout this study, there is a
tendency to focus on the scientific point of view and not to acknowledge students
informal ideas in science lessons: Some zones of the profile are addressed, but not
others, or some are preferentially addressed in the classroom.
In this regard, the attitude of the teacher and the pedagogical perspective adopted
are crucial factors for the articulation of different ideas in the classroom. We should
reiterate that scientific knowledge is often considered superior to other forms of knowledge, thereby discouraging discussion of different viewpoints. With these aspects in
mind, conceptual profiles can be used in the classroom in the sense of suggesting, in a
structured way, discussion of other points of view about the phenomena and concepts
at stake, so as to put them in relation to the scientific perspective being taught.
From this vantage point, it is important to bring closer together scientific concepts and different forms of understanding, addressing a diversity of ideas also in
the domain of science itself. The absence of an explicit discussion and comparison
of these different approaches often prevents students from recognising transitions
between different forms of understanding, which could be addressed through conceptual profiles.
Finally, we consider that the conceptual profile reveals a theoretical and methodological framework that allows not only to structure the ideas found in classrooms
but also analyse classroom discourse dynamics, drawing on the analytical

8 A Conceptual Profile of Entropy and Spontaneity

233

framework used in this investigation. From the analysis, we established relationships between epistemological and discursive aspects, for example, in finding that
an interactive/dialogic communicative approach can support the emergence of ideas
from the perceptive/intuitive zone. Thus, we consider that the conceptual profile
theory could contribute to planning a more effective science teaching, which could
lead to a deeper conceptual understanding.
In summary, we believe that the combination of the conceptual profile along with
the analysis of discursive interactions provides a comprehensive modelling of teaching and learning actions, based on the way in which the full range of modes of thinking (the zones) and the full range of interactions (the four classes of communicative
approaches) are explicitly recognised.

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Chapter 9

The Implications of the Conceptual Profile


in Science Teaching: An Example from
a Teaching Sequence in Thermal Physics
Orlando G. Aguiar Jr.

9.1

Introduction

This chapter deals with successive actions in planning and developing teaching
sequences to introduce the concepts of heat, temperature, and thermal balance in
secondary education in Brazil. The conceptual profile theory was used in order to
address concept formation in the study, which focused, thus, on the change of conceptual profiles, as discussed in other chapters of this book. Our objective in so
doing is to show the heuristic potential of this approach when driving and inspiring
effective actions in science teaching.
The first teaching experience reported here refers to the work carried out over
two consecutive years with 9th grade classes of the Centro Pedaggico (university
primary and secondary school) of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).
This school implements teaching innovations in the university and is a privileged
forum for initial teaching training. The students come from different social classes
and are selected in the first year through a public draw.
The second experience concerns the refining of this teaching planning for use in
the following years by preservice physics teachers in training during their internships. Different from the first experience, we do not have a detailed record of interactions in the classroom, but only the written report of the experiences in the
internship, from the trainee teachers point of view. The results of this approach
became part of a chapter of a science textbook of which I am one of the authors
(Aguiar Jr. et al. 2007).1

The first edition of the collection Construindo Conscincias was published in 2003, and the
second revised edition, in 2007. The chapter we refer to is The Control of Body Temperature by
Living Beings, which is part of the content of the 8th year of secondary education.
O.G. Aguiar Jr. (*)
School of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
e-mail: orlando@fae.ufmg.br
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_9, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

235

236

O.G. Aguiar Jr.

Finally, from 2007 to 2009, I went back to this planning in training courses for
science teachers of the Minas Gerais state public schools. Most of these teachers
were initially trained as biology teachers and had limited knowledge of physics.
Therefore, we believe that the teaching approach with these teachers should be compared to that which was used previously with students from secondary education.
The experiences in the university school (Centro Pedaggico) and in the teacher
training courses were recorded on video, with the mapping of events and later selection of episodes for transcription and analysis. This enabled us to reflect about situations and, after some distancing from them, to correct some of the activities and
pedagogical orientations for application in the classrooms, in a process of developing the curriculum on a micro-scale (Lijnse 1995). Here we present the results of
these reflections, aligned with psychological, epistemological, and anthropological
assumptions that support the view of science learning as changing and acquiring of
awareness of conceptual profiles.
Therefore, the first item presented is a summary of the different zones that make up
the conceptual profile of heat (see Chap. 1). Then follows a review of the teaching
sequence, in terms of the relations established with these different ways of speaking
and thinking about heat and thermal phenomena. At the same time, we will provide a
detailed analysis of the conceptual aspects and learning demands (Leach and Scott
2002) that guided the preparation of the activities that make up the teaching sequence,
highlighting the discussion around the status attributed by research in science education to the substantialist zone of the concept of heat. We believe this zone is not only an
epistemological obstacle for the development of the scientific notion of heat, but can be
considered, even if paradoxically, as a learning route for the development of an understanding of thermodynamics, because of its importance in differentiating between heat
and temperature and in attributing invariants in physical transformations.
The next issue to be dealt with is the construction of learning contexts and their relation to conceptual profiles of heat to be developed. This seems to be a fundamental
unfolding of the teaching approach inspired by the evolution of conceptual profiles,
since there are contexts that evoke different elements of the profile. Also, some contexts
can be more suitable to introduce new zones of the profile, according to a careful analysis of the learning demands. Therefore, the selection of adequate contextual situations is
essential both in discussing the nonscientific zones of the concept as well as in introducing scientific zones and forging strategies for their appropriation by the students.
The third point treated in this chapter is the analysis of discursive interactions in
the classroom, in which the processes of negotiation of meanings and consolidation
of given meanings occur. For this we use the concept of communicative approach
from Mortimer and Scott (2003) in order to analyze, throughout the teaching
sequence, how the alternations between dialogic and authoritative discourses occur
and how they can favor the appropriation by the students of the scientific ways of
speaking and thinking about heat.
Finally, we highlight the importance of the activities that made it possible,
throughout the teaching sequence, to raise awareness of the students own profiles,
so as to guide the adequate use of scientific concepts in contexts and situations
which demand them.

9 The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching

9.2

237

The Conceptual Profile of Heat

A profile for the concept of heat was developed by Amaral and Mortimer (2001) and
is discussed in Chap. 1. This profile model includes five zones as follows: (1) heat
and cold as opposite entities (sensorialist zone), (2) affinities for heat (animist zone),
(3) heat as a substance (substantialist zone), (4) differentiation between heat and
temperature (empiricist zone), and (5) heat as proportional to the difference between
the temperatures of two systems (rationalist zone).
However, for the teaching actions reported here, a simplified version of this
model was used. These five zones have been grouped into three, by merging the
sensorialist and animist ways of thinking, making up the first zone of the simplified
profile of heat, as well as merging the substantialist and empiricist ways of thinking, making up a second zone of the profile used for our teaching purposes.
This simplification of the profile model for teaching planning and action results
from the different purposes of two spheres of human activity: on the one hand, the
refinement and sophistication of research instruments and results, which can, in
some circumstances, be excessive for teaching purposes, although necessary for a
deeper understanding of the teaching and learning processes, and, on the other hand,
teaching practice with its situated demands.
In the following sections, we will describe the zones taken as references for
the planning and development of the teaching sequence on the topic heat and
temperature.

9.2.1

Heat and Cold as Opposite Entities

In the first zone of the simplified profile of heat used in this study, cold and heat are
treated as properties of objects. Mortimer et al. (2010) show that in the ontogenetic,
sociohistorical, and microgenetic domains, there is strong evidence that the concept
of heat is associated with hot things and often in an undifferentiated way. Field
research in science education shows a strong tendency of students to consider the
opposition between heat and cold, and sometimes they assume two types of heat:
the hot heat and the cold heat (Cafagne 1996; Silva 1995; Erickson 1985). It is a
logic which draws on attributes, qualities of materials and objects, as a way of providing explanations for the phenomena (Aguiar 2002). The experience of thermal
sensations cold and heat seems to be at the root of this way of understanding
thermal phenomena.
This view ignores the notion of thermal balance, since temperature is considered
as a property of materials, which have a great affinity for cold or for heat. In order
to explain the movements of heat, children tend to describe heat as something with
an intrinsic driver. Silva (1995) presents ideas of students that attribute animistic
properties to objects (wanting to give or receive) to explain the processes of heating
or cooling.

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Studies indicate that this zone of the profile is extremely powerful and present in
everyday language when speaking about hot and cold things. Therefore, we refer to
warm clothing, and we close the windows for the cold not to get in.

9.2.2

Heat as Substance and Differentiation


Between Heat and Temperature

In the second zone of the profile used as a reference for teaching planning, heat is
considered as a kind of subtle substance that can be stored or contained in objects
and transferred from one place to another, disseminating itself in matter. The historical importance of this way of thinking is undeniable. It was originally formulated by Joseph Black and reflected in the works of Lavoisier and Laplace, at the end
of the eighteenth century, and of Carnot, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
In fact, this assumption made it possible to highlight an invariant in thermal phenomena (the caloric, which cannot be created or destroyed) and a distinction
between causes and effects, with the differentiation between heat and temperature.
This differentiation made it possible to empirically investigate the phenomena of
heat and the thermal properties of materials.
This notion of heat as substance has been superseded in scientific theory,
but, even today, it is still present, especially in the ways of thinking and speaking of technicians and engineers operating thermal machines and refrigeration
devices. The very language of thermodynamics is marked by substantialist
expressions flow or transfer of heat, specific heat, latent heat, as well as the use
of diagrams that indicate the entrance or exit of heat with arrows. More than the
historical reminiscences of a superseded ontology, the use of these expressions
and representations shows the heuristic potential of the metaphor of heat contained and transferred from one place to another, which continues valid in situations in which work is nil (i.e., in which the energy transfers are carried out
only by heat).
In science education, there prevails a view that substantialism represents a strong
obstacle to the learning of scientific concepts. Besides heat, other physical measures, such as energy and electric current, are frequently treated as material substances. There is an undeniable difficulty in the transition from an ontology based
on things to another based on events or processes (Chi 1992).
However, I believe that research in science education has given too little relevance to the heuristic potential or pragmatic power of substantialist notions
which, among other things, are at the root of the attribution of invariants, that is, the
consideration that something is conserved in transformation. Also, the substantialist
view allows for the differentiation between heat and temperature. With this differentiation, heat becomes empirically distinct from the sensation of heat, a fundamental piece in the construction of a theory for thermal phenomena.
Therefore, according to Bachelard (1996), some ideas are, at the same time,
powerful ways of understanding the world and obstacles to the later advance of

9 The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching

239

knowledge. The evolution of the conceptual profile intends to examine this heuristic
potential while not ignoring its limitations and, therefore, the need to go beyond it
in treating particular problems.

