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Instr Sci (2013) 41:165189

DOI 10.1007/s11251-012-9223-8

Explaining Newtons laws of motion: using student

reasoning through representations to develop conceptual

Bruce Waldrip Vaughan Prain Peter Sellings

Received: 18 July 2011 / Accepted: 19 March 2012 / Published online: 31 March 2012
 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract The development of students reasoning and argumentation skills in school

science is currently attracting strong research interest. In this paper we report on a study
where we aimed to investigate student learning on the topic of motion when students,
guided by their teacher, responded to a sequence of representational challenges in which
their representational claims functioned as both process and product for reasoning about
this topic. This qualitative case study entailed collection of data through classroom
observation, transcripts of student/teacher interactions, and interviews with teacher and
students. We found that students participated in various reasoning processes in generating
and critiquing their own and other students representations on the topic of motion, con-
tributing to positive engagement with the topic and conceptual understanding. We iden-
tified several pedagogical principles that support this learning.

Keywords Representations student reasoning  Conceptual understanding 

Science education

Reasoning through representing

There is strong recent interest in researching students reasoning and use of argumentation in
the science classroom (Alozie et al. 2010, p. 395; Osborne 2010), with much of this research
focused on strategies to replace traditional transmissive approaches with more dialogic
classroom interactions. While acknowledging this fundamental role of guided talk in
developing student reasoning, our approach has focused more on affordances for reasoning

B. Waldrip (&)  P. Sellings

Faculty of Education, Monash University, Churchill, VIC, Australia
e-mail: Bruce.Waldrip@monash.edu
P. Sellings
e-mail: Peter.Sellings@monash.edu

V. Prain
Faculty of Education, La Trobe University, Bendigo, VIC, Australia
e-mail: V.Prain@latrobe.edu.au

166 B. Waldrip et al.

entailed in student generation and justification of their own representations, including verbal,
enacted, mathematical and visual ones. In this study, we utilize an approach that concep-
tualizes facilitation of student learning through a teacher-guided focus on students repre-
sentational reasoning (Waldrip et al. 2010), drawing on Roberts (1996, p. 423) trialogue
model. This model focuses on student learning as the development of three-way reciprocal
linkages between teachers and students representations and domain knowledge.
In past studies (Carolan et al. 2008; Tytler et al. 2009; Waldrip and Prain 2006), we
have found that if the teacher focuses on students thinking and reasoning as they attempt
to represent concepts and processes in a sequence of representational challenges, this
guided inquiry facilitates quality conceptual learning. In this approach the teacher needs to
recognize that students understandings often diverge from the teachers expert domain
knowledge, and that there is a need to make explicit students reasoning around repre-
sentational adequacy to facilitate learning. We also recognize that it is important to explore
students initial understandings through in-class discussion between students and also with
their teacher and then build towards reconciliation with more authorized views. In this
study we were particularly interested in the learning outcomes of student approxima-
tions in physics that arise from these teaching and learning processes, as well as the kinds
of reasoning in which students engage to develop and justify their representations.
In typical science classrooms the teacher still often functions as the transmissive source of
knowledge, and teaching is characterized as timely transfer of this knowledge, despite
decades of research to introduce more nuanced constructivist and inquiry-based approaches
to science learning (Taber 2009). We suggest that there is an ongoing need for guided inquiry
within science classrooms supported by active roles for students, and that the use of Roberts
trialogue can enhance these learning processes. We consider that students benefit by
generating their own understandings through making representations of their emerging
conceptual knowledge, including drawing, modeling, discussions, tables, graphs, multi-
media products, role plays, and photographs, in a process of guided inquiry (Ehrlen 2009;
Creagh 2008). Ehrlen (2009) used drawings to gain an idea of students conceptions, pointing
out that meaning making entails explaining and utilizing representations. Similarly, Creagh
(2008) argued that drawings can play a valuable role in enabling teachers to identify levels of
students understanding. However, drawings are only one way that students can develop and
show their understandings, or communicate claims that they find difficult to put into written
form. Where appropriate, they can also use and integrate tables, graphs, multi-media
products, role-plays, and photographs, to represent and justify new understandings.

Aims of study

In the research reported in this paper we aimed to:

1. Identify the reasoning processes used by students in responding to a sequence of
representational challenges on the topic of motion.
2. Identify effective teaching and learning principles that support this learning.

A student-generated representational approach to learning

Traditionally, representations in science have been conceptualized as accompanying pic-

tures of prior thought or reasoning, but there is growing recognition that they can also

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 167

function as tools for exploring and consolidating new concepts and processes (Kozma and
Russell 2005). This double set of functions for representational work is partially captured
in the two main approaches to research on representations for learning over the last couple
of decades. One perspective has focused on researcher analysis and construction of expert
representations as a basis for investigating factors affecting student learning from inter-
actions with these representations (see Ainsworth 1999, 2006, 2008a, b, c; Davidowitz
et al. 2010; Gilbert 2005; Jewitt 2007; Jewitt et al. 2001; Van der Meij and de Jong 2006).
This research has often been driven by the claimed advantages of new multimedia for
enhancing student interpretation of these given conceptual accounts. This research has
often been based on clinical trials and focused on representational features that might
provide cognitive short-cuts for learners. The second perspective has focused predomi-
nantly on student-generated representations, where students learn to use material
and symbolic tools to think scientifically, incorporating both new and old technologies
(Carolan et al. 2008; Cox 1999; Greeno and Hall 1997; Saul 2004; diSessa 2004; Tytler
et al. 2007; Waldrip and Prain 2006). We agree with Kozma and Russell (2005) repre-
sentations can function as conceptualizing and reasoning tools, rather than just as means
for knowledge display and will illustrate the use of representations as a conceptualizing
and reasoning tool in this paper.
Our theoretical justification for focusing intensively on student-generated representa-
tional work as a basis for learning in science and our development of aligned pedagogical
principles (and by implication relevant formative and summative assessment practices) has
drawn on three inter-related literatures about how learning goals in science might be
theorized and enacted. These are: (1) theories of the variety of processes that broadly
enable learning in science (2) epistemic theories of science as a set of knowledge-pro-
duction practices, and (3) semiotic theories of the nature of learning tasks in science. Each
of these literatures entails complex accounts of diverse perspectives and research histories,
and the following summary is intended to provide only a brief overview of key substantive
points guiding our general rationale.
There is broad agreement that student learning is generally enabled by timely teacher
scaffolding that guides students attention to critical dimensions of learning tasks or hard-
to-learn aspects of a topic (Bransford and Schwartz 1999; Bruner 2004). More recently, as
noted by Klein (2006), Wilson (2008), Tytler and Prain (2010), and many others, current
research by cognitive scientists on cognition has identified the important role of previously
downplayed influences and resources in learning processes, such as perceptual clues,
affect, embodiment, metaphor, analogy, and informal reasoning. This implies that students
can learn in science from a complex interplay of multiple resources and strategies, using
both (a) discipline-specific frameworks such as precepts, guidelines, scaffolding, templates
and concepts, and (b) more informal contextual, associative processes entailed in role-play,
thought experiments, improvisations, visualization, projection, and use of imagination in
problem-solving. There is also a strong research literature on the effective role of group
work in conceptual learning, incorporating both cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives
(Akkerman et al. 2007). Epistemic theories of science note that this domain entails a set of
prescribed practices for generating credible evidence-based knowledge. By implication,
reasoning processes in this subject should align with student learning experiences in this
subject, enabling these experiences to function as an induction into this domain and its
discursive purposes and resources. From this perspective, knowledge production in science
is understood as diverse forms of inquiry using appropriate instruments and reasoning
tools, leading to participants making and/or rebutting evidence-based claims (Ford and
Forman 2006; Yorke 2003).

