Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 43–84 | Cite as

The Atom in the Chemistry Curriculum: Fundamental Concept, Teaching Model or Epistemological Obstacle?

  • Keith S. Taber


Research into learners' ideas aboutscience suggests that school and collegestudents often hold alternative conceptionsabout `the atom'. This paper discusses whylearners acquire ideas about atoms which areincompatible with the modern scientificunderstanding. It is suggested that learners'alternative ideas derive – at least in part –from the way ideas about atoms are presented inthe school and college curriculum. Inparticular, it is argued that the atomicconcept met in science education is anincoherent hybrid of historical models, andthat this explains why learners commonlyattribute to atoms properties (such as beingthe constituent particles of all substances, orof being indivisible and conserved inreactions) that more correctly belong to otherentities (such as molecules or sub-atomicparticles). Bachelard suggested that archaicscientific ideas act as `epistemologicalobstacles', and here it is argued thatanachronistic notions of the atom survive inthe chemistry curriculum. These conceptualfossils encourage learners to develop an`atomic ontology' (granting atoms `ontologicalpriority' in the molecular model of matter); tomake the `assumption of initial atomicity' whenconsidering chemical reactions; and to developan explanatory framework to rationalisechemical reactions which is based on thedesirability of full electron shells. Theseideas then act as impediments to thedevelopment of a modern chemical perspective onthe structure of matter, and an appreciation ofthe nature of chemical changes at the molecularlevel.

atomic theory chemical education chemical ontology epistemological obstacles teaching models 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. AAAS. Project 2061: Benchmarks, American Association for the Advancement of Science available at (accessed March 2002), 1993.Google Scholar
  2. P.K. Arlin. Cognitive Development in Adulthood: A Fifth Stage?. Developmental Psychology 11(5): 602–606, 1975.Google Scholar
  3. G. Bachelard. The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the Scientific Mind. New York: Orion Press, 1968 (original French edition published in 1940).Google Scholar
  4. R. Ben-Zvi, B.-S. Eylon and J. Silberstein. Is an Atom of Copper Malleable? Journal of Chemical Education 63(1): 64–66, 1986.Google Scholar
  5. W.H. Brock. The Fontana History of Chemistry. London: Fontana Press, 1992.Google Scholar
  6. R. Cervellati and D. Perugini. The Understanding of the Atomic Orbital Concept by Italian High School Students. Journal of Chemical Education 58(7): 568–569, 1981.Google Scholar
  7. M.T.H. Chi, J.D. Slotta and N. de Leeuw. From Things to Processes; a Theory of Conceptual Change for Learning Science Concepts. Learning and Instruction 4: 27–43, 1994.Google Scholar
  8. G. Claxton. Minitheories: A Preliminary Model for Learning Science, Chapter 3. In: P.J. Black and A.M. Lucas (Eds.), Children's Informal Ideas in Science, pp. 45–61. London: Routledge, 1993.Google Scholar
  9. D. Cros, R. Amouroux, M. Chastrette, M. Fayol, J. Leber and M. Maurin. Conceptions of First Year University Students of the Constitution of Matter and the Notions of Acids and Bases. European Journal of Science Education 8(3): 305–313, 1986.Google Scholar
  10. Department for Education and Employment/Qualification and Curriculum Authority. Science: The National Curriculum for England. London: DfEE/QCA, 1999.Google Scholar
  11. R. Driver. Students' Conceptions and the Learning of Science. International Journal of Science Education 11(special issue): 481–490, 1989.Google Scholar
  12. R. Driver, J. Leach, P. Scott and C. Wood-Robinson. Young People's Understanding of Science Concepts: Implications of Cross-Age Studies for Curriculum Planning. Studies in Science Education 24: 75–100, 1994.Google Scholar
  13. R. Driver, J. Leach, R. Millar and P. Scott. Young People's Images of Science. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996.Google Scholar
  14. R. Duit, W.-M. Roth, M. Komorek and J. Wilbers. Conceptual Change cum Discourse Analysis to Understand Cognition in a unit on Chaotic Systems: Towards an Integrative Perspective on Learning in Science. International Journal of Science Education 20(9): 1059–1073, 1998.Google Scholar
  15. K. Fleming. First Year University Students' Understandings of Chemical Bonding, paper presented at the ASERA '94 Conference, Hobart, July 1994.Google Scholar
  16. D.C. Finster. Developmental Instruction: Part 1. Perry's Model of Intellectual Development. Journal of Chemical Education 66(8): 659–661, 1989.Google Scholar