9.2.3

Heat as Energy in Transit Proportional


to the Differences of Temperature

The third zone of the conceptual profile of heat considers it as a way of transferring
energy between systems at different temperatures. Heat is not considered permanent
and exists only when there is a difference of temperature. In the language of thermodynamics, heat is not a state variable. This way of thinking involves, in the first
place, the equivalence between the transfer of energy through heat and work,
mechanical or electric. The phenomena of heat are dealt with using energy balance
as the wider reference, while heat is only the exchange currency.
Second, this concept of heat involves the construction of the kinetic model of
particles, with the attribution of intrinsic, incessant, and random movement to the
particles, which explains the difficulties of conversion of heat into work. Therefore,
the third zone of the profile model involves the differentiation between heat and
internal energy and the understanding of the relations between heat and work. The
problem of the irreversibility of processes and the concept of entropy are the
unfolding of the idea of thermal movement and the probabilistic treatment that
results from it.

9.3

Choices of Teaching Content

Having characterized the different zones of the conceptual profile of heat, we now
indicate the approach to content and the focus of the activities to be carried out in the
classroom. For an initial and introductory treatment of thermal physics for the 9th
grade (1415-year-olds), we have chosen as a focus the first two zones of the profile
of heat and some aspects of the third zone. While still using aspects of the model of
particles, already taught to these students, the emphasis would be on the appropriation by the students of the relations between the concepts of heat, temperature, and
thermal balance.
Therefore, some decisions were made with regard to the treatment of thermal phenomena, which resulted in a teaching planning with the following characteristics:
1. Analysis of the logic of hot/cold attributes in interpreting thermal phenomena
2. Predominantly macroscopic treatment, through the concomitant construction of the
concepts of heat, temperature, and thermal balance (Arnold and Millar 1994, 1996)
3. General and qualitative approach, avoiding the presentation of equations and
solution of numerical problems

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4. Friendly coexistence with the idea of heat contained in the bodies, understood
as an intermediary stage in the construction of scientific concepts
5. Considering heat as a form of energy, that is, that can be obtained through other
sources of energy and transformed into other manifestations of energy
6. Considering the energetic balance of organisms, showing the transfer of energy
as heat dissipated into the environment and heat produced by cell respiration
The last point resulted from the contexts of approach to the theme justified below.

9.4

Defining the Contexts for Learning

Before advancing, it is necessary to briefly outline what is meant by context,


referring the reader to Chap. 10 for deeper discussion. According to our approach,
contexts are not given or static. On the contrary, they are created dynamically
through interactions via negotiation and intersubjective contracts between participants in a given sphere of human activity.
Also, different contexts may coexist at the same place and be reviewed on different scales. A general context (macro-context) may include more than one specific
context (micro-context). We may, for example, consider the macro-context of society, the meso-context of the school, and the micro-context of the classroom. The
cross section to be used in this chapter considers the science classroom as the context, the teaching sequence (temperature regulation in living beings) as a mesocontext, and the contexts created by the teaching activities throughout this sequence
as micro-contexts.
Considering the science classroom context, we do not refer to an abstract being,
but to a configuration that is forged in the relations and interactions between teacher,
students, and objects of knowledge. These relations are also permeated by elements
of social representation, such as the value attributed to the sciences in our society,
by the materiality of the school, by teaching resources and methodologies, and by
predispositions of what students are expected to learn. In the school we observed,
natural sciences had been chosen by the students as one of their favorite subjects,
only after physical education. We believe that this results from the work dynamics
established by the teachers of the area and the incentive given to the students in
bringing their experiences, curiosities, and interests in dialogue with science content. It must be remembered also that the context of science classrooms has an
intrinsic complexity as it includes concepts, models, and languages of various subject fields with specific subcultures.
The second hierarchical level of the learning context refers us to the teaching
sequence reported and analyzed here. This teaching sequence was drawn up around
the theme temperature regulation in living beings and was made up of activities,
concepts, and models of thermal physics and animal physiology. This sequence was
presented to the students with a set of questions and issues involving thermal sensations and changes in our organism in response to environmental conditions. The
issues raised in the opening activity referred to situations from everyday life but

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signaled a promise that these situations should be explained using concepts and
models from physics and physiology. The context of the teaching sequence, therefore, promised a dialogue between questions from everyday life contexts (e.g., why
do we transpire and feel hot when we practice sports? Why do we cool down when
there is a wind?) and from scientific concepts (after all, what do we understand by
heat and temperature?) to be used to re-signify these experiences. This context of
issues related to thermal sensations extended and permeated all the activities carried
out. One evidence that this context was shared by students and teachers was the
dedication of students in answering questions placed by the teacher (what happens
to our body when we feel hot?) and, especially, the fact that the students themselves formulated questions about the context presented (why do we feel hot at
30 C if my body is at 36 C?).2
The third hierarchical level refers to the micro-context of the activities carried
out in the classroom. Next we will present some of these situations guided by the
temporal sequence of events. We can say that the context of the activities was closer
to school physics, using experimental situations to build physical models of heat,
temperature, and thermal balance.
These three hierarchical levels of contexts will be presented in dialogue with the
zones of the conceptual profile of heat. According to our theoretical view, concepts are
not stable mental entities, owned by individuals, but cultural references that are appropriated and rebuilt by each subject in the various contexts of social life. Therefore, it is
essential to configure, in the planning, the contexts that are most adequate to enable the
emergence of multiple views for the concept of heat in order to appropriate aspects of
the scientific model of heat, temperature, and thermal balance.
The research on conceptual profiles indicates that it is the contexts that evoke the
different zones of the profile. The context of the teaching sequence and of the problems evoked by it refers to the issues of the sensations of hot and cold and, beyond
them, to temperature regulation of living beings. In fact, this issue, in the interface
between biology and physics, makes it possible to highlight the interactions of the
organism with the environment as an object of study and, thus, go beyond a simplistic view that sensations allow us to perceive the world such as it is. On the contrary,
the relational view informs us that we only perceive the world while transforming its
stimuli, that is, interacting with it. Another advantage of the context of study of temperature regulation in living beings, for the introduction of thermal physics, is that it
makes it possible to deal with the energy balance of organisms, considering, on the
one hand, the continuous transfer of heat from our organism to the environment and,
on the other, the constant production of energy by the metabolism.
Before going forward, it must be said that we chose a curricular sequence in which
the contexts evoke and raise certain concepts. This way of working the curriculum
intends to reduce the distance between school content and contemporary life, its
problems, and challenges. In the case of the study of temperature regulation in living
2

This and other questions from the students, as well as the answers given by them in the dynamics
of the activities in the science classrooms, were examined in the article by Aguiar et al. (2010),
published by JRST.

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beings, this theme requires, besides the physical concepts of heat, temperature, thermal
balance, and energy balance, other concepts and models of animal physiology (the
action of the hypophysis, thermal-regulatory mechanisms, and reactions of the organisms to hyper- and hypothermia).

9.5

Example of the Micro-context of Some Activities

The dynamics of the classroom involved experimental activities carried out in groups
or presented by the teacher, always followed by raising questions and tasks to be carried out by the students. These activities ended with discussions involving the whole
class, in which the teacher sought to build, together with the students, summaries of
what had been said. Before the activities, there was a discussion to contextualize the
specific activity and the general work plan of the teaching sequence. We would often
combine the activities and the reading of short texts. This way of organizing the
teaching had the objective of providing teaching and learning environments favoring
student involvement and activity, through their engagement in tasks, mediated by
language and interactions with their peers and the teacher. The intention was to configure the classroom in such a way that the students developed scientific ideas in the
context of relevant tasks with the support and guidance of the teacher. Considering
the crucial role we attribute to language in the conceptual development of students,
we sought to identify and guide the ways of speaking of the students in the context
of tasks and problems to be solved throughout the activities.
The first activities of the course had the objective of showing the previous concepts of the students, that is, the prescientific elements of the conceptual profile. This
manifestation is important because it makes it possible to find cultural ways of thinking and speaking that are inevitably related to the scientific concepts to be developed.
However, to recognize their legitimacy in these domains does not mean to dissolve
them in an amalgam of scientific and everyday concepts without a clear distinction
between them. On the contrary, we seek to highlight the need for new concepts for a
scientific approach of the thermal phenomena. Therefore, we demanded that the students seek criteria of generality, coherence, and internal consistency, accepted values
of the scientific way of getting to know the world.
Besides the pretest, the first two activities of the course had this aspect of eliciting and raising issues of prescientific concepts. In the first, we sought to show the
inadequacy of touch to determine the thermal state of the materials. The groups
handled three containers with water at different temperatures, moving their right
hand from the hot water container to the room temperature container and their left
hand from the cold water container to the room temperature container. They were
encouraged to find explanations for the different sensations to touch brought about
by the water. The second activity involved foreseeing and comparing the behavior
of a block of ice and a hot potato rolled in flannel compared to other identical
objects in contact with the environment.
When carried out in the classroom, these first activities evoked the sensorialist zone
of the profile of heat. Then, we created strategies to question the validity of this idea as