168 B. Waldrip et al.

Semiotic theories of the nature of the learning task in science have also guided our
research as well as our proposed learning practices. These theories emphasize the need for
students to learn disciplinary representational competence as both a record of learning and
as a tool for further reasoning and knowledge-building (diSessa 2004; Lemke 2003;
Sampson and Clark 2008). This competence or scientific literacy entails knowing how and
why to use and integrate semiotic tools such as graphs, tables, and diagrams, and topic-
specific technical language to make claims in science (Lemke 2003; Norris and Phillips
2003; Moje 2007). Following Peirce (1931/1958a, b) who claimed that reasoning in sci-
ence needs to utilize practical applications and examples, we concur with Campos (2010)
that experimentation can be understood as a four-stage process where reasoning involves
interacting with the representation, submitting this representation to the scrutiny of
observations, investigating the adequacy of this representation by modifying or trans-
forming it, and then generalizing the results. It means that both students and their teacher
need to examine critically the design of the experiment, including the control of variables.
This means that students might need to develop concrete models or objects to discover
general properties of the concept and the underlying principles and relationships. Peirce
recognized that the capacity to distinguish relevant and irrelevant features of a represen-
tation can be difficult, but is essential to reasoning processes.
We claim that students can develop both their reasoning and their representational skills
concurrently as they seek to explain and justify their represented understandings. Teachers
in this process function as expert guides and respondents to students individual and group
emerging accounts of topics. Where students have a high degree of certainty about the
adequacy of their representations, the teacher can prompt them to justify their reasoning
through clarification. Where students are uncertain about the persuasiveness of their rep-
resented claim, the teacher can provide scaffolded prompts to guide further reasoning.
While most students might not initially have the skill level to ask appropriate questions
about their representational adequacy on a topic or part of a topic, the teacher can promote
very useful class discussions to consolidate student understanding. These principles speak
to the need for teachers and students to understand the conventions and purposes of
representations and to assess their clarity and adequacy as evidence of students emerging
thinking, reasoning processes, and conceptual understanding. By implication, formative
feedback from students and teachers needs to focus on timely judgments and guidance
about processes or strategies that assist students to understand representational tasks,
redress misunderstandings, confusions, ambiguities and omissions, and provide strategies
that enable students to self-regulate further attempts to integrate multiple representations to
show conceptual understanding.

The affordances of constructing representations

Researchers have identified various reasons for how and why learner construction of
representations supports reasoning and learning in science. Kozma (2003) noted that expert
chemists use coordination of the material features of multiple representations to reason
about their research, and that students can be guided to develop this capacity for their own
learning. Prain and Tytler (2010), drawing on the work of Schwartz and Bransford (1998)
and Bransford and Schwartz (1999), and their own research (Tytler et al. 2007), claimed
that generating representations productively constrains student attention in a manageable
way, and develops problem-solving reasoning skills. Giere and Moffatt (2003) argued that
students should learn how to use scientific representations as thinking tools for predicting,

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 169

understanding and making claims, rather than mainly for memorizing correct represen-
tations for showing knowledge. Supporting this view, diSessa (2004, p. 299) asserted that
students bring to learning in science some understanding of the need for conciseness,
completeness and precision in representing ideas, and that good students manage to
learn scientific representations in school partly because they can almost reinvent them for
themselves. This view implies that students are likely to learn effectively in science when
they see the suitability of representational conventions in this subject, and also when they
recognize the persuasive nature of particular scientific explanations. Learning about new
concepts cannot be separated from learning both how to represent these concepts as well as
what these representations signify. In this paper we suggest that effective learning can be
built on a process of a sequence of re-representations, where students apply their under-
standing to new or novel examples and fresh contexts for the concept.

