Developing Chemical Understanding in the Explanatory Vacuum: Swedish High School Students’ Use of an Anthropomorphic Conceptual Framework to Make Sense of Chemical Phenomena

  • Keith S. Taber
  • Karina Adbo
Part of the Innovations in Science Education and Technology book series (ISET, volume 19)


The results presented here derive from a research project exploring 16–18-year-old Swedish upper secondary science students’ developing understandings of key concepts for matter and phase change. In the Swedish educational context there is limited prescription of what is taught at different grade levels, and students may only meet scientific models of the submicroscopic structure of the matter some years after considering the phenomena that these models have been developed to explain. Students may develop alternative and sometimes idiosyncratic imaginative notions to populate this ‘explanatory vacuum’. In this study, we discuss one aspect of student responses in a sequence of semi-structured interviews spread over a single school year, namely, the common use of anthropomorphic language in student descriptions and explanations of basic chemical phenomena – change of state, chemical bonding and reactions. Such anthropomorphic language has been considered to have the potential either to facilitate or impede progression in students’ learning in chemistry. In the present study, we found a high level of anthropomorphic language in students’ explanations. In some cases, there were clear indications that our interviewees were aware of the limitations of their anthropomorphic explanations, which could be considered to take the role of temporary placeholders for technical ideas not yet available. However, in many other instances anthropomorphism was used without any indication of its limited explanatory power. In these circumstances, anthropomorphic explanations would appear to satisfy epistemic hunger and take the place of canonical explanations.


Intermolecular Bonding Interview Session Chemical Phenomenon Laboratory Exercise Conceptual Resource 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  2. 2.Department of Chemistry and Biomedical SciencesLinnæus UniversityKalmarSweden

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