9 The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching

243

the general organizer of the thermal phenomena. One of the strategies used to discuss
this idea involved proposing the possibility of a glass with melting ice to behave as a
source of heat. The activity required preparing a system that was colder than the
melting ice chipped ice with salt and observing what happens to a thermometer
when moved from the glass with ice + salt to the glass with melting ice. This strategy
was carried out as part of a discursive framework in which the students took part working in small groups and the teacher provoked and fed into the discussions. In his interventions, the teacher emphasized the relativeness of what could be considered cold or
hot, an idea presented in contrast with the initial concept of cold and hot as opposite
qualities of heat. At this moment, the teacher sought to highlight the simultaneity of the
warming of the body that was initially at a lower temperature and the cooling of that
which was at a higher temperature in order to explain these two simultaneous effects
from a single and the same process of transfer of energy.
We sought to establish the concept of thermal balance progressively, beginning with
the intuitive notions of the students who accept it in some circumstances. Although
limited to certain typical cases, the final equal temperature between bodies in contact
is not entirely strange to the students. The problem lies in the lack of generality of their
proposition, whether counter to thermal sensations, or because they did not consider
the special conditions in which the phenomenon occurred isolated systems. Therefore,
the formulation of the concepts of heat, temperature, and thermal balance was carried
out in three activities with the progressive distancing from the initial notions.
In the first of these activities, students were asked to foresee, observe, and explain
the temperature variations of two equal amounts of water at 20 and 50 C, respectively placed in an aquarium with a metal plate separating the two environments
(Fig. 9.1). This activity was carried out seeking not only to emphasize the final state
of the system but also to describe in detail the process that leads to this state. The
problem of frontiers what should be the temperature of the metal plate? and
the consideration of the transfer of heat to the environment were aspects highlighted
in interpreting the experiment. Also, the situation made it possible to show that the
heated water, with red die, does not mix with the other, although something passes
from one side to the other of the aquarium.
The situation makes it possible to differentiate between heat (transfer of energy)
and temperature (the variation of temperature is one of the effects of heat). It also
allows to model the relations between the concepts of heat, temperature, and thermal balance: there is only heat while there is a difference of temperature between
the systems, and the variations of temperature that the heat brings about result, in
the end, in thermal balance. In the interpretation of the students, we observe that
there prevails a substantialist notion of heat (the red water has more heat and passes
it to the other). This interpretation was admitted as valid, although the teacher
uttered it in terms of energy transfer.
In more recent teacher training activities, we added another approach in which the
aquarium is divided into unequal volume sections of hot and cold water (see Fig. 9.2).
In this case, the final balance temperature depends on the amounts of hot water. Even
in an ideally isolated system, the reduction of the temperature of the hot water does
not correspond, in this case, to the increase of the temperature of cold water. However,
we admit that the amount of heat transferred by the hot water is equal to the amount

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Fig. 9.1 Photograph and legend in the textbook, reporting an activity carried out with the students
to introduce the model of heat, temperature, and thermal balance

of heat absorbed by the cold water, supposing the container was isolated and ideal.
This situation, therefore, makes it possible to identify heat as the extensive variable
and the temperature as the intensive variable, with various other situations raised and
discussed (e.g., heating a coin until it glows and dropping it in a small glass of water
or in a large tank full of water and comparing the results).
A second situation involving thermal balance was examining the generality of final
equal temperatures when different materials are placed in the same environment. To
do this, we used blocks of wood and aluminum with an orifice to enable the measurement of temperature (Fig. 9.3). This situation placed us before another obstacle which

Fig. 9.2 Variation of


previous experiment with
unequal sections of hot and
cold water in order to
differentiate heat (extensive
variable) from temperature
(intensive variable)

Fig. 9.3 Blocks of aluminum and wood used in course activity

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O.G. Aguiar Jr.

is epistemological, involving overcoming the idea that sensations correspond directly


to the properties of the objects, not knowing the importance and the nature of the
interaction between organism and environment that determine them. It was not enough
to observe the empirical data supplied by the readings on the thermometer. It was also
necessary to provide indications and inputs for a new synthesis that made it possible
to explain the different sensations to touch by objects in thermal balance. The guideline provided for the activity was to monitor the process of warming inside each of the
items used when we hold them in our hands, so that the students attention moved to
the process of gradual heating of the materials when touched. In this way, we intended
to observe the flows of energy that result from the interaction of the hand holding each
of the blocks with the materials they are made up.
We identified the contexts of this second block of activities (aquarium with metal
plate separating the two environments and cubes of wood and aluminum) in close relation to the empiricist zone of the profile of heat (2nd zone of the conceptual profile).
A third block of activities involved guiding the discussion for the notion of heat
as a flow of energy between systems, that is, to the rational zone of the heat conceptual profile. In this case, we considered situations in which the physical system is
not isolated, that is, it receives energy from a source, which means there is no thermal balance. We should note that isolated systems correspond, approximately, to
some actual situations, but not all of them. In this case, the principle of thermal
balance has its generality in the direction of the process the system tends to thermal balance and not its final state, indicated by equal temperatures. It is, therefore,
a question of finding a common explanation to the occurrence and nonoccurrence of
thermal balance from notions of system, surroundings, and flows of energy.
The conservation of energy was presented as a hypothesis in the context of the
study of energy balance in organisms. The analogy with the soldering iron was the
strategy used as a resource to assist in this construction. As in every analogical thinking used to explore new domains, we sought to highlight the common aspects and
differences between the two systems soldering iron and human body. In this case,
the key question was: What are the physical conditions necessary for a body to maintain its temperature constant? Given the tendency of spontaneous thinking of concentrating on each aspect of a problem or entraining causes taken separately as a linear
sequence of processes (Viennot 1997), we seek to assist students to consider, simultaneously, the processes linked to heat transfers and the production of energy by the system: while the soldering iron heats up, the energy supplied by the electricity system is
higher than the energy transferred to the environment, and, thus, the temperature of
the iron increases; this increase in the temperature of the system results in an increase
of the flow of heat to the environment; since the supply of electricity is constant, after
some time, the flows of energy will be equal, which explains, from that point, the
maintenance of the temperature. In both cases, the system does not reach a thermal
balance due to an additional source of energy. These transformations can be schematically represented in terms of flows of energy, as shown in Fig. 9.4.
On the other hand, contrary to what happens with the soldering iron, the supply of
energy of a persons organism does not happen at a constant rate, depending not only
on the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the cells but also on a set of factors that can
inhibit or favor metabolic rates, for example, the intensification of the muscle tonus and

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247

Fig. 9.4 Schematic


representation of flows of
energy in a system subject to
heating

E2

E1

E2

System heating
up

Heated system in dynamic


balance

hormonal action. Therefore, as happens with metabolic rates, the rates of heat transfer
to the environment are also regulated by the central nervous system. In this case, the
variation of the amount of heat transferred depends not only on the difference between
the temperature of the body and the environment but also on many other factors, such
as: transpiration, relative humidity of the air, dilation or constriction of subcutaneous
capillary vessels (which changes the thermal conductivity of the skin) and surface of
the body exposed to the environment.
In conclusion, we sought to expand considerations about energy balance, considering the differences between homothermal and heterothermal animals in terms of
intensity of energy exchanges with the environment and the structures covering the
body through some cases of adaptation of organisms to the temperature conditions of the environment, which were otherwise unfavorable.
This brief description of the teaching activities makes it possible to highlight
correspondences between the micro-contexts of the teaching activities, organized in
time, and the conceptual profiles of heat, informed by the research. We should also
note that the contexts evoked are almost always those of analogical construction of
physical models in school situations. This didactic context was coordinated with the
discussion of everyday situations, such as: What happens to my body when, on a
very hot day, I go into a room with air conditioning? Why do we feel cold when we
get out of the pool with our body wet?

9.6

Shifts Between Authoritative and Dialogic Discourse

When understanding science learning as an evolution and becoming aware of conceptual profiles, we should give special attention to the way teacher and students, in the classroom, develop discourse in the context of relevant tasks. After all, the conceptual profiles
model different ways of thinking and speaking about the world which are used and appropriated by the subjects when participating in social practices in specific contexts.
For planning and analyzing teaching situations in the classroom, the concept of
communicative approach proposed by Mortimer and Scott (2003) and discussed in
Chap. 3 will be used.
Mortimer and Scott (2003) highlight the importance of transitions between dialogic and authoritative discourse to support the learning of scientific knowledge by
the students. Therefore, when the teacher raises a theme with questions for debate,
she explores the concepts of the students, raises questions, and, in this way, adopts a
dialogic and interactive communicative approach. In other moments of the sequence,
we see the same teacher guiding the work of the students in a more restricted way,
with the intention of developing certain scientific ideas, seeking to introduce

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them into the students repertoire. She then adopts an authoritative discourse, with
different degrees of participation of the students in speech turns. In this case, we see
the teacher considering only those utterances from the students that contribute to the
scientific point of view that is being developed and avoiding or correcting the utterances that indicate other, nonscientific points of view. At the end of the sequence, the
teacher can introduce new situations and allow the students to explore them and go
back to dialogic discourse but now at a different level. In this case the teacher gives
the student greater freedom in solving the problems posed, so as to explore the relations between the concepts and between the concepts and the context of the problem
to be solved.
It is also important to highlight the action of the teacher with comments about
what is being done in order to generalize conclusions and systematically organize
the content. Sometimes these reflections are done in a noninteractive and dialogic
way, taking into account different points of view presented in relation to a given
concept. These comments are teachers actions which intend to provide the students
with awareness of the range of ways of speaking and thinking about the world and
their suitability to the contexts and spheres of human activity.
Scott et al. (2006) highlight the existence of a tension between authoritative
and dialogic discourse. According to them this tension is inevitable, since the
social language of science is, essentially, a voice from authority, but its appropriation demands a responsive attitude from the student (Bakhtin 1986), confronting
the school science view with other possible views, which generates dialogic discourse. When working with classroom content, the teacher must decide between
encouraging the students to express their points of view and focusing on the ones
that are closer to those accepted by science. It does not mean that dialogic discourse is superior to that from authority but rather to understand in which situations dialogic discourse is most appropriate and in which it is necessary to narrow
the meanings so as to examine and deepen the scientific point of view in an
authoritative discourse.
Now we will give examples and comments on this alternation between dialogic
discourse and authoritative discourse, utilizing some classroom teaching episodes
in the sequence reported here. These passages also make it possible to identify the
manifestation by the students of elements that make up the zones of the profile of
heat and review how the teacher deals with these situations.