Characterizing reasoning in school science

Toulmins (1958) formal model of syllogistic reasoning processes has been highly influ-
ential in recent research on student reasoning in science, focusing on the identification of
claims, assertions, connecting evidence or data, warrants for claims, and backings for
warrants (Brown et al. 2010; Osborne 2010; Jimenez-Aleixandre, M. and Erduran, S 2007).
While concurring with the value of this approach, our focus on student generation of
representation has led to a less formal approach to identifying and conceptualizing student
reasoning processes. We have been more interested in students reasoning as they seek to
re-represent/explain causal accounts arising from guided inquiry into practical topics. Such
reasoning necessarily entails students having to visualize, select, integrate and explain
representational choices across and within modes, where representational and reasoning
adequacy depend on perceived fit for purpose and context- and content-dependent factors.
Within this approach, students also need to be able to give a clear account of a repre-
sentation as a claim, but this claim and its supporting evidence will be embedded in
complex ways in their representation, rather than entail a predominantly linguistic account,
as in the Toulmin model.
Dolan and Grady (2010, p. 40) have noted this complexity of reasoning processes,
claiming that the highest level of reasoning in inquiry entailed students representing data in
multiple ways including tables, drawings, graphs, or statistical representations, thought-
fully considering the meaning of representations. They claimed that students were likely
to use various forms of reasoning in their causal representations, such as contrastive,
deductive and inductive reasoning that may require inferences involving several layers of
connections (p. 40). They also noted that the most complex form of reasoning by students
arose when they communicated results, and were using logical arguments to defend their
findings (p. 41). As noted by Cox (1999), representations can serve many purposes: they
can be used as tools for initial, speculative thinking, as in constructing a diagram or model
to imagine how a process might work. They can be used to identify the distribution of
types, to classify examples into categories, to identify and explain causes, to show a
sequence or process in time, sort information, and clarify ideas. Students need to under-
stand that a single representation cannot cover all possible purposes or all aspects of a
topic. Therefore they need to learn how to select appropriate representations for addressing
particular explanatory needs, and be able to judge their effectiveness in achieving par-
ticular purposes.

170 B. Waldrip et al.

There is ample evidence that students often find it difficult to generate and justify
scientific arguments and claims because of their insufficient knowledge and level of
cognitive development (Yang and Tsai 2010). However, we suggest that student work on
guided representational challenges can provide a practical way to develop these student
capacities. Such work aligns with Perkins (1985) view that reasoning involves the
development of internal models and testing the robustness of these models. Atwood et al.
(2010), in commenting on the value of negotiated meaning-making, claimed that students
were more likely to be motivated and learn when they had a chance to share and elaborate
their reasoning. They also noted that classroom discussion enabled students to revise their
own views in the light of shared and differing perspectives. Analogous to Chin and
Kayalvizhis (2002) findings that sixth graders could develop researchable questions, Cliatt
and Shaws (1985) claimed that the use of divergent questions encouraged higher order
thinking skills. However, Goodman and Berntson (2000) cautioned that students needed
teacher guidance when working with challenging questions. We consider that this is
achievable when student development of representational competence focuses on teacher-
guided clarification of their reasoning. Gupta et al. (2010, p.294) argued that instruction
that seeks to prevent students from reasoning in ways based on their experiences of matter
or of direct processes rather than to help them refine and build from that reasoning is likely
to be detrimental to their learning physics. They claimed that expert thinking like
everyday thinking often productively straddles ontological categories that can be genera-
tive and essential to reasoning in physics. In this way, students reasoning can draw
productively from different ontological categories. They argued that reasoning is context-
dependent, and in facilitating students reasoning processes, the teacher needed to know
when to stimulate discussion about representational adequacy amd understanding the
partial nature of any representation. In focusing on the broad role of language in learning,
Svensson et al. (2009) agreed that students meaning-making is highly context-dependent
and dynamic, often shifting between everyday and conceptual categories. Our classroom
research indicates that teachers need to be well-prepared to adopt this approach, and
understand, as Roberts (1996) implies, that students need to demonstrate and justify their
understandings with other students and with their teacher. This causes teachers to explore
students justifications and can, at times, test the limits of the teachers own understandings
of the content. The process of justifying ones reasons requires teachers to make judgments
on the representations but also provides a way forward in that teacher-guided clarifications
moves the emphasis from repetition of content to justification and elaboration of
These reasoning processes also align with the TIMSS framework for characterizing
reasoning in science in junior secondary school (Mullis et al. 2011). These researchers
noted that students at this level are expected to solve multi-step science problems in
unfamiliar, complex contexts. Mullis et al. (2011, pp. 9092) noted that students are
expected to integrate and synthesize understandings, evaluate claims, and justify expla-
nations through constructing a case to support the reasonableness of their proposed
accounts of topics. We consider that these reasoning processes can be enabled by guided
student construction of their own representations of these topics.
There has been extensive research on student difficulties in learning the topic of motion.
Previously, some research has investigated student difficulties in interpreting speed and
acceleration (Goldberg and Anderson 1989; Jira and McCloskey 1980; Jones 1983;
McDermott et al. 1987;Trowbridge and McDermott 1980, 1981). Some studies have uti-
lized multiple-choice tests such as force concept inventory (Hestenes et al. 1992) and force
and motion conceptual evaluation (Sokoloff and Thornton 1998) that incorporate easily

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 171

understood and non-technical questions. Students also have difficulty with the concept of
force (Champangne et al. 1980; Clement 1982; Galili and Bar 1992). This previous
research has focused on upper high school or university students. Our paper focuses on the
experience of younger students when they first encounter science concepts around motion.
Kozma and Russell (2005) argued that this learning should include a focus on developing
representational competencies to make explanations, communicate understandings, and to
make links across representations. Our approach focuses on how students representational
choices can serve a broad range of purposes. These purpose include critiquing a concept or
prior ideas, consolidating or clarify emerging models, and developing the ability to gen-
erate or test ideas.
In summary, a considerable amount of research has evaluated students reasoning
processes against formal, logical models, but there has been far less focus on the reasoning
strategies and processes students use when they generate and critique their own and others
representations. This informal, contextual practical reasoning is the main focus of our

Sample of study

The 17 students in our study were at year 10 secondary level (1516 years olds) under-
taking a unit on motion in a regional Australian high school. Their teacher was a respected
and experienced secondary science teacher whose main academic interest was in biology.
She wanted to try an approach that would engage a disaffected student group. In Australian
schools, teachers are expected to teach astronomy, biology, chemistry, environmental
studies, geology and physics in the lower secondary school, irrespective of their subject
specialization. This topic entailed about 15 h of teaching. The classroom was traditional in
its setting in that students were seated in rows in a science laboratory. Instruction consisted
of one 50 min theory class and one 100 min practical class per week for 6 weeks. Both
parents and students provided consent for their involvement in this study. The teacher
perceived these students as low achievers and explained that they had diverse science
backgrounds because of past learning experiences in previous years. The teacher also
stated that some of the students had not done well in previous years, a fact that was verified
by the researchers in discussions with students during class. One student stated that she had
failed science dismally in previous years and hated science, while another said that success
in science depended on which teacher you had.

