Interactional Processes for Stabilizing Conceptual Coherences in Physics

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Research in student knowledge and learning of science has typically focused on explaining conceptual change. Recent research, however, documents the great degree to which student thinking is dynamic and context-sensitive, implicitly calling for explanations not only of change but also of stability. In other words, when a pattern of student reasoning is sustained in specific moments and settings, what mechanisms contribute to sustaining it? We characterize student understanding and behavior in terms of multiple local coherences in that they may be variable yet still exhibit local stabilities. We attribute stability in local conceptual coherences to real-time activities that sustain these coherences. For example, particular conceptual understandings may be stabilized by the linguistic features of a worksheet question or by feedback from the students’ spatial arrangement and orientation. We document a group of university students who engage in multiple local conceptual coherences while thinking about motion during a collaborative learning activity. As the students shift their thinking several times, we describe mechanisms that may contribute to local stability of their reasoning and behavior.
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