9.7

Eliciting and Raising Questions on Students


Conceptions: The First Zone of the Profile in Discussion

In one of the first lessons of the sequence, the teacher works with one of the groups
and discusses, with the students, the meanings they attribute to heat exchanges
between ice and the environment.3
3

This episode was analyzed in detail by Aguiar and Mortimer (2005).

9 The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching

Teacher:
Student 3:
Teacher:
Student 3:

Student 2:
Student 1:

Student 3:

Student 1;

Teacher:

Student 3:

Student 1:
Student 4:
Student 3:
Student 4:
Student 1:
Teacher:
Student 4:
Student 1:
Student 3:

249

In the case of the ice with the environment / the ice in the flannel.
Is the ice losing heat to the environment when it melts?
No / Its not exchanging heat // its keeping it ((referring to the
flannel, which keeps the ice cold for a while)).
Exchanging heat // What is this heat exchange thing?
Theres one thing thats colder and another thats warmer. Then
they keep getting together like this until theyre equal. Then the
heat kind of keeps passing heat from one to the other / from one
to the other / until they are equal.
Yeah. Until the heat is equal.
Its like this. Theres the ice. Put the ice here. Then put your hand
over the ice ((He makes a gesture as if there were ice beneath his
hand)). The air thats colder here and the warmer air / so then
they keep exchanging this air ((Student 3 interrupts him and
completes his sentence)).
with the warmer air until they get to the same temperature / then
the flannel doesnt let the air / I mean / the heat from outside / get
to the ice and melt it.
Next the ice melts and the water reaches the same temperature as
the environment. The flannel stops this air / the warmth from
outside / from getting to the ice and melting the ice.
OK. Yes / The ice and the environment / it / Does it pass something to the environment when it melts? ((The teacher here
retakes the groups conclusion from the second experiment)).
Uh huh. ((He agrees and gestures with his hands over the table as
if there were an ice cube there)). Its just that / its that if you get
real close you see / you feel that something is passing / only that
the air is much larger
The space that the air takes up is larger than the space that the ice
takes up.
So then it exchanges more heat.
Only that the air is much larger. If the ice was gigantic you could
feel it better.
If you put your hand there youll feel that the air is a lot colder.
Like an iceberg. An iceberg for example //
Is it transferring heat to the environment?
Yeah. It is.
It is. And the environment is transferring heat to the ice.
Just a little compared to the environment / which is gigantic.

In this passage we can see the actions of the teacher, inviting the students to
present and develop their points of view, even when they do not agree with the
school science view. This action favors the rise of students utterances that reveal, in

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O.G. Aguiar Jr.

this context, a strong attribution of heat exchanges, cold and hot, between ice and
the air around it. When asked to justify their positions, the students stated that they
come from their perception of cold heat coming from the ice. Therefore, they
refer to a hypothetical action of putting their hand close to the surface of the ice
cube and also a large iceberg floating in the sea. The discourse shows a meaning of
heat which belongs to the material itself and exchanges with the heat of the environment until they are equal. These utterances enable us to describe these hypotheses
as belonging to the first zone of the conceptual profile of heat, as they consider heat
and cold as two opposite kinds of heat and treat heat as a something that belongs
to the materials.
In this same lesson, a few minutes later, we see the teacher working in a different
way with the same group of students. After advancing the discussion with the students, he goes back to the meaning of heat as related to the movement of particles
and then changes from dialogic to authoritative discourse.

Teacher:
Student 3:
Student 1:
Teacher:
Student 3:
Student 4:
Student 1:
Teacher:
Student 1:

Teacher:

Student 1:
Student 4:
Teacher:
Student 1:
Student 4:

And what would be the difference between the cold part and the
warm part? Whats the difference between them?
Between the cold part and the warm part? The warm part has
more heat / its moving more.
Its that its already received the heat that the ice has / and the
other part hasnt.
OK. If we could see the particles / how would the cold part of the
ice look and how would the warm part look?
The cold part has less movement and the warm part has more heat.
The warm part would have more movement and the cold part has
less movement.
Its moving more.
Then when it comes into contact ((with the colder part)) what
will happen?
It gets to a speed thats close / their speeds are going to become
equal / it will start moving the same amount / then the speeds will
become equal.
But its transferring energy. You were saying that heat is energy.
So then / from where to where will it transfer energy? From the
ice to the environment or from the environment to the ice?
From the ice to the environment.
From the ice to the liquid.
From the ice to the environment? Is the energy being transferred
from the ice to the environment?
No, no // from the liquid to the ice because //
It will gain more speed.
(continued)

9 The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching

251

(continued)
Student 1: Yeah //
Teacher: From the environment to the ice / there is an energy transfer from
the environment to the ice ((He completes this statement with
pauses between words and a professorial tone.))
Student 1: Because theres more movement.
Teacher: Thats right.
Student 3: But why does the ice cool the environment too?
Student 4: Because theres an exchange from the ice to the environment too.
Student 3: But then / it is not necessary to mix all of the parts. Then / if you
take two solid materials like these / the temperatures dont mix
together and they exchange heat in the same way.
Teacher: They exchange heat in the same way / but the particles dont mix
together. There is an energy transfer.
((one student asks how the heat could move from one place to
another and the teacher encourages them to imagine how this can
be; this discussion takes 10 turns of speech))
Teacher: Theres one body thats at a higher temperature / so its vibrating
more, right? Then you put it next to another body thats at a lower
temperature. When it transfers energy to the other body / does
something happen to this one that was vibrating more?
Student 3: I think it loses energy in order to make the other body move more.
Student 1: Because it receives the //
Teacher: And what happens to its temperature?
Student 3: It will drop.
Student 1: It will drop and become equal.
Student 4: It will try to become equal.
Teacher: Great. ((The teacher moves away to help other groups. The students
make notes and answer the questions presented by the experiment.))

Comparing this passage with the previous one, we observe a change in the
questions asked by the teacher: instead of encouraging the students to formulate
their hypotheses or opinions about the themes, the questions are now guided theoretically and provide support and direction to the students thinking. The teacher
asks about the difference in terms of the particle model of the portion of hot water
when compared to the cold water and then asks what happens when they are in
contact. By formulating these questions, the teacher seeks answers in agreement
with the scientific view, and, when the students answer differently, he evaluates
them soliciting and giving support to a new formulation by the students. The discourse is, therefore, predominantly interactive and authoritative. The teacher introduces the idea of heat as energy, which had not yet been evoked by the students and
keeps the expression transfer of energy in all its interventions. When doing so, he

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O.G. Aguiar Jr.

introduces new zones of the profile, molding ways of speaking and ways of thinking
about the phenomena under discussion. In his discourse, the teacher brings aspects
of the third zone of the conceptual profile of heat, the rationalist one. However, at
some stages, it can be seen that the ways of speaking of the students evoke aspects
of the substantialist zone, such as the lack of distinction between heat and the particles that make up matter.
As we see it, the transition from dialogic discourse, shown previously, to the
authoritative discourse is necessary when introducing and strengthening new zones
of the conceptual profile, making them available for the students to be able to gradually appropriate them, under the supervision of the teacher.
On the other hand, it was the dialogic discourse at the beginning which made it possible for the teacher to recognize why the students had a difficulty in abandoning the
idea of the ice transmitting its heat (cold) to the environment. The question asked by
student S3 (why then does the ice cool the environment?) shows a way of thinking
frequently used in everyday life, in which each effect has a single cause. To answer the
students question, the teacher again uses guided questions so that S3 and his colleagues
can perceive that the transfer of heat from the environment to the ice can explain both
processes simultaneously: on the one hand, the warming and, later, the melting of the ice
and, on the other hand, the cooling of the air in the nearby environment.
In the next lesson, the teacher, after discussing with the whole class the activities
carried out with the groups in the previous lesson, establishes the difference between
everyday ways of speaking about heat and cold and those of science4:

Teacher: Now lets return to our question. Last week some groups were
talking about there being two kinds of heat // hot and cold heat. In
fact / this is not a new idea. In the history of science its been
around for a long time.
Also / we often think about heat in terms of our sense of touch
and we have distinct senses of hot and of cold. So / we naturally tend
to accept that there are two opposite and separate things / hot heat /
which warm objects have and cold heat / which cool objects have.
But we have to examine these ideas to see whether they can help
us understand the notion of heat or not. So / there are two things.
The first relates to what we call cold or the cold. There is nothing
which is absolutely cold is there? For example / melting ice // we
think it is really cold / but is it compared to ice plus salt? Is it cold?
Student?: No.
Teacher: No / its warm. Its a source of heat. If you put both in contact /
pure melting ice will pass heat to the ice with salt. What is cold?
(continued)
4

This is one of the episodes analyzed in Scott et al. (2006).