Research approach

The mixed methods approach to the research entailed collection and analysis of quanti-
tative and qualitative data using a case study approach (Merriam 1998) to a representa-
tional enriched in-depth, interactive classroom environment where students explored the
topic of motion. Students in this class participated in diverse interpretations and con-
structions of representations of science concepts and processes. These included group and
whole class talk about different aspects of the topic, interpreting teacher notes and dia-
grams, re-representing three-dimensional practical activities in two-dimensional formats,
making sense of and re-representing video and other resources used to supplement
classroom activities, participating in virtual web-based experiments using tables and

172 B. Waldrip et al.

graphs, and constructing their own two-dimensional representations of practical

Most classes were video-taped by the researchers in a natural classroom setting. The
video was a record of what happened in this classroom in terms of talk, constructed
drawings and student involvement, and used to support researcher observations. In this
interpretive study, the recorded talk was analyzed for common themes. The video was not
coded for frequency of features but rather used to highlight sequences that appeared to be
important from the reaction of the students, the teacher, or the researchers perspective.
Photographed drawings were placed in like groups and analyzed for intended meaning
from the recorded talk. The teacher had been consulted about the researchers intentions
for this research project. The teacher was asked not to assume that students had understood
the topic until they could represent an understanding that was consistent with the teachers
intentions. This request led the teacher to explore the adequacy and completeness of any
student viewpoint, new to the teacher but corresponding to diSessas (2004) criteria for
representational effectiveness. The aim of the project was to investigate the impact of an
explicit focus on representational challenges on student learning. Although the teacher
discussed with the researcher what was observed, the teacher maintained complete
autonomy over the content and teaching and learning methods. When the students were
working on teacher-assigned tasks, one researcher would ask students to explain what they
were doing and/or how what they were learning related to previous classes. The researcher
also kept a journal of discussions with students, noting interesting comments and anecdotal
evidence about student perceptions of their learning.
The topic began with the teacher asking the students to write down what they thought
was the meaning of the following terms: instantaneous speed, average speed, acceleration,
de-acceleration, stopping distance, and stopping time. Students were asked to discuss with
their partner to negotiate the meanings of these terms. This discussion and the resulting
demonstrations took a considerable proportion of the lesson. This set the scene for testing
the adequacy of student verbal meanings. Students were asked to demonstrate their
understandings using simple everyday equipment. In each subsequent lesson, the teacher
would prompt students to test and justify the adequacy of their understanding by a new
question or an activity that was designed to challenge the representation of their emerging
explanations. The activities and questions required students to take a 2D (or 3D) repre-
sentation and then re-represent these explanations (3D or 2D). In each case, after the
students had negotiated an account within their group, the class discussed each perspective
in a studentstudent, studentteacher, and teacher and/or student-led discussion. This
public justification stimulated a robust debate about the persuasiveness and clarity of
different representations. Students were asked to reflect on the adequacy of their repre-
sentations and, where appropriate, to modify them. In a number of cases, students raised
examples that challenged other students accounts of key concepts.
In each lesson, the teacher tried to facilitate student discussion where students showed
their understanding of a concept and justified their views. Overall, the students were asked
to represent a claim, provide evidence for it, and then after further representational
manipulation, refinement, discussion and critical thought, to reflect on and confirm or
modify their original case. About 7 weeks after the topic had been taught and the students
had completed topic tests, the majority of students (n = 12) were interviewed about their
understandings, so the researchers had an understanding of the robustness of conceptual
understandings and could identify what was not reasonably resolved. In reporting our
findings on student reasoning during each phase of the topic, we present an account of the
context to clarify our findings.

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 173


Initial reasoning around definitions

Students were first asked in pairs to define their understanding of key terms of the topic,
such as instantaneous speed, average speed, acceleration, de-acceleration, stopping dis-
tance, and stopping time. A class discussion was held, but a set of commonly agreed
definitions was not provided. Students were then asked to explain what they understood
about four of these terms using common everyday objects, such as toys or balloons, to
clarify and demonstrate understanding. The teacher circulated amongst the students asking
them to think about what they were planning to do to illustrate their explanations, as a
means to refine their thought and reasoning process about the concept. Many questions
were asked to prompt students to think why their proposed explanations were reasonable.
After half an hour, various student groups combined demonstrated understandings with
verbal commentary in their reports to the class.
In reasoning about average speed, one group of students used a blown balloon attached
to a straw on a fishing line to demonstrate and explain average speed. These students used
hand gestures to illustrate the direction and speed of movement to reinforce their view. The
students measured the time and distance travelled by the balloon when it was released and
then calculated average speed through computation (5 metres divided by 1.9 s). They were
asked to justify whether this speed was a possible walking speed, but were unsure. These
students then applied a formula that they saw in a book with little understanding as to how
it was derived. They had little conception of whether their time measurement was accurate
and accurately measured the reaction time. The group defined instantaneous speed as the
speed the balloon was travelling at a point in time.
The class tried to represent and explain acceleration and de-acceleration in various
ways. One group rolled a model car down a ramp, claimed that as it went down, it was
accelerating but when it hit the bottom and started to slow, it was de-accelerating. This
group was challenged as to where the de-acceleration actually started. Another group felt
that they had a more complete explanation. They a filled balloon with air that was attached
to a fishing line, claiming once they released it, it was accelerating first because of the air
pushing out of the balloon made it go forward, but that it quickly de-accelerated to a stop
when it hit a persons hand. They said that if they had a longer string, it would have had
room to slow down and would have shown real de-acceleration. This group had a view that
de-acceleration occurred after some pre-defined event. In addition, these students role-
played acting out the motion of the balloon showing where they felt it accelerated and de-
accelerated, breaking down the motion into stages and explaining what they felt was
happening. A third group challenged the adequacy of the previous views by using a weight
attached to a string to accelerate a toy vehicle until the weight hit the floor. They said that
the vehicle would start to de-accelerate when it hit the floor. This group had problems with
using the equipment and as a result their explanation was not well accepted by the class.
The concepts of stopping distance and stopping time were demonstrated in two different
ways. One group of students used a car to roll down a ramp and then measured the distance
from the end of the ramp until where it stopped. They measured the distance as 43 s.
Initially they felt that this was representative of many repeat measurements of stopping
times. Another group released a filled balloon and measured the time it took to stop
moving. They felt that this time would vary because it was dependent on a number of
factors including the amount of air in the balloon, how high it went, height of the person,
reaction time, and the accuracy of timing. During these representations of students

174 B. Waldrip et al.

understandings, the teacher, as well as other students, would probe the adequacy of each
claim in a process aligned with Mullis et al. (2011) account of reasoning by justification of
a case. This resulted in vigorous class discussion as to what each term actually meant and
what was an effective way to demonstrate their understanding. It caused students to re-
represent their ideas to the class. To conclude the class, the teacher asked the students to
record their refined understanding of each term.

