Extending the conceptual change approach to mathematics learning and teaching

Stella Vosniadou, Lieven Verschaffel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

143 Citations (Scopus)


The term “conceptual change” is used to characterize the kind of learning required when the new information to be learned comes in conflict with the learners’ prior knowledge usually acquired on the basis of everyday experiences. It is claimed that in these situations, a major reorganization of prior knowledge is required—a conceptual change. Some of the situations where conceptual change is required involve, for example, the acquisition of the scientific concept of force which comes in conflict with the everyday concept of force as a property of physical objects (Chi, Slotta, & de Leeuw, 1994), understanding the Copernican view of the solar system which comes in conflict with the geocentric view (Vosniadou & Brewer, 1994), and the acquisition of the concept of fraction as it requires radical changes in the pre-existing concept of natural number (Hartnett and Gelman, 1998, Stafylidou and Vosniadou, this issue). Some researchers in learning and instruction (e.g., Caravita & Halden, 1994) ask: Why should we call this type of learning “conceptual change” and not just “learning”? While conceptual change is undeniably a form of learning, it is important to differentiate conceptual change from other kinds of learning because it requires different mechanisms to be accomplished and different instructional interventions to be taught. Most learning is additive and involves an enrichment of existing knowledge. Conceptual change cannot, however, be achieved through additive mechanisms. In fact, as we will argue in greater detail later, the use of additive mechanisms in situations requiring conceptual change is one of the major causes of misconceptions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)445-451
Number of pages7
JournalLearning and Instruction
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • mathematics
  • student learning
  • conceptual change learning


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