Developing and Evaluating an Instructional Unit on Kinetic Theory of Matter using a Complex Systems Instructional Approach

Project Number
AFD 04/15 GSE

Project Duration
January 2016 - December 2017


Kinetic theory of matter or KTM is one of the fundamental scientific concepts; the theory undergirds the understanding of how atoms and molecules behave individually and how they interact with one another. In Singapore, students are first introduced to this scientific idea in the topic of Particulate Nature of Matter in lower secondary levels (MOE, 2013). Matter is described as a composition of discrete units called atoms and molecules, and these particles are posited in a state of constant motion. The model also describes the particulate arrangement of matter and is used to explain the properties of matter, such as melting point and diffusion. KTM is also used to explain other emergent properties and phenomena at higher grade levels (SEAB, 2015). While fundamental across the three sciences, the concepts are usually misconceived. Our observations as classroom teachers who are deeply involved in the teaching of this topic as well as the findings from the literature made us realise that Singapore students and students around the world possess common misconceptions about KTM. For instance, students generally have the misconception that a single particle will move randomly even in the absence of any collision (Kind, 2004; Westbrook & Marek, 1991). They also view diffusion as an intentional movement (Fisher, Williams & Lineback, 2011; Taber & García-Franco, 2010). These misconceptions, researchers have suggested, may be due to students’ limited awareness of the complexity in the phenomena (Slotta & Chi, 2006). Our practitioner experiences in teaching students this topic reinforce what the literature says – these are indeed difficult concepts for them to grasp. In this development project, we hope to construct and evaluate an instructional unit based on a complex systems approach to understanding KTM and related concepts. This instructional unit is targeted at Secondary 3 science students, and aims to integrate related concepts across the sciences. We are motivated by Levy and Wilensky’s (2009) "Connected Chemistry" framework in addressing these misconceptions – understanding the macroscopic patterns by examining the submicroscopic behaviours and interactions with learning support from physical simulations, models and experiments to make the submicroscopic behaviours and interactions visible. We are also inspired by our past experience in an action research intervention which modified "Connected Chemistry" for the ‘O’ level school science context (Goh, Wong et al., 2013). We call ours – complex systems instructional approach. We will build upon our earlier chemistry version and integrate learning outcomes of KTM across the three sciences. We will evaluate its effectiveness using a rigorous design with mixed methods. We hope to design a research-informed, empirically-validated instructional unit that not only deepens the teaching and learning of KTM but also enhances students’ understanding of complexity in systems. This unit will meet the curricular needs of the science syllabuses and address the contextual constraints in our classrooms. We hope teachers will find this instructional unit useful and relevant. Our eventual aim is to scale up this development project by introducing this unit to science teachers in other schools and applying the complex systems instructional approach to other systems-related topics.

Funding Source

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