Reasoning through negotiation

Students were next required to participate in more detailed class discussion on the meaning
of these terms, with the teacher using questions to gauge the clarity and adequacy of their
representations. Some students used a toy car to roll down a ramp to explain average
speed, leading to the following interactions when they were asked about the impact of
surface on speed:
[Students claim:] As it goes down, it is accelerating but when it hits the bottom and
starts to slow down, it is de-accelerating.
[Teacher:] What do you guys think? Is that what you think?
[S1:] I dont know.
[T:] Is there another way to show acceleration?
[S3:] Pushing it.
[T:] Is there a difference between doing this on the table and on a carpet?
[S2] Yes. It is different material and so there is friction.
[T:] Where do you have more acceleration and de-acceleration?
[S2] de-acceleration is faster on the carpet. Acceleration is faster on smooth surface.
The students repeated this activity on the floor and noted how a different surface
affected their observations about what influenced a vehicles speed. Students argued that
the extent of friction determined the impact on speed. These students appeared able to
explain acceleration scientifically when asked to relate their explanation to a real cars
motion. They claimed that a car accelerates when the accelerator (throttle) is increased, and
that it de-accelerates when the brake was applied. They referred to the toy cars motion
rolling down their ramp as evidence they could explain these terms. However, when asked
to explain this in more detail, they viewed acceleration as an increase of speed rather than
rate. Initially, it appeared that these students had some understanding of acceleration and
de-acceleration, and that friction impacts on speed/acceleration changes. However, later
activities and interview questions raised questions about the robustness of their under-
standing of their claim. Subsequent class discussion revealed a number of questions they
had not considered.
A second group used a weight attached to a string to accelerate the model vehicle until
the weight hit the floor and the vehicle would start to de-accelerate, to consider claims
about stopping distance and stopping time:
T: Why do we need to know the distance?
S9: To see how long it takes to stop.
T: What would happen if you had a longer string?
S4: It might not hit the ground. It wouldnt fall of the table.
T: Why not?
S: When something is moving faster, it takes longer to slow down. That TAC
advertisement. It takes him longer to slow down than if he was going slower.

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 175

The mention of the Traffic Accident Commission (TAC) advertisement about taking
off 5 k stimulated student discussion as to what it meant and whether reducing ones
speed by 5 km per hour would actually affect the distance it took a vehicle to stop and have
a significant impact on accident causalities. The students used this episode to explore the
veracity of this claim to a real life scenario. The students did not undertake activities that
explored other variables such as how stopping distance was influenced by external factors
such as tyre and road conditions. The reasoning pattern in this demonstration was reliant on
the object first accelerating and de-accelerating. These students were reasoning through
experience and memories of previous learning through television advertisements to explain
stopping time, but were actually demonstrating understanding of acceleration and de-
acceleration. They assumed that the stopping time was the time the weight was in the
vehicle until it hit the floor.
During the exploration of these ideas, the concept of velocity as well as constant
velocity was introduced. As students explored these ideas and what they meant, one
student asked whether it was possible to maintain constant speed when going around a
bend on the highway and whether this constituted constant velocity. Initially there was no
agreement that it was possible to turn a corner at constant speed. The origin of this lack of
agreement was not initially apparent. After some time, it became apparent that the dif-
ference was due to the background of the students. The rural farming students were more
likely to state from farming experience, that it was not possible to turn a corner at constant
speed. They knew that farm machinery needed to slow down when cornering. The town
students related their (freeway) highway experience to their explanation by arguing that on
wide sweeping bends, it was possible to travel a bend on the highway without losing speed.
After some discussion with the teacher who pointed out this difference in background, the
students accepted this view, agreeing that it was possible to change speed and/or direction
when driving on the highway and it was possible to change direction without changing
speed. Once this had been agreed, it was a fairly simple extension for students to accept
that constant speed and constant velocity could be the same in certain circumstances but
different if a change occurred in either or both speed and direction. This linking to
authentic examples was pivotal in the development of their understandings. It allowed
them to reason inductively through noting generalizable ideas from different examples.
The students took their understandings of speed and acceleration and combined it with
everyday examples to develop a robust understanding of velocity.
As Mullis et al. (2011) implies, there is a need for students to show that they can apply
learning to new and complex contexts. The teacher initiated an activity to see if the
students could apply their reasoning to a different but related scenario. This involved a
class discussion with the teacher around claims about acceleration and de-acceleration.
The teacher threw a ball into the air and asked the students to describe their perceptions as
to what was happening and to relate their explanations to their concept of speed and
acceleration. The students were asked to draw what forces (Figs. 1, 2, 3) were involved at
various stages of the motion. The different views in these force diagrams are illustrated in
the following interaction.
T: If a ball is thrown into the air, is it showing acceleration as soon as I throw it?
S4: Yes
S5: Yes and no. It is accelerating as soon as you throw it but starts to de-accelerate
because gravity is trying to pull it back down.
T: When does it stop accelerating?
S5: When it starts to fall. When it hits its highest point and starts to fall.

176 B. Waldrip et al.

Fig. 1 Ball moving upwards

Fig. 2 Ball at top of rise

S4: It falls back down and it is accelerating again.

