A learner’s tactic: How secondary students’ anthropomorphic language may support learning of abstract Science concepts

Main Article Content

Kirk Dorion


For much of the past century, the predominant view within Science Education has been that students’ anthropomorphic explanations hinder their learning of science concepts. This view has been supported in part by evidence of the tendency for young students to use anthropomorphisms, and a perception that this tendency declines with age. This article draws upon recent research with adults and young students to suggest that it is not age but the degree of one’s knowledge that indicates the tendency to use teleological anthropomorphisms, and that these analogies may be a first response of the learning mind when confronted by a lack of understanding, or inability to recall previous knowledge about a problem. This article then reports on evidence from a multiple case investigation into anthropomorphic utterances made by 11-15 year old students in Chemistry, which took place in eight classes in seven schools in the UK. The data comes from a wider study of an innovative pedagogy to teach particle theory. Anthropomorphic utterances were explored via ethnographic analysis of seventy-two interviews taken at pre, post, and delayed stages. Findings suggested that interviewees used anthropomorphisms across a range of tactics, including self-reflexive, metacognitive approaches by which some students would ‘talk around’ unknown concept features. The study supported a hypothesis of Taber and Watts (1996) that anthropomorphisms reduce as understanding of a Science topic improves, and suggested a potential for the assessment and teaching of anthropomorphic analogies in secondary Science.

Article Details

Research / Empirical
Author Biography

Kirk Dorion, University of Cambridge

Third year phd student

Faculty of Education