  17. K. Gadd and S. Gurr. University of Bath Science 16–19: Chemistry. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1994.Google Scholar
  18. P.J. Garnett, P.J. Garnett and M.W. Hackling. Students' Alternative Conceptions in Chemistry: A Review of Research and Implication for Teaching and Learning. Studies in Science Education 25: 69–95, 1995.Google Scholar
  19. J.K. Gilbert. Explaining with Models. In: M. Ratcliffe (Ed.), ASE Guide to Secondary Science Education. London: Stanley Thornes, 1998.Google Scholar
  20. J.K. Gilbert, R.J. Osborne and P.J. Fensham. Children's Science and Its Consequences for Teaching. Science Education 66(4): 623–633, 1982.Google Scholar
  21. J.K. Gilbert, C. Boutler and M. Rutherford, Margaret. Models in Explanations, Part 1: Horses for Courses? International Journal of Science Education 20(1): 83–97, 1998.Google Scholar
  22. R.J. Gillespie. Bonding without Orbitals. Education in Chemistry: 103–106, 1996.Google Scholar
  23. A. Goldhammer. Translator's Preface to Bachelard, Gaston, The New Scientific Spirit. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984 (original French edition published in 1934).Google Scholar
  24. A.K. Griffiths and K.R. Preston. Grade-12 Students' Misconceptions Relating to Fundamental Characteristics of Atoms and Molecules. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29(6): 611–628, 1992.Google Scholar
  25. L. Grosslight, C. Unger, E. Jay and C.L. Smith. Understanding Models and Their Use in Science: Conceptions of Middle and High School Students and Experts. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 28(9): 799–822, 1991.Google Scholar
  26. A.G. Harrison and D.F. Treagust. Secondary Students' Mental Models of Atoms and Molecules: Implications for Teaching Chemistry. Science Education 80(5): 509–534, 1996.Google Scholar
  27. A.G. Harrison and D.F. Treagust. Learning about Atoms, Molecules, and Chemical Bonds: A Case Study of Multiple-Model Use in Grade 11 Chemistry. Science Education 84: 352–381, 2000.Google Scholar
  28. P. Hewson and M. Hewson. The Role of Conceptual Conflict in Conceptual Change and the Design of Science Instruction. Instructional Science 13: 1–13, 1984.Google Scholar
  29. J. Hudson. The History of Chemistry. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1992.Google Scholar
  30. P.M. Johnson and R. Gott. Constructivism and Evidence from Children's Ideas. Science Education 80(5): 561–577, 1996.Google Scholar
  31. P. Johnson. Progression in Children's Understanding of a ‘Basic’ Particle Theory: A Longitudinal Study. International Journal of Science Education 20(4): 393–412, 1998a.Google Scholar
  32. P. Johnson. Children'sUnderstanding of Changes of State Involving the Gas State, Part 1: Boiling Water and the Particle Theory. International Journal of Science Education 20(5): 567–583, 1998b.Google Scholar
  33. R. Justi and J. Gilbert. History and Philosophy of Science Through Models: Some Challenges in the Case of ‘the Atom’. International Journal of Science Education 22(9): 993–1009, 2000.Google Scholar
  34. D.A. Kramer. Post-Formal Operations? A Need for Further Conceptualization. Human Development 26: 91–105, 1983.Google Scholar
  35. A. Mashhadi. Advanced Level Physics Students' Understanding of Quantum Physics, paper presented to the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Oxford, September 1994.Google Scholar
  36. R. Millar and J. Osborne (Eds). Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future. London: King's College, London: School of Education, 1998.Google Scholar
  37. J. Morris. GCSE Chemistry. London: Collins Educational, 1991.Google Scholar
  38. E.F. Mortimer. Conceptual Change or Conceptual Profile Change? Science and Education 4: 267–285, 1995.Google Scholar
  39. N. Nersessian. Constructing and Instructing: The Role of ‘Abstraction Techniques’ in Creating and Learning Physics, Chapter 2. In: R. Duschl and R. Hamilton (Eds.), Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Psychology, and Educational Theory and Practice, pp. 48–68. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1992.Google Scholar
  40. M. Niaz. From Cathode Rays to Alpha Particles to Quantum of Action: A Rational Reconstruction of Structure of the Atom and Its Implications for Chemistry Textbooks. Science Education 82(5): 527–552, 1998.Google Scholar
  41. J.D. Novak and D. Musonda. A Twelve-Year Longitudinal Study of Science Concept Learning. American Educational Research Journal 28(1): 117–153, 1991.Google Scholar
  42. J. Nussbaum and S. Novick. Alternative Frameworks, Conceptual Conflict and Accommodation: Toward a Principled Teaching Strategy. Instructional Science 11: 183–200, 1982.Google Scholar