S5: It is the reverse of what we were expecting. It de-accelerates as it goes up and
accelerates as it comes down.
S6: De-acceleration is the point where it stops and then it falls again.
T: When it stops, what can you tell me about its speed or acceleration?
S6: It is zero because it stopped.
T: What has stopped?
S7: Neither, because it is neutral. It is not going anywhere.
Teacher throws ball up into the air.
T: What is happening when I throw it up.
S: It is de-accelerating. It slows down.
T: What is happening at the very top?

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 177

Fig. 3 Ball falling

S: It stops. Zero acceleration.

S8: It doesnt really stop.
Initially, there appeared to be confusion in students responses. This confusion appeared
to result from some students discounting the time that the ball was in the throwers hand
while others were considering every stage of the activity. Some students considered the
time from the moment the hand started to move and before the ball was released while
other students considered the motion of the ball, once it had been released. Some thought
that acceleration occurs before de-acceleration and this change happens when the ball
changed direction. This belief was related to the experiential perception they had that at
first all objects need to go faster (accelerate) and then they can slow down due to personal
experiences in a car in that acceleration always occurs before a car de-accelerates. A car
always starts from zero, accelerates and then slows down. This difference caused other
students to argue that it depended on whether the ball was increasing or decreasing in speed
that determined which form of acceleration was occurring. This discussion highlighted
their understanding as to whether acceleration involved a change in the rate of speed or that
acceleration must precede de-acceleration. This demonstrates how personal experiences
impact on student reasoning. In some cases, the force diagrams did not adequately consider
all the forces acting, nor their size or direction. This issue was addressed in a subsequent
Students were asked to consider what forces were involved in the ball-throwing activity.
They quickly identified gravity as one force but assumed that it changed during the motion
of the ball. Initially, they tried to reason that acceleration occurs first and then things de-
accelerate by referring to changes in the force of gravity. Their reasoning referred back to
the car rolling down the ramp.
S: The gravity is pulling the ball downwards, It slows down on the way up because of
this. It accelerates on the way back down as it is speeding up. Catch it and it stops.
Some students questioned the concept of the force of gravity. After some discussion,
they accepted, in their view, that gravity was relatively constant around the world and
hence, the force of gravity is constant. Once they realized that gravity was a constant, they
looked for other forces that could vary and this was when some realized that it was the
change in speed that determined whether acceleration or de-acceleration was in play.

178 B. Waldrip et al.

We suggest that student reasoning in this and the previous phase of the topic was
influenced by (a) prior understanding of the need to build a coherent account that links
properties/behaviour of objects with plausible claims, (b) prior experience with science
class methods and the need for accurate measurement of change as the basis for hypoth-
esizing, (c) informal qualitative reasoning around patterns of observed phenomena, and
(d) everyday language use to interpret technical terms of the topic, and everyday onto-
logical accounts of causality. This re-representation work also drew on perceptual con-
textual clues, as student attempted to identify key observed aspects of phenomena for
investigation, as well as problems/gaps/inconsistencies, and also evaluated the adequacy of
their own views compared to what they observed with other groups.

Negotiation and reflection

As Mullis et al. (2011) noted about reasoning in science, students are expected to integrate
and synthesize understanding and to evaluate claims. In re-working explanations and
including examples, students are engaged in this kind of reasoning. They could draw a
picture to clarify or elaborate their explanations. The students were expected to defend
their understanding through a teacher-facilitated class discussion. All students seemed to
be actively participating in class discussion and were willing to draw on the whiteboard for
all to see, to demonstrate their current understanding, and to argue their case. This was a
major change from the start of term where students were unwilling to be involved in either
class activities or discussions. Finally they were asked to record their current understanding
of these concepts. The teacher was finding this approach to be an effective method of
exploring and monitoring students understanding of the concept. The teacher started to
utilize this approach with other science classes.
In another one of the teachers classes, and as part of the reflection process to explore
students ability to re-represent and to re-interpret their understanding to new but related
settings, the teacher presented a challenge for them to explain what was happening if a ping
pong (table tennis) ball was dropped into a bowl of water. Some students considered what
was happening at various stages while others students focused on the ball when it just
reached the surface or it was just under the surface. Figure 4 shows one students initial
perspective of the forces involved in pushing a ball under water.
Figs. 5, 6 show different students perspective about why a ball floats. Both students
appeared to accept that opposing forces are involved but the second student tended to view
that more forces were involved in pushing upwards.
Figure 7 shows a students view of the forces involved as the ball rises to the surface.
The teacher had the students discuss their initial thoughts and then asked them to think
about what was happening at each stage when the ball fell into the water and what forces
were involved when the ball movement stabilized. Once the students had discussed and
recorded their views, some students explained their views to the rest of the class.
During the discussion, students reasoned about which explanation and drawing provided
a more robust view about the forces involved. They related their reasons to what they and
learnt and their prior experiences. This included whether the sizes of the forces were
appropriate and whether the number of force arrows was important. Students reported that
this opportunity to explain and reason publicly their views as a key point in crystalising
their understanding.
A student (Fig. 8) stated that gravity pulled the ball down. Once it hit the surface, the
ball went into the water. This student also addresses different phases of the ball movement
in her explanation.

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 179

Fig. 4 Students view of forces involved in submerging the ball

Fig. 5 Student view on buoyancy

As the ball went deeper into the water, gravity got weaker and the water and the air is
pushing upwards. The gravity gets so weak that gravity has no effect and so it goes
upwards. It stays there (on the water) as the gravity cant put it down and the water
and air combined cant push it higher.
Another student (Fig. 9) disagreed with Student As explanation and said that it floated
because the force of gravity is balanced by the buoyancy.

180 B. Waldrip et al.

Fig. 6 Another students view

on buoyancy

Fig. 7 Ball rising to the surface

T: What happens to gravity when the ball hits the water?