9 The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching

253

(continued)
I can say that it is less hot and the opposite is also true / hot is less
cold. Cold and hot are relative ideas / arent they? Its a matter of
comparing things. So / does it help to think about two kinds of
heat, one associated with hot objects and the other with cold?
There is a second point, an important one //

Here we see the teacher going back to the initial idea of the students that
there are two types of heat, hot or cold, recognizing that this idea has historical
roots in the development of scientific thinking. Next he uses a group activity
done by the students (with melting ice and ice with salt) to discuss the idea of
two types of heat and support the scientific view that heat and cold are relative
concepts.
Thus, this episode constitutes one turning point in the flow of discourse of this
lesson sequence, as there is a clear transition from dialogic to authoritative discourse. The teacher brings together everyday and scientific views, through a dialogic discourse, in the first paragraph, and then makes an authoritative case for the
scientific view that there are not two kinds of heat. The teacher has developed the
case by engaging the students in an activity (Can cold be hot?) which offers a
vivid example of a cold object (melting ice) actually being warm in relation to
another object (ice plus salt), and the noninteractive/authoritative argument that the
teacher develops is based on the shared outcomes of this activity. At this point the
teacher is doing all of the talking, and it would certainly be wrong to assume that all
of the students in the class have taken on the scientific view. Nevertheless, in subsequent small group and whole class discussions, there are many opportunities for
students to articulate their developing ideas about heat, and the two kinds of heat
idea is not raised again, by teacher or students.
The function of this turning point in the discourse is to enhance the awareness,
by the students, of the conceptual profile of heat. Thus, the students have the opportunity to position the authoritative discourse of the disciplinary knowledge in relation to their everyday views, and in this way, we believe that they are better placed
to appropriate this discourse and to make it their own. In simple terms, the students
are better placed to see how the different ideas fit together.
Finally, we bring a fourth episode to show how the teacher seeks to consolidate through interactive and authoritative discourse the empiricist zone of heat.
This discussion comes after an experimental activity with the class, shown in
Fig. 9.1 (aquarium with metal plate dividing two systems with water at different
temperatures). The data of the experiment were collected by two students and
written on the board, and then the teacher turns back to the issues related to the
activity.

254

Teacher:

Student 1:
Teacher:
Student 1:
Teacher:
Student 1:
Prof.:
Student 1:
Teacher:
Student 1:
Teacher:
Student 1:
Teacher:
Student 1:
Prof.:
Student (?):
Teacher:
Student 1:
Teacher:

Students (?):
Teacher:
Student 1:
Teacher:
Student (?):
Teacher:
Student (?):
Teacher:

Student (?):

O.G. Aguiar Jr.

Well, then // what is the condition for two objects that are in
thermal contact / initially with different temperatures / to reach
thermal balance characterized by the final equal temperature?
Hum? Two objects in thermal contact, at different temperatures
/ how are they going to reach the balance?
It is when the temperature is the same / of course.
But what happened for //
One passes heat to the other.
Hum
The one that has more heat / the higher temperature / will pass
it to the one with the lower temperature
I cant hear what student 1 is saying. Would you please pay
attention and stop parallel conversation. Go on student 1.
That the higher temperature // the one with the higher temperature will pass it to the one with the lower temperature.
Passed what?
Passed the heat.
What do you mean? Passed heat / what is heat? What do you
mean? How do you understand heat there?
Ah / the difference / the difference from one to the other.
Ham?
Of energy / of energy from one to the other.
From the one that had?
Higher temperature
From the higher temperature to //
Lower
Ok / and then it stops there. Lets say there was an object measuring 50 and the other at 20o / ok? When they reach a balance
/ do they remain there forever at that limit?
No.
What can happen?
It can drop.
Hum?
It can drop to the room temperature
They can / if they are in an open system / in contact with the air.
What can happen to it?
Stay at room temperature
They exchange with another / another system / right? In other
words the one around it / if it is the air / for example. So are they
going to remain at balance at a constant temperature?
No.
(continued)

9 The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching

255

(continued)
Teacher:

Student 3:
Student 2:
Teacher:

Student 2:
Teacher:

Student 2:
Teacher:
Student 2:
Teacher:
Student 2:
Teacher:

The tendency is to reach a balance with other bodies they are in


contact with / right? They go for example / from 50 to 20 / they
will reach a balance. What will this balance be? This one at 20 or
this at 50? 50 will remain 50 and the other will increase? What
will happen?
The temperature will be at the average.
When there is air in our shirt / how can it be hotter than your
body?
You feel hot because you are producing heat at a rate faster than
the heat is being transferred to the environment / so there is an
even higher temperature. Then you begin to have many reactions
/ you begin to sweat / your start the dilation of your skin capillary
vessels //
So this happens because heat is not transferred.
It transfers less heat than the heat being supplied / right? And it
automatically adjusts a number of processes for this to continue to
happen so you feel hot / you feel bad.
In fact / we get hotter.
What?
We get hotter?
The internal temperature?
Yes
No. You soon have several reactions that increase the transfer of
heat so as to maintain the body temperature. Right?

In the first part of the episode, the teacher intends to remember, with the students,
the meanings attributed to the terms heat, temperature, and thermal balance in interpreting the data from the experiment. For this he uses questions that are answered
by the students and then evaluated a typical pattern of authoritative discourse. The
teacher also used follow-up strategies in order to encourage the students to produce
more complete and justified utterances. Initially, we see student 1 and another colleague talking of the one-way transfer of heat, although they find it difficult to say
what heat is. In spite of the ambiguity of the utterances, they appear to refer to the
third zone, the rationalist, of the conceptual profile of heat. We can see progress, by
some students, in the appropriation of important scientific ideas: besides uttering a
solely direction for the propagation of heat within the context of the activity, these
girls speak of heat as a difference of energy, and they also consider the heat transfers
involving the environment. The utterances are guided to the appropriation of elements of the empiricist profile of heat, with the difference between heat and temperature and the coordination of these concepts among themselves and with the
notion of thermal balance.

256

O.G. Aguiar Jr.

At the end of the episode, student 2 proposes a radical change of the context of
the situations dealt with by the classroom discourse. Instead of the experiment of the
transfer of heat between two sections of water at different temperatures, the student
asks the teacher to consider a much more complex system: the human body covered
by clothing. Why do we feel hot in this case? Here we see how the modeling activity
contexts intercalate with the contexts of everyday situations which, as we saw, permeate the construction of the teaching sequence. The teacher answers the student
seeking to maintain the generality of the contexts dealt with but considering the
problems of the sensation of heat from the physiological point of view. The solution
involves the idea that with the reduction of heat transfer, body temperature tends to
rise, which triggers heat regulation mechanisms (sweat and dilation of capillaries)
which, in turn, increase the heat transfer to the environment and, therefore, make it
possible to keep a constant body temperature. The idea of dynamic balance is later
taken up by the teacher with the use of analogies and diagrams, such as those discussed previously.
When dealing with the question by this student, the teacher opens the discourse to contexts and situations that had not been planned for that moment. In
spite of this, the discourse produced in answering this question is also predominantly authoritative, since the teacher considers the sensation of heat only from
the point of view of the scientific model that is being presented and developed.
At that moment, the teacher did not want to go back to the prescientific zone of
heat as a sensation, associated to hot things.
In the same way, the discourse of the first part of the episode can be described as
predominantly interactive and authoritative, which occurs by the compliance of the
students to the school scientific model in analyzing the situations. In this case, it can
be said that there is a sharing of contexts between the teacher and the students, that
is, the students seem to perceive context markers, and they adapt their discourse
according to the context.
It should also be noted that the substantialist zone of heat was evoked by the
students throughout the sequence, especially in experimental situations. In these
cases, the students speak of the heat contained in the water, of the clothing that
preserves body heat, and of the heat that is passed from hot things to cooler
things.

9.8

Final Remarks

The situations presented here show the potential of the conceptual profile theory as
a framework to organize teaching and learning situations in sciences.
We believe that the following questions can assist teachers in preparing their
teaching plans based on this theoretical framework:
What are the common sense views and how do they intervene in the zone of the
conceptual profile to be taught?

9 The Implications of the Conceptual Profile in Science Teaching

257

How can the common sense and scientific views of the topic be taught differently5?
What are the main obstacles to the appropriation of the scientific ideas?
What strategies should be used to introduce scientific ideas in the classroom?
What problems should be proposed to help students to recognize the differences
between intuitive ideas and scientific concepts?
How to encourage students to work with scientific concepts and models?

Another conclusion from this experience is that we learn to speak and think scientifically in the coming and going between concepts and contexts. The contexts of
the teaching activities often refer to the use of activities building physical models,
belonging to the sphere of school scientific knowledge. However, as we saw, these
contexts dialogue with the context of everyday situations related to thermal sensations. We also seek to indicate that the micro-contexts of the activities were forged
and temporarily developed in correspondence with zones of the conceptual profile
evoked, introduced, and consolidated throughout the teaching sequence.
Every time we use a concept in the face of a specific contextual situation, in
one way or another we relearn the concept in the situation, and it gains new contours and a new potential meaning in the end. The stabilization of senses of a
given concept occurs in these spheres of use and generalization in contexts of
signification.
Another conclusion refers to the discursive interactions that are inherent to the
process of forming and developing concepts. In fact, concept is irreducible for
both the subject and the world. It emerges from interaction, but the forms of interaction between teacher and students around these situations and tasks to be solved
allow wide variation. When the teacher intends to reaffirm and discuss the prescientific elements of the concept, he uses dialogic discourse, accepting the students
statements and analyzing them. On the contrary, when introducing new zones of
the profile or even consolidating or stabilizing some meanings that circulate about
the concept, the teacher uses authoritative discourse. At other moments, when
introducing new problems as challenges to the understanding of the students, the
teacher may go back to dialogic discourse, with transitions to authoritative discourse (after all, the students should have access to the scientific solution of the
proposed problem).
The transitions between dialogic and authoritative discourses seem to be
extremely important. These transitions should be clearly indicated to the students so
as to permit both the recognition of the legitimacy of the nonscientific spheres of the
concept and the specificity of its scientific treatment. The students should recognize
that although legitimate, everyday concepts are not of the same kind as scientific
concepts, because they were created and should be used for different purposes. It is
the nature of the problem to be solved that enables us to choose the appropriate
cultural tool for each situation.
5

For some teaching content and levels, it is also a matter of examining the passage from one scientific zone to another, with the domains and fields of validation that belong to it. This does not happen here, where heat is being taught at an elementary level.

