Instructional Science

, Volume 29, Issue 3, pp 213-236

First online:

Conceptual knowledge in talk and text: What does it take to understand a science question?

  • Jan SchoultzAffiliated withDepartment of Thematic Studies, Linköoping University
  • , Roger SäljöAffiliated withDepartment of Education, Göoteborg University
  • , Jan WyndhamnAffiliated withDepartment of Teacher Training, Linköoping University

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What is referred to as conceptual knowledge is one of the mostimportant deliverables of modern schooling. Following the dominance of cognitive paradigmsin psychological research, conceptual knowledge is generally construed assomething that lies ‘behind’ or ‘under’ performance in concrete social activities. In the presentstudy, students' responses to questions, supposedly tapping conceptual knowledge,have been studied as parts of concrete communicative practices. Our focus has been onthe differences between talk and text. The most frequent approach for generatinginsight into conceptual knowledge is by means of written tests. However, the very mannerin which people handle the demands of this particular form of mediation is seldomattended to. This problem has been studied by means of two items taken from theinternational comparison of knowledge and achievement in mathematics and science, TIMSS.The results reveal that it is highly doubtful if the items test knowledge of scienceconcepts to any significant extent. In both instances, the difficulties students have, asrevealed in the interview setting, seem to be grounded in problems in understanding somedetails in the written questions. These difficulties are generally easily resolved in aninteractive setting. It is argued that the low performance on these items can to a largeextent be accounted for by the abstract and highly demanding form of communication that iswritten language.

conceptual knowledge in science science learning situated knowledge sociocultural theory testing science knowledge TIMSS