  43. Oxford Science Programme. Materials and Models. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.Google Scholar
  44. J. Petri and H. Niedderer. A Learning Pathway in High-School Level Quantum Atomic Physics. International Journal of Science Education 20: 1075–1088, 1998.Google Scholar
  45. M. Polanyi. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, corrected version (originally published, 1958).Google Scholar
  46. K.R. Popper. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (revised edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979 (original edition, 1972).Google Scholar
  47. G.J. Posner, K.A. Strike, P.W. Hewson and W.A. Gertzog. Accommodation of a Scientific Conception: Towards a Theory of Conceptual Change. Science Education 66(2): 211–227, 1982.Google Scholar
  48. L. Renström, B. Andersson and F. Marton. Students' Conceptions of Matter. Journal of Educational Psychology 82(3): 555–569, 1990.Google Scholar
  49. G.I. Sackheim and D.D. Lehman. Chemistry for the Health Sciences, 7th edn. New York: Macmillan, 1994.Google Scholar
  50. E.R. Scerri. The Electronic Configuration Model, Quantum Mechanics and Reduction. British Journal of Philosophy of Science 42: 309–325, 1991.Google Scholar
  51. E.R. Scerri. Has the Periodic Table Been Successfully Axiomatized? Erkenntnis 47: 229–243, 1997.Google Scholar
  52. E. Scerri. On the Nature of Chemistry. Educación Quimica 10(2): 74–78, 1999.Google Scholar
  53. H.-J. Schmidt. A Label as a Hidden Persuader: Chemists' Neutralization Concept. International Journal of Science Education 13(4): 459–471, 1991.Google Scholar
  54. H.-J. Schmidt. Does the Periodic Table Refer to Chemical Elements. School Science Review 80(290): 71–74, 1998.Google Scholar
  55. M. Shayer and P. Adey. Towards a Science of Science Teaching: Cognitive Development and Curriculum Demand. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Books, 1981 (submitted).Google Scholar
  56. J.P. Smith, A.A. diSessa and J. Roschelle. Misconceptions Reconceived: A Constructivist Analysis of Knowledge in Transition. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 3(2): 115–163, 1993.Google Scholar
  57. J. Solomon. Getting to Know about Energy – in School and Society. London: Falmer Press, 1992.Google Scholar
  58. J.-P. Souque. The Historical Epistemology of Gaston Bachelard and its Relevance to Science Education. Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 6(4): 8–13, 1988.Google Scholar
  59. H. Stavridou and C. Solomonidou. Conceptual Reorganisation and the Construction of the Chemical Reaction Concept During Secondary Education. International Journal of Science Education 20(2): 205–221, 1998.Google Scholar
  60. K.A. Strike and G.J. Posner. A Conceptual Change View of Learning and Understanding, Chapter 13. In: L.H.T. West and A.L. Pines (Eds.), Cognitive Structure and Conceptual Change, pp. 211–231. London: Academic Press Inc., 1985.Google Scholar
  61. K.A. Strike and G.J. Posner. A Revisionist Theory of Conceptual Change, Chapter 5. In: R.A. Duschl and R.J. Hamilton (Eds.), Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Psychology, and Educational Theory and Practice. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1992.Google Scholar
  62. K.S. Taber. Misunderstanding the Ionic Bond. Education in Chemistry 31(4): 100–103, 1994.Google Scholar
  63. K.S. Taber. An Analogy for Discussing Progression in Learning Chemistry. School Science Review 76(276): 91–95, 1995a.Google Scholar
  64. K.S. Taber. Development of Student Understanding: A Case Study of Stability and Lability in Cognitive Structure. Research in Science and Technological Education 13(1): 87–97, 1995b.Google Scholar
  65. K.S. Taber. Chlorine is an Oxide, Heat Causes Molecules to Melt, and Sodium Reacts Badly in Chlorine: A Survey of the Background Knowledge of One A Level Chemistry Class. School Science Review 78(282): 39–48, 1996a.Google Scholar
  66. K.S. Taber. Do Atoms Exist? Education in Chemistry 33(1): 28, 1996b.Google Scholar
  67. K.S. Taber. Understanding Chemical Bonding – the Development of A Level Students' Understanding of the Concept of Chemical Bonding. Ph.D. thesis, University of Surrey, 1997a.Google Scholar
  68. K.S. Taber. Student Understanding of Ionic Bonding: Molecular versus Electrostatic Thinking? School Science Review 78(285): 85–95, 1997b.Google Scholar
  69. K.S. Taber. The Sharing-Out of Nuclear Attraction: Or I Can't Think about Physics in Chemistry. International Journal of Science Education 20(8): 1001–1014, 1998a.Google Scholar
  70. K.S. Taber. An Alternative Conceptual Framework from Chemistry Education. International Journal of Science Education 20(5): 597–608, 1998b.Google Scholar
