Dr. Richard E. Shope III, Director

World Space Foundation, Education Division




            The term “academically diverse learner” (Tomlinson, 2001) refers to the recognition that each student has a unique combination of interest affinities, performance capabilities, socioeconomic, sociocultural, and language influences, and physical and socioemotional conditions of well being. As learners enter the science classroom, they bring a wide range of diverse contexts of meaning with them as they encounter a science phenomenon. This therefore requires a variety of diagnostic strategies that lead to a selection of appropriately adaptive and differentiated teaching strategies (Tomlinson, 1999). To gain such insight, teachers must diagnose not only the content of the students’ personal conceptions but also the thinking processes that produced them (Strike and Posner, 1992). That is, the teacher must look empathetically through the eyes of the student. To accomplish this requires a high degree of self-awareness as well as a willingness to examine one’s own hidden assumptions and dysconscious blind spots. To look through the eyes of a student to perceive diverse contexts of meaning is a qualitatively different process than scoring a test to determine content knowledge. We propose a framework to guide the science teacher to explore how to discover and leverage the conceptual capital of academically diverse learners.



One implication of constructivist philosophy is that, as learners, we create knowledge in the perturbations of our encounters with the real world, as we draw from the available resources of our already-existing knowledge, conceptions, notions, skills, experiences, creativity, and reasoning patterns. Strike and Posner (1982, 1992) introduced and then later developed the notion of a “conceptual ecology,” an overarching rationale for the organization and evaluation of concepts, connected to theories of learning, knowledge, and beliefs about science. An individual’s conceptual ecology consists of the rich substrate of cognitive artifacts, features such as anomalies, analogies, metaphors, epistemological beliefs, metaphysical beliefs, knowledge from other areas of inquiry, and knowledge of competing conceptions. The adaptive learning value of this ecosystem can be referred to as a learner’s conceptual capital. Learners advance from where they actually are, as they construct knowledge from the ever-changing resources of conceptual capital that are available, accessible, and relevant to the task at hand.

            Awareness of a student’s conceptual ecology is achieved through diagnosis of the student’s personal science conceptions. Diagnosis consists of strategies that yield information that the teacher can use to decide how best to guide a student toward advanced scientific understanding. To gain such insight, teachers must diagnose not only the content of the student’s personal conceptions but also the thinking processes that produced them (Strike and Posner, 1992). That is, the teacher must look empathetically through the eyes of the student into the diverse contexts of meaning that shape the student’s conceptualization process regarding a science phenomenon. For example, a unit about ice and snow taught in Southern California among students who may have never experienced wintry conditions must be approached differently than among students in Northern Minnesota, for whom snow and ice is familiar. In either case, the diagnostic challenge is to evoke expression of students’ personal conceptions that indicate the conceptual capital they have to work with. This allows a differentiation of instructional strategies that take advantage of students’ current understanding and to move toward more advanced conceptual understanding.

            By creating a rich substrate of resources within the learning environment, teachers can leverage the conceptual capital of each academically diverse learner, and cause that conceptual ecology to increase in value. Building an inclusive approach to diagnose and conceptualize the personal science conceptions of academically diverse learners requires awareness of students’ conceptual capital, that is, their academic strengths and learning potentials. The aim in each case, is to move away from viewing the student through a lens of a static deficit model, accentuating what the student may be lacking, toward a conceptual capital model that emphasizes how to capitalize on existing and to develop new academic strengths as the teacher creates adaptive opportunities for each learner through differentiated and rigorous academic activity. Our concern as advocates for the academically diverse students is that rigor and differentiation are often in short supply and that there is a tacit dysconscious agreement not to rock the boat to overcome the historically difficult obstacles to enhance opportunity for advancing scientific understanding.

            Here we enter a veritable minefield of hidden assumptions. To perceive the science phenomenon “through the eyes of the student” the teacher enters an arena of making judgments based on the ability to empathize with the students. To accomplish this requires a high degree of self-awareness, especially with a willingness to examine one’s own hidden assumptions and dysconscious blind spots. To look through the eyes of a student is a qualitatively different process than scoring a test.

            The term dysconscious refers to actions characterized by an existent, yet unexamined and plausibly deniable, underlying assumption that leads to the same consequences as if it were deliberately expressed. King (1991) describes dysconsciousness as an uncritical habit of mind (including perceptions, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs) that justifies inequity and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things as given. Dysconscious expression, through words or actions, results in an effect as if the underlying attitude were deliberate, claimed, and conscious in intent. For example, an offhand dysconscious remark by a teacher that the students in the classroom are “low performers” within the earshot of the students, may have the unintended, yet just as hurtful effect of putting students down, even if the teacher can, with clear conscience, declare no harmful intent. Dysconscious behavior among teachers is most problematic when a student’s capabilities are underestimated by results of high-stakes standardized tests or by the effects of dysconscious assumptions that cause a teacher to overlook evidence of a student’s learning potential.

            To counter these tendencies and to enhance the capacity to “look through the eyes of the learner,” we propose a practical framework to guide diagnosing and conceptualizing the notion of the conceptual capital available to academically diverse learners, drawing from both research and practitioner experience. We propose to use the term academically diverse learner to refer to dimensions of dynamic conceptual capital expressed as interrelated value-categories, aspects of a person that are constantly changing and growing, especially as opportunities arise as viewed from the perspectives of the learner and the adults around the learner, especially the educator and the familial caregivers. These value-categories, as viewed from these perspectives, are offered as a starting point toward developing a rigorous and dynamic conceptual capital model that can ultimately be articulated and tested through research and advocacy. We suspect that this model will energize and unify efforts to advocate for serving the science learning needs of academically diverse students.

Figure 1. Diverse Contexts of Meaning











Figure 2. Diagnostic Worksheet for Preservice or Professional Development

Participants 1) self-diagnose, 2) write brief descriptions about themselves for each value category, and 3) share with a small group of colleague. This results in gaining empathetic insight into the conceptual capital that exists among peers and how to lead activity for others.




















Figure 2. Transforming the Language of Recognizing Learning Potential

Diagnosing and Conceptualizing Academic Diversity: Worksheet for Discussion

Guiding Questions: How can we better estimate the learning potential of the academically diverse learner? What academic strengths and learning potentials does the student have to work with?

Task: Consider how to transform deficit model discourse toward conceptual capital model discourse by using examples that emerged from previous discussion.

Static Deficit Model Discourse

Conceptual Capital Model Discourse




































King, Joyce E. (1991). Dysconcious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers. Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 133+.


Strike. K. A. & Posner, G.J. (1982). Conceptual change and science teaching. European         Journal of Science Education, 4, 3, 231-240.

Strike. K. A. & Posner, G.J. (1992). A revisionist theory of conceptual change. In        Duschl, R. A. & Hamilton, R. J. (Eds.) (1992). Philosophy of science, cognitive psychology, and educational theory and practice. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Tomlinson, C.A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all                                 learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum                             Development.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2001). Presentation at the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, Barcelona.