Determining the Intelligibility of Einsteinian Concepts with Middle School Students

  • Tejinder KaurEmail author
  • David Blair
  • Warren Stannard
  • David Treagust
  • Grady Venville
  • Marjan Zadnik
  • Warwick Mathews
  • Dana Perks


The modern Einsteinian conception of space, time, matter and radiation represents a radical paradigm shift compared with the traditional Newtonian physics that underpins most primary and secondary school science. It is increasingly recognised that school education should encompass this modern paradigm to allow a seamless progression of learning throughout school education. The goal of the research presented in this paper was to test whether five core concepts of the Einsteinian paradigm could become conceptually intelligible to middle school students or whether there were intrinsic difficulties. The research was underpinned by the theoretical notion that intelligibility is a key step to the ontological conceptual changes needed for the radical shift to the Einsteinian paradigm and that conceptual change is impacted by students’ attitudes. The research was conducted in the context of a 20-lesson teaching programme based on models and analogies specifically designed for middle school students and to enable ontological conceptual change. We present an analysis of 120 14- to 15-year-old students’ conceptualisations of Einsteinian physics and their attitudes towards science as a result of this programme. Through testing before and after the programme, we found that the students possessed variable levels of prior knowledge of the core Einsteinian concepts, but near universal intelligibility of the core concepts after the programme. The strong saturation indicates that there is no intrinsic difficulty regarding intelligibility of core Einsteinian concepts at the middle school level of the participants. While the male students initially showed greater interest in physics compared with their female counterparts, the female students showed a significantly increased interest in physics after the programme. Repeatability in knowledge tests between classes given one year apart and long-term retention indicate that the programme had a lasting impact on students’ conceptual understanding.


Einsteinian physics Models Analogies Einstein-First High school physics curriculum 



This research was supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council (LP130100893), the Gravity Discovery Centre and the Graham Polly Farmer Foundation. The authors are grateful to the teachers Warwick Mathew, Dana Perks, Laura Ashbolt, relief teachers and students who participated in this study.


