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The Anatomy of Disciplinary Discernment: An argument for a spiral trajectory of learning in physics education
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. Kristianstad University. (Physics Education research, Fysikens didaktik)ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6638-1246
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education research, Fysikens didaktik)
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education research, Fysikens didaktik)
Kristianstad University. (LISMA)
2014 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Traditionally, physics has been viewed as a difficult subject to master. The movement from everyday conceptions of the world around us to a disciplinary interpretation is fraught with problems. What characterises this disciplinary development from learner to expert? In this presentation we report on a study involving what students and professors discern from a disciplinary representation and use this to propose an Anatomy of Disciplinary Discernment (ADD) as an overarching characterization of disciplinary learning. To do this we bring together three important educational ideas – first, Bruner’s (1960) notion of the spiral curriculum. Second, Fredlund, Airey, and Linder’s (2012) notion of disciplinary affordances -- the ‘inherent potential of a representation to provide access to disciplinary knowledge’. Thirdly Eriksson, Linder, Airey, and Redfors’ (2013) notion of disciplinary discernment -- noticing something (eg. Mason, 2002), reflecting on it (Schön, 1983), and constructing (disciplinary) meaning (Marton & Booth, 1997).


Students in astronomy and their teaching professors were asked to describe what they discerned from a simulation video of travel through our galaxy and beyond. In all, 137 people from nine countries participated. The descriptions were analysed using a standard interpretive study approach (Erickson, 1986; Gallagher, 1991). This resulted in the formulation of five qualitatively different categories of discernment.


We found that these categories of disciplinary discernment could be arranged into an anatomy of hierarchically increasing levels of disciplinary discernment and subsequently the idea of ADD with a unit of analysis being the discernment of disciplinary affordance. The ADD modelling for the data incorporated four increasing levels disciplinary discernment: Identification, Explanation, Appreciation, and Evaluation. The visualization of the analysis demonstrates a clear relationship between educational level and the level of disciplinary discernment. Hence, the ADD can be seen to be related to Bruner’s concept of the spiral curriculum idea and through this relationship projects a learning trajectory that students experience while moving through the educational system.


The analytic outcomes of the study suggest how teachers may gain insight into how to create more effective learning environments for students to successfully negotiate a required learning trajectory by explicitly crafting the teaching to support the crossing of boundaries.




Bruner, J. S. (1960). The process of education: Harvard University Press.

Erickson, F. (1986). Qualitative methods in research on teaching. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3 ed., pp. 119-161). New York: Macmillan.

Eriksson, U., Linder, C., Airey, J., & Redfors, A. (2013). Who needs 3D when the Universe is flat? Accepted by Science Education.

Fredlund, T., Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2012). Exploring the role of physics representations: an illustrative example from students sharing knowledge about refraction. European Journal of Physics, 33(3), 657.

Gallagher, J. J. (1991). Interpretive research in science education, Vol. 4. Manhattan, KS: National Association for Research in Science Teaching.

Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mason, J. (2002). Researching your own practice : the discipline of noticing. London: Routledge Farmer.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.




Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Lund, Sweden, 2014.
National Category
Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology Didactics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-234626OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-234626DiVA: diva2:757326
The First Conference of the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS)
Available from: 2014-10-21 Created: 2014-10-21 Last updated: 2016-04-15

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