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Therefore, the teaching strategies highlighted here should make possible:


1. The evoking and discussion of the prescientific zones of the concept and understanding of the aspects that justify and strengthen them, on the one hand, and
their limitations and gaps, on the other
2. The introduction and strengthening of new zones of the conceptual profile in the
contexts of relevant tasks and problems to be solved
3. The awareness of different zones of the conceptual profile in order to prevent
their meanings being used without distinction or in a mixed way

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Part III

Recent Developments
in the Research Program

Chapter 10

Conceptual Profile as a Model


of a Complex World
Cristiano Rodrigues de Mattos

10.1 Prelude
This chapter was introduced in this section because it is part of an effort to enlarge
the limits of the conceptual profile theory. The text refers to a first synthesis of the work
done by the Science and Complexity Education Research Group of the University
of So Paulo (ECCo). The ideas we present here have convergences and some
divergences regarding the consequences of the use of that theory as it is presented
in this book. We believe that conceptual profile theory considered in a socioculturalhistorical perspective, particularly focusing on the human praxis, can be an excellent candidate to represent the teaching and learning processes, not only in school
activities but also in any human activity.
Therefore, some aspects of this theory will be considered, in order to point out
the need for an approach relating the complexity of the world and language with the
structural complexity of subjects cognitive states the conceptual ecology. We will
follow a theoretical orientation also found in other chapters of this book. The main
working hypothesis is that subjects cognitive structures are constituted within the
intermediation of language. Then, we point out some elements that can give support
to a complex conceptual ecology representation. We consider this complex structure
mediated and constituted by language that represents several different hierarchical
levels of the potential complex relations among things in the world. We also stress
the fact that conceptual profiles allow us to represent learning in context, dealing
with the complexity of cultural and historical dimensions of the representations
used in our daily life. We use context as an element constituent of and constituted
by the dynamics of the social interactions, a complex field of deixis negotiated in the
living social interactions. In this sense, this notion of a complex context and the

C.R. Mattos (*)


Institute of Physics, University of So Paulo, So Paulo, Brazil
e-mail: mattos@if.usp.br
E.F. Mortimer and C.N. El-Hani (eds.), Conceptual Profiles: A Theory of Teaching
and Learning Scientific Concepts, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education 42,
DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9246-5_10, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

263

264

C.R. Mattos

complex conceptual profile are two faces of the same coin, joined by language. It is
the complexity of the representations and mediations of language that will allow us
to comprehend the hierarchical levels of human discourse, extending from polysemy
to polyphony. The structural complexity of the embodied and situated cognitive
states that could be expressed by a complex conceptual profile enables us to represent,
in specific contexts, not only epistemological and ontological dimensions of
concepts but also their axiological dimension. In this work we also intend to explore
some limits of the conceptual profile theory.
We value multiculturality and believe science to be one of the most important
human cultural activities. Our epistemological and ontological presuppositions are
aligned with the other authors of this book, considering science as a powerful way
of establishing and regulating structural relationships between man and world.
However, our axiological presupposition is that science does not support human
anguish in the face of human finitude (Mattos 2010). Therefore, life demands other
forms of knowing as privileged epistemologies to deal with human limits.

10.2 Introduction
The world is complex. This sentence is usually used to refer to different aspects of
life, from the human daily ecology to planetary ecology. The way human beings
learn to live among these multifarious modes of life amazes most of the research
communities of education or sociology or evolutionary, cognitive, sociohistoric-
cultural psychology.
Human capacity to adapt brings about many solutions to problems of living, from
economic to cultural. The diversity of human activities reveals an intricate structure
of relations that defines and is defined in the core of human interactive processes
with the world to which it belongs, to which it defines, and by which it is defined.
In this sense we call the world a complex system. Human activities involve innumerable hierarchical, interconnected, and feedback levels, which should be modeled
in a way that supports arguments about how human beings built solutions to problems
in everyday life. In this chapter, we use the ideas of complex adaptive system theories
(Holland 1995; Mainzer 2007; Castellani and Hafferty 2009) to deal with the experiential world of humans (Bonda 2002).

10.2.1 What Are Complex Systems?


We can say that complex systems theory is a relatively new paradigm for understanding systems behavior. Originally this theory was developed in the fields of physics
and mathematics. Meanwhile it has also been widely proposed as an important way
to look at biological, social, and cognitive sciences.
Typically complex physical systems are defined as systems made up of a large number
of highly connected elements that interact among themselves. Those systems could

10 Conceptual Profile as a Model of a Complex World

265

present a myriad of states and dynamics (linear and nonlinear), which determine
patterns of coordination of the constituent elements. In some cases, the coordination
of interactions among the elements can reach scales as long as the system dimensional scale, allowing the emergence of new collective system properties that can be
associated with new organizational hierarchical levels. There are a lot of examples of
complex systems, related to different phenomena, such as Bernards cells, spin
glasses, cellular differentiation, predatorprey dynamics, and neural networks.

10.2.2 C
 omplexity, Hierarchical Levels, Feedback,
and Connectivity
Perhaps we can point out cross sections in the complex structure of the world, thinking
about dimensional hierarchical levels such as those of quarks, subatomic particles,
atoms, molecules, cells, unicellular and multicellular beings, societies, and Gaia.
From this point of view, we can think of the world as a dynamic complex adaptive
system, with a huge number of emergent hierarchical patterns, built up from autoorganization dynamics of its parts at all system levels.
Since we can rarely represent a complex system in its entire complexity, we
should reduce it, not merely disjoining hierarchical levels, but looking for a unity
of analysis that could maintain the representation of the relationships among the
hierarchical levels in order to avoid losing the complexity of the phenomenon.
However, to long for a representation of the whole is to lose sight of the limited
dimension of language. What is needed is a unit of analysis that allows one to
identify relationships and phenomena, representing aspects of the world that are of
interest to those who investigate human interactive and cognitive processes.

10.2.3 A Unit of Analysis


Facing the complexity of human-world interaction, it is necessary to establish
criteria in order to allow an understanding of the articulation of system components.
We use human activity as a unit of analysis, as proposed by Leontiev (1978) and
later worked out by Engestrm (1987) in the context of activity theory, which presents
an alternative model to deal with the representations of the dialectic relationships
between the complex world structures and the process of construction of the human
consciousness.
Leontiev (1978) strived to understand the development of thought and consciousness through the study of human activity. According to him, the development of consciousness is a private internal movement generated by the dynamics of human activity
and vice versa. Thus, at the same time, a human being modifies nature, he/she modifies
himself/herself, developing abilities that until then were not incorporated. This process
is mediated, at the same time, by the instruments of work and by society.

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All human activity has a motive, which has its origins in the individuals (or groups)
needs. The activity is composed of a set of actions performed by individuals (orsubgroups) that separately do not lead directly to attaining the intended objective
(object). The actions have specific ends that do not coincide, necessarily, with the
motive of the activity, but jointly they constitute the activity (Leontiev 1978). In
short, the activity is composed of coordinated actions, which are, in turn, composed
of coordinated operations that define the conditions of the actions. The uppermost
level of collective activity is driven by an object-related motive [or objective]; the
middle level of individual or group action is driven by a goal; and the bottom level
of automatic operations is driven by the conditions and tools of action at hand
(Engestrom and Miettenin 1999, p. 4).
Human activity is both practical and interior. They are not apart and they have the
same structure (Leontiev 1978). The internal activity, as the external or practical
one, is mediated by language internalized and also externalized on social life that is
dialectically transformed. However, the same word system can express different
meanings or even contents that stand in opposition to each other. Considering the
complexity of human expression within the domain of signs i.e., within the ideological sphere profound differences exists: it is, after all, the domain of the artistic
image, the religious symbol, the scientific formula, and the judicial ruling, etc. Each
field of ideological creativity has its own kind of orientation towards reality and
each refracts reality in its own way. Each field commands its own special function
within unity of social life (Bakhtin 1986, pp. 1112).
Due to the complexification of the instruments and social relations, the actions
that make up human activity can be presented or not to consciousness during their
execution (we will refer, then, to conscious actions and non conscious actions or
operations). That is, the complexification produces a system of coordinated actions
subordinated to each other, each one with a conscious end, which globally constitute
a unique process, a unique complex action. The alliance of different partial actions
in a unique action allows us to understand those partial actions as operations of
the larger action. Therefore, the content that before was a conscious end of partial
actions becomes, after the coordination in higher hierarchical levels, a condition
(non conscious) to carry out the emergent complex action.
An action and its end, when belonging to another action structure, i.e., when
becoming an operation, does not come to mind but is done mechanically. However,
subjects of the activity are not totally unconscious, because in certain conditions they
can be conscious. If we consider an experienced driver, the operations of changing
gears, increasing or reducing speed, etc., might not be present in his/her consciousness at all times. However, the smallest deviation relating to the normal execution
of the operation is enough to make this last one and their material conditions
appear sharply to the conscience (Leontiev 1978, p. 104). This movement of the
operations becoming conscious or non conscious is related to the internalization-
externalization dialectical process and varies according to the activity structure.
Here we take development and learning to be intrinsically interwoven (Vygotsky
2001), pointing to a dialectical relationship between the external and internal
human activity (Leontiev 1978). This relation allows us to establish the hypothesis

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that the complexity of the world is internalized and re-complexified (recontextualized)


when externalized during human activity.

10.3 Cognition as a Complex System


As part of a complex world, a human being as an embodied, situated cognitive system
could be considered, in itself, as a complex system. Since the beginning of the twentieth
century, the study of human cognition has systematically intensified in areas such
as philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, and pedagogy. Due to the broad character
of the questions about cognition, the need for a multi- and an interdisciplinary
approach became clear, resulting in the rise of cognitive science in the middle of
the twentieth century. Later on this interdisciplinary approach became an institutionally disciplinary field of science. This new field refers to objects that range from
animal learning to artificial cognitive systems such as those of artificial intelligence. The cognitive science object includes, therefore, natural biological systems, as well asnonbiological or artificial systems (Amit 1989; Hertz etal. 1991;
Gallagher 2005). Cognitive studies have grown in several different areas, from the
already mentioned psychology, psychiatry, and philosophy to linguistics, sociology,
physics, chemistry, mathematics, computation, and biology. Cognitive science has
unified seemingly disjointed fields looking for understanding cognitive behavior
(Gardner 1985; Lamberts and Shanks 1997; Geirsson and Losonsky 1996; Clark
1997; Pinker 1997; Gallagher and Zahavi 2008).
From this point of view, some contributions from the physics of dynamic complex
systems should be considered, in order to point out some aspects that could clarify
some general features of cognitive systems (Mainzer 2007). Similarities among
different learning processes demand precise delimitation of some concepts such as
memorization, generalization, attention, trust, and surprise in the scope of cognitive
theories. This is particularly true when some models are used as metaphors. It is
essential to understand their representational pertinence when we develop cognitive
systems theories as a metaphor for real systems.