  1. Abbott, B. P. et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration & Virgo Collaboration). (2017). GW170817: observation of gravitational waves from a binary neutron star inspiral (PDF). Physical Review Letters. 119 (16).X.Google Scholar
  2. Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2017). The Australian Curriculum: Science. Retrieved on 1 Nov 2018.
  3. Baldy, E. (2007). A new educational perspective for teaching gravity. International Journal of Science Education, 29(14), 1767–1788.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bar, V., Brosh, Y., & Sneider, C. (2016). Weight, mass, and gravity: threshold concepts in learning science. Science Educator, 25(1), 22–34.Google Scholar
  5. Blazar, D., & Kraft, A. (2017). Teacher and teaching effects on students’ attitudes and behaviours. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(1), 146–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cacioppo, R., & Gangopadhyaya, A. (2012). Barn and pole paradox: revisited. Physics Education, 47(5), 563–567.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Carr, D., & Bossomaier, T. (2011). Relativity in a rock field: a study of physics learning with a computer game. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 27(6), 1042–1067.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carr, L. D., & McKagan, S. B. (2009). Graduate quantum mechanics reform. American Journal of Physics, 77, 308–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chang, C. Y., Yeh, T. K., & Barufaldi, J. P. (2010). The positive and negative effects of science concept tests on student conceptual understanding. International Journal of Science Education, 32, 265–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Chi, M. T. H. (2008). Three types of conceptual change; belief revision, mental model transformation and categorical shift. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 61–82). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Chi, M. T. H., Slotta, J. D., & de Leeuw, N. (1994). From things to processes: a theory of conceptual change for learning science concepts. Learning and Instruction, 4, 27–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cronbach, L. J. (1951). Coefficient alpha and the internal structure of tests. Psychometrika, 16, 297–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dimitriadi, K., & Halkia, K. (2012). Secondary students’ understanding of basic ideas of special relativity. International Journal of Science Education, 34(16), 2565–2582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Duit, R., & Treagust, D.F. (2003). Conceptual change: a powerful framework for improving science teaching and learning. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 671–688.Google Scholar
  15. Duit, R., & Treagust D.F. (2012). How can conceptual change contribute to theory and practice in science education? In B. F. Fraser, K. Tobin, & C. McRobbie (Eds.), Second international handbook of science education (pp. 107–118). Springer.Google Scholar
  16. Duit, R., Treagust, D.F, & Widodo, (2013). Teaching science for conceptual change: theory and practice. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 487–503). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  17. Einstein, A. (1905a). Uber einen Erzeugung und Verwandlung des lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt. Annalen der Physik, 17, 132–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Einstein, A. (1905b). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper. Annalen der Physik, 17, 891.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Einstein, A. (1916). Relativity: The special and general theory (translation 1920). New York: H. Holt and Company.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Einstein, A. (1956). Republication of the original 1926 translation, investigation on the theory of the Brownian movement, Dover publications.Google Scholar
  21. Eren, C. D., Bayrak, B. E., & Benzer, E. (2015). The examination of primary school students’ attitudes toward science course and experiments in terms of some variables. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 174, 1006–1014.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Feynman, R. (1985). QED: The strange theory of light and matter (p. 15). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gibson, G. A. (1927). The thirteen books of Euclid’s elements. Nature, 119(2987), 152–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Haddad, W. D., & Pella, M. O. (1972). Relationship between mental maturity and level of understanding of concepts of relativity in grades 4-8. The Journal of Experimental Education, 41(1), 22–32.Google Scholar
  25. Halsted, G. B. (1990). Gauss and the non-Euclidan geometry. Science, 12(309), 842–846.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hassan, G. (2008). Attitudes towards science among Australian tertiary and secondary school students. Research in Science & Technological Education, 26, 129–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Henriksen, E., Bungum, B., Angell, C., Tellefsen, C. W., Frågåt, T., & Maria Vetleseter, B. M. (2014). Relativity, quantum physics and philosophy in the upper secondary curriculum: challenges opportunities and proposed approaches. Physics Education, 49(6), 678–684.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Heywood, D. (2002). The place of analogies in science education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 32, 233–247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Johansson, K. E., & Milstead, D. (2008). Uncertainty in the classroom-teaching quantum physics. Physics Education, 43(2), 173–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Junius, P. (2008). A case example of insect gymnastics: how is non-Euclidean geometry learned? International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 39(8), 987–1002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kaur, T., Blair, D., Moschilla, J., Stannard, W., & Zadnik, M. (2017a). Teaching Einsteinian physics at schools: part 1, models and analogies for relativity. Physics Education, 52, 065012.Google Scholar
  32. Kaur, T., Blair, D., Moschilla, J., Stannard, W., & Zadnik, M. (2017b). Teaching Einsteinian physics at schools: part 2, models and analogies for quantum physics. Physics Education, 52, 065013.Google Scholar
  33. Kaur, T., Blair, D., Moschilla, J., Stannard, W., & Zadnik, M. (2017c). Teaching Einsteinian physics at schools: part 3, Review of research outcomes. Physics Education, 52, 065014.Google Scholar
