Research in Science Education

, Volume 48, Issue 2, pp 345–367 | Cite as

How Should Energy Be Defined Throughout Schooling?

  • Manuel BächtoldEmail author


The question of how to teach energy has been renewed by recent studies focusing on the learning and teaching progressions for this concept. In this context, one question has been, for the most part, overlooked: how should energy be defined throughout schooling? This paper addresses this question in three steps. We first identify and discuss two main approaches in physics concerning the definition of energy, one claiming there is no satisfactory definition and taking conservation as a fundamental property, and the other based on Rankine’s definition of energy as the capacity of a system to produce changes. We then present a study concerning how energy is actually defined throughout schooling in the case of France by analyzing national programs, physics textbooks, and the answers of teachers to a questionnaire. This study brings to light a consistency problem in the way energy is defined across school years: in primary school, an adapted version of Rankine’s definition is introduced and conservation is ignored; in high school, conservation is introduced and Rankine’s definition is ignored. Finally, we address this consistency problem by discussing possible teaching progressions. We argue in favor of the use of Rankine’s definition throughout schooling: at primary school, it is a possible substitute to students’ erroneous conceptions; at secondary school, it might help students become aware of the unifying role of energy and thereby overcome the compartmentalization problem.


Definition of energy Teaching progression Conservation of energy Rankine 



I would like to thank Yaron Lehavi, Valérie Munier, Muriel Guedj, David Cross and André Ranquet for their helpful comments on the manuscript and their suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire de Recherche en Didactique, Éducation, Formation, EA 3749Université de Montpellier and UPVMMontpellierFrance

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