I am seriously trying not to use the word “conceptual” anymore– not to describe the kind of understanding I want my student to have and not to describe the kinds of questions I often like to use to assess student understanding. It is not a very useful word. It’s not a useful word, in part, because it’s a word that my colleagues use to mean various thing that I don’t. When they hear the word “conceptual”, I think some hear something like, “the easy physics” or the “basic physics”, or “mathless physics”. For others, I think it means something like “deep understanding.” For others it’s just a word to describe those tough questions that physics education researchers have come up with to stump students. For others, it means a multiple choice question, where students don’t actually solve a problem.
In fact, I’ll say I don’t actually use the word very often. It turns out that my colleagues do. I mention some question I asked my students and they say, “Oh yeah, those conceptual questions.” They smile and nod. I wasn’t thinking it was a conceptual question. I was thinking of it as a question that illuminated some aspect of my students’ understanding, or a perplexing question that inspired my students to think, talk, and argue. I was thinking of it as a question that demanded that they pull together more than one tool from their toolbox, or to pull out tools that they rarely get a chance to use (and so are clumsy with). I wasn’t thinking of it as a conceptual question. I was thinking of it as a useful question for teaching and learning— useful for me to find out what my students know or don’t know, or useful for my students because it provoked meaningful engagement with disciplinary ideas and skills.
There are, of course, other alternatives to the word. Skemp, for example, uses “relational” understanding and contrasts that with “instrumental” understandings. And I think this gets at something closer. But I don’t think a new word is the issue. I’m not sure what the issue is exactly… For some, it seems to be a difference in what we think is important for students to know and be able to do. That’s an issue of values. For others, it’s a difference in what we take as evidence of understanding. That’s an issue of assessment. For others, it’s a difference in what understanding is. That’s an issue of epistemology. I don’t mean epistemology in the abstract philosophical notion. I mean one’s personal sense of what it means to understand something. Like when my student told me last week that they knew how to solve every problem but still didn’t feel like they understood anything. By the way, this student did ace the exam. Epistemology is a feeling you develop, a personal sense of what understanding feels like when you have it and what it feels like when you don’t.
Of course, our values concerning learning, the ways in which we assess, and our personal epistemologies are not separate… but neither are they build together coherently. Developing them and working to make them consistent is tough work. For me, myself, I suppose it’s a lot of what I am trying to work out with this blog