Some assembly required: How scientific explanations are constructed during clinical interviews

Bruce L. Sherin*, Moshe Krakowski, Victor R. Lee

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


This article is concerned with commonsense science knowledge, the informally gained knowledge of the natural world that students possess prior to formal instruction in a scientific discipline. Although commonsense science has been the focus of substantial study for more than two decades, there are still profound disagreements about its nature and origin, and its role in science learning. What is the reason that it has been so difficult to reach consensus? We believe that the problems run deep; there are difficulties both with how the field has framed questions and the way that it has gone about seeking answers. In order to make progress, we believe it will be helpful to focus on one type of research instrument-the clinical interview-that is employed in the study of commonsense science. More specifically, we argue that we should seek to understand and model, on a moment-by-moment basis, student reasoning as it occurs in the interviews employed to study commonsense science. To illustrate and support this claim, we draw on a corpus of interviews with middle school students in which the students were asked questions pertaining to the seasons and climate phenomena. Our analysis of this corpus is based on what we call the mode-node framework. In this framework, student reasoning is seen as drawing on a set of knowledge elements we call nodes, and this set produces temporary explanatory structures we call dynamic mental constructs. Furthermore, the analysis of our corpus seeks to highlight certain patterns of student reasoning that occur during interviews, patterns in what we call conceptual dynamics. These include patterns in which students can be seen to search through available knowledge (nodes), in which they assemble nodes into an explanation, and in which they converge on and shift among alternative explanations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)166-198
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of Research in Science Teaching
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • clinical interviews
  • conceptual change
  • misconceptions
  • science learning
  • seasons

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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