The atom in the chemistry curriculum: Fundamental concept, teaching model or epistemological obstacle?

Foundations of Chemistry 5 (1):43-84 (2003)
Abstract
Research into learners' ideas aboutscience suggests that school and collegestudents often hold alternative conceptionsabout `the atom'. This paper discusses whylearners acquire ideas about atoms which areincompatible with the modern scientificunderstanding. It is suggested that learners'alternative ideas derive – at least in part –from the way ideas about atoms are presented inthe school and college curriculum. Inparticular, it is argued that the atomicconcept met in science education is anincoherent hybrid of historical models, andthat this explains why learners commonlyattribute to atoms properties (such as beingthe constituent particles of all substances, orof being indivisible and conserved inreactions) that more correctly belong to otherentities (such as molecules or sub-atomicparticles). Bachelard suggested that archaicscientific ideas act as `epistemologicalobstacles', and here it is argued thatanachronistic notions of the atom survive inthe chemistry curriculum. These conceptualfossils encourage learners to develop an`atomic ontology' (granting atoms `ontologicalpriority' in the molecular model of matter); tomake the `assumption of initial atomicity' whenconsidering chemical reactions; and to developan explanatory framework to rationalisechemical reactions which is based on thedesirability of full electron shells. Theseideas then act as impediments to thedevelopment of a modern chemical perspective onthe structure of matter, and an appreciation ofthe nature of chemical changes at the molecularlevel
Keywords atomic theory  chemical education  chemical ontology  epistemological obstacles  teaching models
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