10.3.1 Symbolic and Sub-symbolic Representation


The symbolic representation of human cognition was based on the metaphor of a
computer as basically an input process-output system. The computer can receive a
series of symbols as input. These symbols are representations of some human
meaningful construct and the computer makes relations with these symbols using a
kind of predefined instruction set. Then it can provide other symbols as an output
of this operation. In the symbolic tradition, human cognition can be thought of in
much the same way as a symbolic relation process, but it can be modeled in a variety
of ways, from simple linear to more complex functions, such as probabilistic ones.

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Notice that the problems involving inference of information from symbolic


relationships are extremely complex and difficult to implement computationally
(Kelley 2003).
Sub-symbolic or connectionist systems are usually linked to the metaphor of
neural networks. In the very beginnings, the first sub-symbolic systems implemented
were called perceptrons (Rosenblatt 1958, 1962). This unit of analysis models brain
neuronal groups, processing sub-symbolic information in parallel to recognize a
given input. The dynamic of this small complex system consists in the adjustment
of the weights which connect the perceptrons to each other. Therefore, this system
can be thought of as an autonomous learning system.
Sub-symbolic and symbolic architectures present strengths and weaknesses as
representations of human cognition.
Sub-symbolic systems learn to recognize input and respond in accordance with a learning
rule. However, symbolic systems are concerned not with the recognition of a stimulus, but,
instead, with the manipulation of recognized symbols following the recognition. While
there is a dichotomy between these two approaches to cognition, one can also view the two
approaches as two ends of a single continuum, especially when one thinks of the continuum
in these terms: sub-symbolic systems recognize input and pass that input along to more
symbolic systems. (Kelley 2003, p. 849)

10.3.2 Dynamic Cognitive System and Representation


The distinction between symbolic and sub-symbolic approaches becomes subtler
with the proposition of hybrid methods (Taylor 1999; Grimes and Mozer 2001).
In the middle of the twentieth century, when linear behaviorism fell into disfavor,
room was made for new psychology theories, such as the gestalt theory, biologically
oriented theories (Piaget 1967; Piattelli-Palmarini 1979), and other theories, such as
computational theory.
Logical systems were developed within those computational theories that are
able to describe the dynamics of languages supported by physical substrata allowing
the disclosure of one of the biggest problems in cognitive system modeling: the
internal representation of knowledge (Shanks 1997; Knowlton 1997). Newell and
Simon (1972) developed cognition models as symbolic system representations
of problem solution, reinforcing Piagets assumption that reasoning is actually a
propositional calculus (Piaget 1967). But the proposal that connectionist models
could provide a computational account of constructivism theory was the subject of
a hard discussion (Elman etal. 1996; Marcus 1998).
A computational framework to cognition, associated with the concept of internal
representations, reinforces the rationalist branch of cognitive science. On the other
hand, there are a lot of criticisms about representationalism (Van Gelder 1995,
1998), mainly the critics of the information processing computational models of
cognition (understood as Turing machines). By far the most popular criticism of
computational representationalism is based on van Gelders argument that machines

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obey dynamic laws that describe their states in the face of interactions with the
environment system to which they belong, being unnecessary internal representations
(hypothesis of dynamic cognition).
French and Thomas (1998, 2001), criticizing van Gelders hypothesis, point to
the idea that the dynamics of complex systems can represent states of the system,
such as attractors. Attractors represent states of equilibrium (static or dynamic)
of dynamic systems. Considering cognitive systems, attractors could be understood as internal representations of the system interacting within the environment. Those attractors can also be identified with symbolic patterns. This model
could be complexified considering language as a dynamical system, as coordination dynamics between subjects and its living situation (Eiser 1998; RaczaszekLeonardi and Kelso 2008).
In this work we are aligned with Kelsos concept of cognition, considering that
cognition arises from the co-evolution of brains, bodies, and the environment in
which they are immersed-tempered, of course, by developmental and learning
processes (Kelso 2003, p. 45). This conception corroborates the idea of human
cognition as a complex system that emerges from the interactional dynamic coordination of human activities.

10.4 The Conceptual Profile Approach Supports Complexity


In the last decades, most research in science education addressing conceptual learning
focused on the conceptual change model (Posner etal. 1982). In fact, the term
conceptual change describes a complex theory that attempts to model the learning
process explaining how learners make a transition from an old conception to a
successor conception. However, usually this process was treated as the simple
replacement of the preconceptions by scientific conceptions. In spite of the failure
of the interventions that were based on the notion of change as substitution, the term
was not abandoned.
The conceptual profile approach, in turn, is committed to the idea that different
sociohistorically constructed modes of thinking concepts coexist in an individual, even
after formal education. From an educational point of view, students do not necessarily abandon their old conceptions when they accept new ones. Therefore, as the
conceptual profile is made up of different zones which represent, individually, a
different way of thinking, speaking, and using a concept, learning means that an
individual incorporates a new zone or changes older ones in his/her conceptual
profiles and also becomes aware of this diversity of modes of thinking about the
concept and its distinct domains of application (Mortimer 1995). The conceptual
profile zones can therefore coexist in the same individual, including both nonscientific, everyday, and (school) scientific ways of thinking. The enrichment of a
conceptual profile with a new zone depends on the context in which the individual
is embedded. From this point of view, learning is represented as a collective activity
with a defined purpose and its success depends on a series of articulated actions and

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operations. The relation between the individuals conceptual profile and the context
in which learning takes place is one of the most important topics of investigation
that needs to be addressed. This idea makes it possible to think about ways of outlining
the relationships between conceptual profile zones and their contexts of use.

10.4.1 Context as a Complex Object


The concept of context is notoriously polysemous and is the source of seemingly endless confusion in the literature (Cole 2003), but it is possible to outline the discussion around the concept we use here. Context is a complex word. We start to learn
these words very early in our lives. We learn to coordinate senses to understand
contexts. But, as with any other word, its polysemous meaning depends on its connection with other contexts (other words). Considering language as praxis, contexts
are complex words that are constituted by coordination of other words, which are
instruments, objects, and subjects of human activities. Later we will deal with
context as complex systems of meaning made up of multiscaled interconnected
layers: macro-contexts are made up of contexts that are made up of micro-contexts
permeated by the multilayered human activity.
On the other hand, context is the result of the dialectical interaction between our
previous knowledge and our perception of the world. Context is not a given preset
of space and time information but a variable function of this interaction, a flux of
meanings. It is quite important when we are in dialogical situations because we
perceive things in common (marks of context), mainly due to our common previous
knowledge, but this does not mean that we are in the same context. The establishment
of intersubjectivity (Rommetveit 1979) begins with dialogue through negotiation
of meanings. The convergence of contexts amounts to the emergence of intersubjectivity. The whole movement depends on the subjects previous knowledge and
abilities, biography, domain of language, and disposition for dialogue.
Therefore, to model the context is to model a dynamic and complex system of
variables. We cannot treat the context as given or static, for example, the school
context is not just a set made up of teachers, other students, the physical environment, and the teaching materials. It is quite clear that we could list many elements
that interfere in classroom activities. Based on this view, a typical approach used to
investigate classroom dynamics consists of dealing with each of these elements
separately, as we do, for instance, when we evaluate the efficacy of a textbook or
the methodology used by a teacher. These elements are dealt with separately without considering their connections with other elements. However, we believe that the
context is not only made up of elements of the environment but also by the relations
established between them. In this sense, the context cannot be analyzed as a dismembered body, but it must be considered as a complex molar unit. To be molar means
that we should see the context as a complex object made up of several elements in
retro-feeding relations and with several hierarchical levels of interaction in different
scales of space and time (Mattos etal. 2008).

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For example, if we consider the complexity of the school context, the analysis of
its elements could be ineffective if we disrespected both the hierarchical relations in
which the elements themselves are embedded and the communication dynamics
developed in the classroom. A context (family, school, etc.) is made up of many different elements which are highly connected. These connections are established
mainly through the meanings attributed to them and to their relations (connection of
connections). These meanings are manifested through the communicative action
of those who live in and build the context. Therefore, we should consider that it is
in the subjects interactions, in a specific context, that the meaning relations appear
and are produced. In other words, we must look beyond any specific school content,
considering the relations between students and textbook, teacher and textbook, school
and textbook, teacher and students, community and textbook, and the implications
to the teaching methods chosen by the school and the community.
Bronfenbrenner (1979), Bernstein (1990), Wertsch (1991) (systematizing Vygotskys
genetic theory), and also Leontiev (1978) point to the complexity of the context.
Bronfenbrenner points to the macro-, meso-, and micro-contexts, including the time
scale. Bernsteins theory of codes points to two principles: the locational principle
attributes spatial sense to contexts and the interactional principle establishes
the temporality of the interactions among subjects that rule the relations between
some of Bronfenbrenners scales. Wertsch considers the phylogenetic, ontogenetic,
sociohistorical, and microgenetic categories of human consciousness. Finally,
Leontiev proposed activity as the unit of analysis, complexified by Engestrm,
who pointed out the community, the rules of this community, and the division of
labor as fundamental pieces to understand the human-world interaction.