  71. K.S. Taber. Alternative Conceptual Frameworks in Chemistry. Education in Chemistry 36(5): 135–137, 1999.Google Scholar
  72. K.S. Taber. Challenging Chemical Misconceptions in the Classroom?: The Royal Society of Chemistry Teacher Fellowship Project 2000–2001, presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference 2000, University of Cardiff, Saturday, September 9th 2000 – available via Education-line, at, 2000a.Google Scholar
  73. K.S. Taber. The Chemical Education Research Group Lecture 2000: Molar and Molecular Conceptions of Research into Learning Chemistry: Towards a Synthesis, Given as the Plenary Lecture at the Variety in Chemistry Teaching Meeting organised by the RSC Tertiary Education group with the Chemical Education Research Group, at the University of Lancaster, 5th September, 2000 – available via Education-line, at or at the Royal Society of Chemistry website, at Scholar
  74. K.S. Taber. Multiple Frameworks?: Evidence of Manifold Conceptions in Individual Cognitive Structure. International Journal of Science Education 22(4): 399–417, 2000c.Google Scholar
  75. K.S. Taber. Finding the Optimum Level of Simplification: The Case of Teaching about Heat and Temperature. Physics Education 35(5), 320–325, 2000d.Google Scholar
  76. K.S. Taber. Chemistry Lessons for Universities?: A Review of Constructivist Ideas. University Chemistry Education, 4(2): 26–35 2000e, available at Scholar
  77. K.S. Taber. The Mismatch between Assumed Prior Knowledge and the Learner's Conceptions: A Typology of Learning Impediments. Educational Studies 27(2): 159–171, 2001a.Google Scholar
  78. K.S. Taber. Shifting Sands: A Case Study of Conceptual Development as Competition between Alternative Conceptions. International Journal of Science Education 23(7): 731–753, 2001b.Google Scholar
  79. K.S. Taber. Building the Structural Concepts of Chemistry: Some Considerations from Educational Research. Chemical Education Research and Practice in Europe 2(2): 123–158, 2001c, available at cerapie/Google Scholar
  80. K.S. Taber. Misconceptions in Chemistry: Prevention, Diagnosis and Cure? (2 volumes). London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2002a.Google Scholar
  81. K.S. Taber. Conceptualizing Quanta – Illuminating the Ground State of Student Understanding of Atomic Orbitals. Education: Research and Practice in Europe Chemistry 3(2): 145–158, 2002b.Google Scholar
  82. K.S. Taber. Compounding Quanta – Probing the Frontiers of Student Understanding of Molecular Orbitals. Chemistry Education: Research and Practice in Europe 3(2), 159–173, 2002c.Google Scholar
  83. K.S. Taber. Mediating Mental Models of Metals: Acknowledging the Priority of the Learner's Prior Learning. Science Education (in press).Google Scholar
  84. K.S. Taber and R. Coll. Chemical Bonding, chapter 9. In: J.K. Gilbert (general Ed.), Chemical Education: Research-Based Practice. Kluwer Academic Publishers BV, in press.Google Scholar
  85. K.S. Taber and M. Watts. The Secret Life of the Chemical Bond: Students' Anthropomorphic and Animistic References to Bonding. International Journal of Science Education 18(5): 557–568, 1996.Google Scholar
  86. P. Thagard. Conceptual Revolutions. Princeton University Press, Oxford, 1992.Google Scholar
  87. G.C. Waterston. Translator's Preface to Bachelard, Gaston, The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the Scientific Mind. New York: Orion Press, 1968.Google Scholar
  88. D.M. Watts and D. Bentley. Humanizing and Feminizing School Science: Reviving Anthropomorphic and Animistic Thinking in Constructivist Science Education. International Journal of Science Education 16(1): 83–97, 1994.Google Scholar
  89. D.M. Watts and J. Gilbert. Enigmas in School Science: Students' Conceptions for Scientifically Associated Words. Research in Science and Technological Education 1(2): 161–171, 1983.Google Scholar
  90. M. Watts and K.S. Taber. An Explanatory Gestalt of Essence: Students' Conceptions of the ‘Natural’ in Physical Phenomena. The International Journal of Science Education 18(8): 939–954, 1996.Google Scholar
  91. T. Wightman, in collaboration with P. Green and P. Scott. The Construction of Meaning and Conceptual Change in Classroom Settings: Case Studies on the Particulate Nature of Matter. Leeds: Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education – Children's Learning in Science Project, 1986.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Keith S. Taber
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of EducationUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeU.K.

Personalised recommendations