p-prims to c-classes

[I should figure out a way of labeling certain things better.  This entry, now that I’ve written it, deserves an ‘R’ rating; ‘R’ for “research” or “reckless” or “really not very interesting to anyone besides me while trying to think about writing a paper.]

I went back to some reading yesterday after a few other tasks.  I have this need to write up a section on what a “conceptual ecology” is for some of my work with Eric, both for a current paper and future proposals.  So, I went back to diSessa and “Why ‘conceptual ecology’ is a good idea” to basically give me something to steal from.

diSessa almost never in this piece mentions “conceptual ecology”.  Instead, he develops the ideas of p-prims (which I write about a lot, and like quite a bit) and also the details of proposed “coordination classes.”  While he and everyone else abbreviates phenomenological primitives to p-prims, he doesn’t do the same for coordination classes.  So, I will; I’ll call them c-classes, just because.  (I’m sure someone else has already done this, and if they haven’t it’s only because it’s lame.)

The way this fits together is that both are accountable to data, because both are testable — they are explicit enough in what they are that you could rule out their existence if you needed.  (This is in sharp contrast to other things, such as “concepts” themselves or “resources” invoked by others, including some who have written with diSessa — I find that perplexing.  Maybe I’m missing something.)  diSessa here, is mostly contrasting his theoretical constructs with those of others in the same volume: Chi and Roscoe’s ontological categories, which I’m a big fan of, using these to prelude my dissertation to a large extent; and Vosniadou’s description of frameworks and mental models.  diSessa is trying to call for some empirical responsibility, and feels as though others are using constructs and methods that are too “fuzzy” and/or “mushy” (yes, his words; p. 37).  I think he also said “squishy,” but I can’t find it; perhaps I dreamed it.

What I like about this is that it opens the door to questions about the very language we use to describe learning.  “Misconception” and “alternative conception” and “pre-conceptions” are all irrelevant if you don’t even know what a “concept” is in the first place.  So, instead, there are natural observations and inherent pieces of knowledge derived from such, the p-prims, which have small grain size and multiple instances.  Then there are the coordinations of causal nets that could comprise these c-classes.  And, there undoubtedly could be other constructs; “theories” could be a grander class that are more explicitly stated and coherent models.  A c-class, when constructed appropriately, would still not be as complete or comprehensive as a theory.  So, for example, “force” is a candidate for something that could be described by the c-class.  It has multiple facets (can be felt, always comes in pairs, can cause a change in motion) and can apply to a wide array of situations.  There’s some fruitfulness in these two constructs (the p’s and c’s) as we see context dependent elicitations of p-prims, even as the c-classes are being described by a learner.  Huh?  So, a student could be describing the forces on an object accurately, the ensuing motion accurately, but then have a p-prim triggered by some particular piece of context.  Friction is a nice example — in spite of physics teachers saying it’s a force and students calculating the magnitude of such a force, a student seems to be less likely to give it all of the appropriate force characteristics (esp. the pair force, but also the idea that it is a force and a cause of a change in motion, rather than just the reflection of degrading motion itself.

What does any of this have to do with conceptual ecology, as colleagues and I (2006) have argued for its use and defended its virtues against the evils of the ad hoc “learning ecology” (2004)?  Well, first of all, diSessa argues that the p’s and c’s and anything else are part of a greater system of elements, and I suppose it would be fair to say they all exist in the same habitat.  Moreover, that context dependency is really important — there’s more than just knowing something or not knowing it.  It’s a matter of how you think as a response to different situations.  Students need to know more about how they know something.  A learner’s epistemological view of how to apply Newton’s laws could be too narrow — they only see particular forces and in particular situations.  In other cases that I’ve seen, not described by diSessa, I’d argue that students have an epistemological view that is too overarching, as when they’re describing what science is and what knowledge is . . . but that’s been written about.  In fact, that’s in a paper that I need to edit and resubmit.  We’ll see when I get to that one.

Back to conceptual ecologies: What diSessa doesn’t explicitly describe (I think simply because it doesn’t need to be) is how the conceptual ecology is not just bits and classes of knowledge, but also impressions and affect and belief and the like, what we’ve described as the extrarational.  It should all be mixed in there, and as a result it would add to that context dependence.  And that’s the piece that some other work looks at.  How students decide (poor word, as it suggests a certain control that doesn’t always get used) what strategies, ideas, etc. get put to use is interesting.  We’ve seen students proposing how they and their professors would give different answers to the same physics question; and when they can elicit this difference they seem to be better students, even if they have a wrong answer themselves.  No, I don’t believe it either, so I need more data.  But, yes, this will get presented at AERA.

Incidentally, this is where I get really frustrated with the use of “resources” by PER people.  They are both vague (empirically squishy) and there is no effort to describe them in terms of a greater system, such as the conceptual ecology.  But this just gives me more to talk about another time.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., & Akerson, V. L. (2004). Learning as conceptual change: Factors mediating the development of preservice elementary teachers’ views of nature of science. Science Education, 88(5), 785-810.

diSessa, A. A. (2002). Why “conceptual ecology” is a good idea. In M. Limon & M. Lucia (Eds.), Reconsidering Conceptual Change: Issues in Theory and Practice (pp. 29-60). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Johnston, A., Southerland, S. A., & Sowell, S. (2006). Dissatisfied with the fruitfulness of “learning ecologies”. Science Education, 90(5), 907-911.


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