10.4.2 Context and Learning


Formal classrooms are made up of rules and expectations that govern the relations
between students and teachers. Some rules, in general controlled by the teacher,
have a paradoxical role in the teaching activity, for instance, the roles that ascribe
limits and at the same time give room for students to try new solutions when involved
in problem-solving activities. Students must learn the content but also learn the rules
that control communicative interactions in the classroom. Such rules may be implicit
or explicit, while also a part of the micro-context (classroom) or of the macrocontext (school). In other words, the rules established in the relations are context
regulators. Recognizing these rules determines the communication capacity between
teachers and students in a specific micro-context. Therefore, we believe that learning
happens when the student understands a scientific concept inside a specific context,
such as a context made up of rules that imply the use of scientific knowledge in
order to solve problems.
From this point of view, we agree with van Oers (1998) that the generalization
of a concept is not a decontextualization, in the sense of a lack of context, as proposed
by some authors (e.g., Wertsch 1985; Meshcheryakov 2007). We understand how

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a certain conceptual profile zone can be adapted for use within a specific context.
Thus, we consider context as a structuring unit of the concept. The relations between
the elements of a given context are expressed through the speeches that support
them. These utterances point to the resonances between context and conceptual
profile zones. It is in the speech understanding that we will be capable of interpretingthe dynamic and complex subjects interrelations, such as those that establish
contracts of intersubjectivity.

10.4.3 Complex Context Internalization


Learning in this sense is the continuous process of internalization-synthesis-
externalization, starting with sensory concrete, going through abstraction, and
finally ascending to a complexified concrete (Ilyenkov 1982). Let us consider, as an
example, the meaning of the word to drive. Many people understand the content of
this word when identifying whether someone knows or does not know how to drive.
The word embodies all particular processes that give meaning to it. However, each
operation needed for driving is not explicitly revealed. We just say that we know
how to drive instead of saying that we know how to open the car door, put on the
seatbelt, start the engine, turn on the lights, engage transmission, accelerate, etc.
In the same way, we still can have syntheses where superior actions become internalized as operations. For instance, when we go to work in a place for the first time,
we have in mind, during the whole itinerary, which streets should be used, when we
should turn left or right, observing every point of reference. After repeating these
actions many times, driving to the office becomes an operation; in other words, it
becomes one of the coordinated operations of the action of going to work. There
is the suboperation of engaging transmission within the driving operation, which
is within the action of going to work, which could be within the activity (action) of
supporting the family. Thus, there is an organization of actions and operations
articulated at several hierarchical levels that, depending on the observed activity, can
be interchanged, i.e., actions can be seen as operations and vice versa. More articulated compositions of activities in actions and operations reveal the complexity of the
cognitive structures of representation of human activity.
This hierarchical organization can be observed, for instance,
Newtons
in learning

second law. To understand how Newtons second law FR = m a formula and


its physics content become an operation (or action) in a problem-solving activity, it
is necessary to break it down into the elementary coordinated actions and
operations.
For instance, the operation of multiplication (represented by ) is learned
in the elementary school. In order to understand it as an action made up of a set of
operations, it is necessary to note that it is equivalent to the sum of portions of the
same value, something that is hardly pointed out after the multiplication operation
is internalized. Then, when we perform a multiplication, after having learned
how to do it, we do the calculations automatically and not consciously, i.e., we do

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not explicitly think about the involved algorithm (operations). The same happens
with the equality (=), which is made up of operations based on quantitative criteria,
which soon become an operation.
The same rationale could be applied to the physics concepts: acceleration, mass,
and force that become operations in the problem-solving activity. Each of these
concepts has countless implicit hierarchical levels of operations (involving notions
of time, space, displacement, inertia, vectors, etc.). Besides considering each element
in isolation, which works as
of the activity, we have their composition,
operations

the complete expression FR = m a , which at some point stops being an action to


become an operation in the resolution of more complex problems.
The transformation of actions in operations is due to the internalization of
each component of the expression and, later, due to the internalization of their
interrelations, in other words, the mathematical expression of Newtons second
law. When this happens, not all the hierarchical levels come to consciousness, and
each internalized action is performed automatically; i.e., the actions become
operations.
But this was learned in the specific context e.g. a problem-solving classroom
situation. The same law is also learned in other contexts, such as an experimental
activity or an evaluation activity. Those different contexts make up actions of the
larger activity Newtons second law. Alongside school activities, the individuals
continue to produce meanings and syntheses, joining and disjoining context, differentiating and delimitating contexts of use of concepts, in other words creating
and differentiating zones of the conceptual profile.

10.4.4 Learning Orders


We use the idea of learning orders (Mattos and Rodrigues 2007a, b; Rodrigues and
Mattos 2010) to introduce markers of the conceptual profile dynamics. Starting
from this dynamic vision, we will correlate the evolution of the conceptual profile
with some aspects of the learning activity.
Rodrigues and Mattos (2010) proposed three orders of learning as markers of the
conceptual profile dynamic process.
The first-order learning consists of the simple change of the conceptual profile
zones. This type of learning is present in traditional teaching strategies, where students learn prescriptively information and algorithms. Learning can be summarized
as the emergence of amalgamates of conceptual profile zones. In this learning order,
students use their previous zones to understand the new context they are submitted
to. The new information is received and manipulated by the students without being
associated to the context of its use. The concepts involved become operational concepts and are used without a clear discrimination of its validity in the given
contexts.
To illustrate this idea, let us consider the learning of the physical concept of
work. The simple definition of work is not enough to create a relation with the

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concept learned in other zones of the conceptual profile, such as that concerning
everyday work. It means that learning just refers to a reorganization of the other
zones because of the new knowledge. In a physics class, for instance, if we define
algorithmically electric charge to the students, this new knowledge is internalized
by the student, initially, by linking it to the most immediate context: the physics
class. In other words, these students will hardly use this definition in contexts other
than the physics class. The knowledge of this concept, therefore, is limited to a very
specific context, playing a role only in school settings.
Another example occurs in the case of learning about derivatives in mathematics.
Usually, this concept is taught out of the context of use, as an algorithm to be applied
mechanically, to the point of being internalized as an inner operation. Initially,
students rarely understand it as an operator applied to a function that gives a new
function. When students learn and use this knowledge, many of them do not understand what there is behind the operation, they just apply the algorithm (Schoenfeld
1992). In this way, the first-order learning refers to an isolated learning, linked just
to the specific immediate context, with almost no connection with the other conceptual
constructions of the subject.
Using activity theory as a background, this order of learning marks the stage
of non conscious operations, in other words, a kind of instrumentalization. In this
case operations are shaped by immediate material conditions of production. Then
the appropriation of concepts indicates the appropriation of mental operations,
which appear primarily as external actions and then are transformed in inner
intellectual operations. We refer here to the most elementary internalization process, in which actions are appropriated and become operations (Rodrigues and
Mattos 2010).
The second-order learning consists of discriminating without awareness of
other zones of the conceptual profiles. The subject can make adequate utterances in
a specific context, communicating his/her ideas, but he/she has no awareness of the
relations of this context with other possible contexts of use.
In spite of this consciousness and besides using it correctly he/she involuntarily
uses the conceptual profile zone in the specific context in which he/she is inserted.
The concept of work, for instance, has different meanings according to the context
in which it is used, say, in physics, sociology, or religion. What we mean when we
refer to amalgamated conceptual profile zones of work is exactly a way of using
the concept in any one of these contexts without making adequate distinctions.
When a subject begins to use the adequate meaning of the word work in different
contexts, the conceptual profile zones, which were previously amalgamated, become
differentiated, indicating the appearance of a new and distinct conceptual profile
zone. In the second-order learning, subjects distinguish, not consciously, the existence of other zones, although they are still automatically uttering even when using
appropriately according to the context (Mattos and Rodrigues 2007a, b; Rodrigues
and Mattos 2010).
The second-order learning implies subject appropriating the differences among
the possible meanings of the concept, in a way that these meanings are applied

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automatically and appropriately in specific contexts, in real-life situations. It does


not mean that the subject is aware of the whole conceptual profile, but that he/she
can use it adequately. For instance, the subject could use correctly both the
Newtonian zone of the conceptual profile of mass during a classical mechanics class
and the relativistic zone of the conceptual profile of mass during a general relativity
class. The subjects zones of the conceptual profile of mass resonate adequately
with the specific contexts; nevertheless he/she does not have consciousness of their
relation (Rodrigues and Mattos 2010).
The third-order learning can be defined as the comprehension of the relation
between the conceptual profile zones and their possible contexts of use. In this order
the subject realizes how the elements of the context are distributed in the present
moment, allowing the selection of the most adequate zone in the context to have a
successful communication.
The knowledge of the relations between conceptual profile zones and the
appropriate contexts of use make subjects capable of uttering and interpreting
meaningful speeches in the appropriate situation. The awareness that the physical definition of work does not fit all contexts allows students to perceive the
applications and delimitations of this zone in different contexts. Through this
perception, they can reorganize their zones and prioritize the use of the concept
according to the context. We call this resonance between the conceptual profile
zone and context (Mattos and Rodrigues 2007a, b).
Therefore, third-order learning implies not only the perception of the relations
between the conceptual profile zones but also the autonomy of the subject to use a
specific zone according to the context in which he/she is embedded. The person is
able to identify the context, recognizing some social context markers that compose
it, and decides which zone should be used. He/she is capable of recognizing the relations between the contexts of use and the conceptual profile zones.
To understand the concept of work not simply as a physical law, but as a series
of meanings and constructions that followed the evolutionary genesis of human
knowledge, requires a state of awareness of the set of possible contexts of use, in
which the person can glimpse their own profile (Mattos and Rodrigues 2007a, b).
Besides a meta-awareness, the idea of adaptation (Maturana and Varela 1995) is
involved in this learning order. When discussing a concept such as energy, the
student can choose consciously, through the recognition of the context, to access
the most appropriate energy profile zone according to his/her communicative intention.
The student can consciously choose a concept profile zone in order to assign, in a
specific context, a different meaning in comparison with the one expected by the
interlocutor. He/she can give a double meaning to his/her utterance, characterizing
it, for instance, as an irony.
It is important to point out that learning orders are independent and can happen
in different moments or simultaneously. In order to learn certain physical concepts,
it is necessary to consider that any learning order disturbs the system, generating a
redistribution of the conceptual profile zones, as well as reorganizing the zones
and the relations between them. In these considerations, it is important to emphasize

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that such segmentatio