  34. Koç, A., & Böyük, U. (2012). Basit malzemelerle yapılan deneylerin fene yönelik tutuma etkisi. Türk Fen Eğitimi Dergisi, 9, 102.Google Scholar
  35. Lorenzo, M., Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2006). Reducing the gender gap in physics education. American Journal of Physics, 74, 118–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Michael, P. (2004). Does active learning work?A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Miller, H. P., Blessing, J. S., & Schwartz, S. (2006). Gender differences in high school students’ views about science. International Journal of Science Education, 28(4), 363–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Murphy, C., Ambusaidi, A., & Beggs, J. (2006). Middle east meets west: comparing children's attitudes to school science. International Journal of Science Education, 28, 405–422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Nieswandt, M. (2005). Attitudes toward science: a review of the field. In S. Alsop (Ed.), Beyond Cartesian dualism encountering teaching and learning of science Dordrecht (p. 41). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.Google Scholar
  40. Ogborn, J., Kress, G., Martins, I., & McGillicuddy, V. (1996). Explaining science in the classroom. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Ornstein, A. (2006). The frequency of hands-on experimentation and student attitudes toward science: a statistically significant relation. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15, 285–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Osborne, J., Simon, S., & Collins, S. (2003). Attitudes towards science: a review of the literature and its implications. International Journal of Science Education, 25, 1049–1079.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Ozdemir, E., & Mustafa, E. (2010). Teaching uncertainty principle by hybrid approach—single slit diffraction experiment. Latin-American Journal of Physics Education, 4(3).Google Scholar
  44. Pell, T., & Jarvis, T. (2001). Developing attitude to science scales for use with children of ages from five to eleven years. International Journal of Science Education, 23, 847–862.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: the role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 6, 167–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Pitts, M., Venville, G., Blair, D., & Zadnik, M. (2014). Teaching aspects of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in year 6: an exploratory case study. Research in Science Education, 44, 363–388.Google Scholar
  47. Planck, M. (1901). Über das Gesetz der Energieverteilung im Normalspektrum. Annalen der Physik, 309(3), 553–563.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Pollock, S. J., Finkelstein, N. D., & Kost, L. E. (2007). Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom: how suficient is interactive engagement? Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 3, 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of scientific conception: toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66(2), 211–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pospiech, G. (2008). Teaching the EPR–paradox at high school ?. Institut for Didaktik der Physik Johann Wolfgan Goethe University Frankfurt
  51. Potvin, P., & Hasni, A. (2014). Interest, motivation and attitude towards science and technology at K-12 levels: a systematic review of 12years of educational research. Studies in Science Education, 50(1), 85–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Reid, N. (2003). Gender and physics. International Journal of Science Education, 25, 509–536.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test enhanced learning: taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Shabajee, P., & Postlethwaite, K. (2000). What happened to modern physics? School Science Review, 81(297), 51–56.Google Scholar
  55. Sheldrake, R., Mujtaba, T., & Reiss, M. J. (2017). Science teaching and students’ attitudes and aspirations: the importance of conveying the applications and relevance of science. International Journal of Educational Research, 85, 167–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Sokolowski, A. (2013). Teaching the photoelectric effect inductively. Physics Education, 48, 35–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Soh, T., Arsad, N., & Osman, K. (2010). The relationship of 21st century skills on students’ attitude and perception towards physics. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 7, 546–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Stannard, R. (1999). The relativity translator. TES 25th June 1999, pp. 20.
  59. Stannard, R. (2008). Relativity: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Treagust, D.F., Harrison, A.G., & Venville, G.J. (1996). Using an analogical teaching approach to engender conceptual change. International Journal of Science Education, 18, 213.Google Scholar
  61. Tyson, L. M., Venville, G. J., Harrison, A. G., & Treagust, D. F. (1997). A multi-dimensional framework for interpreting conceptual change in the classroom. Science Education, 81, 387–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Velentzas, A., & Halkia, K. (2013). The use of thought experiments in teaching physics to upper secondary-level students: Two examples from the theory of relativity. International Journal of Science Education, 35(18), 3026–3049.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wegener, M., McIntyre, T. J., McGrath, D., Savage, C. M., & Williamson, M. (2012). Developing a virtual physics world. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28, 504–521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Wikiquote Accessed 1 Nov 2018.
  65. Zahn, C., & Kraus, U. (2014). Sector models—a toolkit for teaching general relativity part 1: curved spaces and spacetimes. European Journal of Physics, 35(5), 055020.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Zembylas, M. (2005). Three perspectives on linking the cognitive and the emotional in science learning: conceptual change, socio-constructivism and poststructuralism. Studies in Science Education, 41, 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tejinder Kaur
    • 1
  • David Blair
    • 1
  • Warren Stannard
    • 1
  • David Treagust
    • 2
  • Grady Venville
    • 3
  • Marjan Zadnik
    • 1
  • Warwick Mathews
    • 4
  • Dana Perks
    • 4
  1. 1.University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  2. 2.Curtin UniversityBentleyAustralia
  3. 3.Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  4. 4.Shenton CollegePerthAustralia

Personalised recommendations