S: It gets less.
T: Does the gravity get less under water?
All students used visual, verbal and gestural explanations to illustrate their viewpoint.
These students were confusing gravity with the balance of forces. Because an opposing
force was counteracting gravity, they reasoned that it must be getting weaker. This

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 181

Fig. 8 Student As explanation of buoyancy

confusion was not the case for all students. Other students were able to reason that the
force of gravity was being opposed by the up-thrust (buoyancy) and as the depth of the ball
increased, so the up-thrust increased. They related their argument to friction opposing
surface movement. The discussion about the adequacy of their explanations led these
students to refine their viewpoints to what can be considered as scientific explanations. The
process of students declaring their understanding through visual representations of their
reasoning led to a more explicit explanation of their understanding after they had clarified
and re-represented their views.
In summary, during the course of the unit the students used a range of reasoning
processes and strategies to generate and critique their own and others representations.
These included informal, contextual practical reasoning based on observations and data
collection, perceptual pattern-spotting, approximations, enactment and re-representation of
experiments, dialogic classroom conversations and elaboration of contested perspectives to
clarify claims, inductive reasoning from examples, deductive reasoning from principles to
new cases, logical analyses of the adequacy and coherence of their own and others
representational and re-representational claims, and negotiation of enacted and verbal/
linguistic shared understandings.

182 B. Waldrip et al.

Fig. 9 Student Bs explanation of buoyancy

Impacts on student attitudes and learning

During the 7 week period, the researchers noticed changes in learning behaviors of most of
the students. The observed changes were as follows:
Students appeared more confident when explaining their reasoning to other members of
the class.
Students appeared to be genuinely interested in their learning, characterized by the
types of questions they asked, and responses given to teacher questions.
Students appeared more willing to participate in all set activities.
Students stated that they were more engaged in learning and looked forward to these
science lessons more than in previous science classes.
The teacher concurred with these observations. Individual examples of these changes
included the student who said that he had failed science in previous years. This student
became more confident, regularly volunteering to draw representations on the whiteboard
and explain his thinking to the class. This student also said that he was thrilled with his test
result and stated that other students were enjoying science because they understood what
was going on. Another student, who initially sat down the back of the room and seemingly
avoided more than a superficial involvement in the class, moved to the front of the class
and started answering questions voluntarily. The teacher also noted the changes in these

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 183

two students. While these observed changes occurred at the same time as the represen-
tational approach was introduced, they are by no means conclusive evidence that a rep-
resentational approach to learning changes student behaviors. More detailed research
would need to be carried out in this area to examine the effects of a representational focus
on student learning behaviors more closely. Teachers are reporting that students who have
been previously exposed to a representational focus to learning are better prepared for the
next stage of learning. That is, there is less need to re-teach the background material and
students are more quickly engaging with the new concepts than students who come to the
same class without an explicit representational focus in their previous science classes.
Finally, a number of these students have part-time jobs in the local area. When the
researchers visit these locations, the students come and talk to them and often talk about
how this topic changed their perception of science, level of interest and engagement and
how they enjoyed the whole process.

Student learning

Part of the purpose of these interview questions was to explore the extent that this process
of student constructing and justifying their representations impacted on their retention of
understanding. After a period of 7 weeks, some students (n = 12) were asked individually
to explain their understandings of key concepts and some related concepts not covered in
this class. These students were chosen at random. Over half the class was interviewed. In
some cases, students were asked to draw during their explanations or provide a verbal
response. The questions involved the researcher providing some questions and students
reactions. The following question was used to stimulate their explanations:
Question: Throw a ball into the air and describe what happens in terms of speed,
acceleration, stopping time and distance.
Responses. The example of throwing the ball into the air came from a comment that one
of the students made during the class discussion and close to the end of the lesson. The
teacher had probed their understanding of these concepts when a ball was thrown upwards
but it had appeared to the researchers that the understanding was not fully resolved when
the class ended. The intention of this question was to probe students understanding and
evidence of student reasoning.
The students who could provide reasons for their view usually had better understanding
to students who did not include reasons. For example, some students who could not provide
reasons saw speed as a constant except at the initial launch or when it stops.
S1: Becomes faster on the way down. It slows down on the way up.
S8: The speed of the ball hardly changes as it moves up or down except when it stops
at the top.
Most students perceived a relationship between speed and acceleration.
S6: Accelerate on way down. It de-accelerates when it leaves your hand as it is
slowing down. Acceleration is when it gets faster. Gravity is constant but air
resistance slows the ball down as it moves upwards. On the way down, gravity has a
greater effect on the ball than air resistance.
S7: As it goes up, the ball slows down and it is de-accelerating. When it falls, it
speeds up and accelerates.

184 B. Waldrip et al.

A few students viewed the speed as unrelated to acceleration.

S2: Speed: It goes up at a fairly constant speed until it stops. It slows down when it
reaches the top. It stops and then starts going back down again. It speeds up.
Acceleration: It slows down as it is going up because of gravity. It accelerates as it is
going up
S3: Speed. It goes up and comes down. It slows down on the way up and speeds up
on the way down. Acceleration. Is it the same thing as speed? I dont know the
difference. It de-accelerates on the way up and accelerates on the way down.
A few perceived that when something changes from accelerating to de-accelerating, the
direction of motion had changed.
S7: It accelerates when it leaves your hand and reaches the top. It accelerates when it
reaches its fastest speed and then it de-accelerates. At the top, it stops and de-
accelerates on the way back down. Acceleration is moving forwards, the rate you are
going forwards. De-acceleration is going backwards. It depends which way you are
looking at it. If you look at it that way, it is accelerating and de-accelerating this way.
In a car, it accelerates when you put you foot down. It de-accelerates when you put
your foot on the brake or took your foot off the accelerator. As it goes up, it is
travelling at a constant speed. It reaches zero at the top when it decide to come down.
It starts to come down when gravity decides to act on it and causes it to come down.
There is gravity the whole time but it hasnt acted against it yet.
Most students understood the difference between speed and acceleration. However,
some thought that acceleration was directional, so that when the direction changed, then
the opposite would occur. In addition, most students understood the difference between
speed and velocity. They were asked if it was possible to drive at constant velocity along a
local highway and to explain their answer. When they were asked to explain when it was
possible, it was clear that they understood that a change in speed or direction affects
velocity and so something travelling around a bend is not possible with constant velocity
but is with constant speed and that changing the speed also impacts on constant speed or
Students were asked whether their experience with this approach impacted on their
understanding, ability to explain and their perception of the class. The majority of students
reported that compared to traditional classes:
The classes were more interesting and engaging. They felt that they were more
involved in the class. They felt that being involved in discussions, drawing on the board
and explaining and clarify reasons improved their learning;
The teacher used less talk and bookwork but facilitated learning by requiring them to
think through possible explanations;
The need to re-represent their understanding through activities, diagrams or showing
the class by drawing on the board assisted their understanding of the concept.

