Conceptual Change


Using evidence and experience to affect conceptualizations

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … currently accepted (but always-evolving) conceptualizations
  • Knowing is … coherently interpreting
  • Learner is … a sense-maker (individual)
  • Learning is … accommodating (adapting, revising, replacing)
  • Teaching is … interrupting; challenging




The multiple interpretations of Conceptual Change in the education literature converge around the point that it has to do with restructuring, problematizing, or replacing an existing conception to give way to a new one. The notion can be applied at the level of individual learning or collective knowledge production, and so the theory draws an explicit, bi-directional link between personal and cultural knowledge. Discussions of Conceptual Change are typically grounded on Schema Theory and focused on strategies to prompt learners to interrogate their current conceptions, with a with toward revising or replacing them. Prominent constructs within Conceptual Change and other concept-focused discourses include:
  • Percept – a conscious noticing
  • Concept – an integrated network of associations, abstracted from a class of Percepts, that is useful for making sense of and acting upon that class
  • Schema – the subjective network of associations that constitutes a Concept (see above) for someone
  • Concept Formation (Concept Learning) – a multifaceted process of abstracting and extrapolating a general idea from specific experiences, which involves one or more Modes of Reasoning
Importantly, within the discourse of Conceptual Change, “concept” is synonymous with “schema.”


Conceptual Change finds its roots in Jean Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology and Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigm Shifts, and so it generally sits comfortably among other Coherence Discourses. However, there is a strong trend among some proponents to ignore the collective knowledge component of the theory and thus interpret Conceptual Change in terms of strategies to compel learners to come to forego their “naïve beliefs” or “misconceptions” in favor of “correct” conceptualizations. That is, in the current educational world, principles rooted in Correspondence Discourses are routinely and inappropriately imposed on Conceptual Change.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Susan Carey

Status as a Theory of Learning

Conceptual Change has robust roots in Genetic Epistemology and theories of cultural evolution. In does not, however, elaborate on those roots.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Conceptual Change is principally concerned with interpreting learner conceptualizations and structuring experiences to occasion learners to adjust or reject those conceptualizations. That is, Conceptual Change is mainly a theory of influencing learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Conceptual Change is explicit about principles of learning and proponents have been attentive to accumulating evidence to support the theory. It is thus appropriately described as scientific according to the criteria we’re using.


  • Concept
  • Concept Formation (Concept Learning)
  • Percept
  • Schema

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Conceptual Change” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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