S9: Quite often I didnt understand until I was given the opportunity to present my
view on the board for all the class to see or I saw someone else present their
understanding to the class using a diagram or activity;

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 185

They felt that their ability to explain was improved through the necessity to reason and
explain their viewpoint. They felt that the teacher requires them to work out possible
solutions rather than being told the answer had resulted in improved understanding;
There was a need for the students to tell the teacher and others what they thought and
why they thought their view was a reasonable explanation because this often helped
clarify their understanding and a number stated they did not understand what was being
discussed until this occurred;

S11: Not having the teacher just tell you an answer could be a bit frustrating but it
caused you to think more deeply and often to think overnight what were possible
explanations so that the discussion could continue and clarification sought in the next
This approach allowed them to examine real life examples which deepened their
understanding of the concepts; and
That group and classroom discussions were a key feature in developing, clarifying and
evaluating understanding of concepts.
These findings suggest that student learning in this unit was supported by the following
pedagogical principles. The teacher needs to set up a guided inquiry entailing a sequence of
representational challenges for students relevant to understanding and applying key con-
cepts and processes in the topic. In this learning sequence, students need repeated
opportunities to construct, critique, justify and refine their representational claims through
discussion and various kinds of re-representational activity.
This research was also guided by pedagogical principles identified in our past studies
(Prain et al. 2009) and further assisted in refining and developing these principles. Drawing
on the theoretical literature discussed briefly earlier in this paper, and analysis of own
classroom-based research over a number of years, and the findings of other relevant research,
Prain et al. (2009) proposed the following emerging pedagogical principles as important in
supporting learning in science using this approach. The principles were developed prag-
matically, involving a conversation between the research literature, the unfolding experience
of the researchers in working with teachers and gathering multi-perspectival information on
teacher and student learning experiences, a series of workshops in which teachers and
researchers reflected on and discussed their observations and experiences, and analysis of a
comprehensive data set including the video record of classroom interactions, student arte-
facts, teacher and student interviews, and student pre- and post-tests.
The principles are:
1. A clear conceptual focus: Teachers need to clearly identify big ideas, key concepts and
their representations, at the planning stage of a topic in order to guide refinement of
representational work.
2. Explicit discussion of representations: There needs to be an explicit teacher focus on
representational function and form, with timely clarification of parts and their
purposes. For example: what is a graph and why do we use them in science?
3. Representational generation and negotiation as the focus of teaching and learning
a. Active exploration through representations: Students need to be active and
exploratory in generating, manipulating and refining representations.
b. Perceptual context: Activity sequences need to have a strong perceptual context
(i.e. hands on, experiential) and allow constant two-way mapping between objects
and representations.

186 B. Waldrip et al.

c. Multi-modal representation: Students need to be supported to extend and

demonstrate learning through developing explanations that involve coordinating
and re-representing multiple modes.
d. Representational challenge: There needs to be a sequence of representational
challenges which elicit student ideas, guide them to explore and explain
representations, to extend to a range of situations, and allow opportunities to
generate representations and integrate these meaningfully.
e. The partial nature of any representation: Students need to understand that a single
representation cannot cover all purposes, but needs to have a selective focus.
Students need to understand the limitations of any one representation for covering
all aspects of a topic.
f. Negotiation of representations: There needs to be interplay between teacher-
introduced and student-constructed representations where students are challenged
and supported to refine and extend and coordinate their understandings.
g. The adequacy of representations: There needs to be ongoing assessment (by
teachers and students) of student representations. The adequacy of a represen-
tation depends on the particular purpose or purposes.
4. Meaningful learning: Activity sequences need to focus on engaging students in
learning that is personally meaningful and challenging, through attending to students
interests, values and aesthetic preferences, and personal histories.
5. Assessment through representations: Formative and summative assessment needs to
allow opportunities for students to generate and interpret representations.
The research that informed these principles involved years 310 school students and
covered topics that reflected a diverse but challenging scope of science concepts such as
astronomy, genetics, ecosystems, energy, motion, particle theory, chemical solutions and
compounds, light, and earth movements. Initially, we felt that certain topics would be more
opportunistic for a representational approach. Our experience is that as we explore other
areas that students have difficulty in understanding, the representational approach appears
to be applicable. Further research will determine if there are topics that are not well suited
to this kind of representational approach.


In these cases, the students were asked to represent a claim, provide evidence for it, and
then after further representational manipulation, refinement, discussion and critical
thought, to reflect on and confirm or modify their original case in line with the TIMSS
framework for characterizing reasoning processes in science in junior secondary school
(Mullis et al. 2011) students at this level are expected to solve multi-step science problems
in unfamiliar, complex contexts and are expected to integrate and synthesize under-
standings, evaluate claims, and justify explanations through constructing a case to support
the reasonableness of their proposed accounts of topics. We suggest that this guided
student representational work and accompanying claims and conjecture provide critical
learning opportunities for students conceptual learning as well as their understanding of
the key role of representational adequacy in claim-making in science. This lesson sequence
also provided multiple opportunities for the teacher to address student misconceptions. By
using these representations as contestable artefacts needing justification and elaboration,
students are practicing habits of mind and reasoning skills central to scientific literacy.

Explaining Newtons laws of motion 187

In this context, analogous to Mullis et al. (2011) views of reasoning processes, students
were invited to be assessors of their own learning (mediators), and also to function as a
audience and sounding board for other students, thereby co-operatively fostering scientific
reasoning and literacy development aligned to scientific practice on a micro learning-
community scale. Importantly, the teacher facilitates this guided inquiry through critical
feedback on the adequacy of student-generated claims evident in their representations. As
noted by Ford and Forman (2006), unless school students learn to construct and interpret
accounts of their observations and reasoning, and become active in the learning process,
then their learning can become constrained and superficial. This paper does not pretend to
address all the problems in teaching speed and acceleration, but uses secondary students
own language and representations as a crucial resource and enabler for guided productive
reasoning about the topic.


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