Sunday, 13 February 2011

Conception and Perception

This blog has its origins in being challenged by one of my ex-PhD supervisors on the way that I was using the terms 'perception' and 'conception'. What do these terms mean and how do they apply to learning. A third term is 'mental models'. What do we mean by 'mental models' and is there any relationship between 'conception', 'perception', and 'mental models'. I don't solve all the problems and some of my thoughts still ramble a bit but I hope that the key idea that learning is about conceptual change and that the perception of a task influences the learner's ability to achieve the task.


From the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

  • conception: "an idea of what something or someone like, or a basic understanding of a situation or a principle"
  • concept: "principle or idea"
  • perception: "a belief or opinion, often held by many people and based on how things seem"

From the Compact Oxford Dictionary:

  • conception: "the devising of a plan or idea"
  • perception: "a way of understanding or interpreting something"

    • "the way in which something is regraded, understood, on interpreted"
    • "intuitive understanding and insight"
  • concept: (Philosophy) "An idea or mental image which corresponds to some distant entity or class of entities, or to its essential features, or determines the application of a term (especially a predicate), and thus plays a part in the use of reason or language"
  • conceptual: "relating to or based on mental concepts"

From the Free Dictionary:

  • conception: "The ability to form or understand mental concepts or abstractions"

    • "Something conceived in the mind; a concept, plan, design, idea, or thought"
  • perception: "The effect or product of perceiving"

    • "Insight, intuition, or knowledge gained by perceiving"

Which comes first perception or conception?

Tad Waddington (2008) claims that it has been "shown that people often don't see a thing unless they have some idea of what they are looking for." He says "People do not perceive primarily with their senses, but with their minds." The implication is that "conception leads perception."

Taking this perspective, I seem to be correct in arguing that the way a learner perceives a task is influenced by their conception of the concepts represented in the task. Consequently focusing on fostering an appropriate conceptual understanding of the concepts that form the task would appear to help learning.

Goldstone and Barsalou (1998) argue for similarity in conceptual and perceptual processing. They state that "many concepts are partially organised around perceptual similarities" (p 232). They argue "that perceptual processes guide the construction of abstract concepts" (p 232).

They go on to state: "First, perception provides a wealth of information to guide conceptualization. Second, perceptual processes themselves can change as a result of concept development and use" (p 232).

The core argument of Goldstone and Barsalou is that perception influences the formation of conceptions, and that conceptions influence perceptions. Perceptions are described as "implicit information" (p 237) and that conceptions are based on the formation of abstractions (pp 237, 243). In this sense concepts are seen as abstract thoughts.

Learning and concepts

Ramsden (2003) says that "learning is best conceptualised as a change in the way in which people understand the world around them, rather than as a qualitative accretion of facts and procedures" (p 79). He argues that the student's approaches to learning "are intimately connected to students' perceptions of the context of learning" (p 81). These include perceptions "of assessment requirements, of workload, of the effectiveness of teaching and commitment of teachers, and of the amount of control students might exert over their own learning" (p 81). He argues that student perceptions "are the product of an interaction between these environments and their previous experiences, including their usual ways of thinking about academic learning" (p 81).

Looking at the definitions, I would argue that the learner's conceptions of the topic, words used to describe the task, comprise their "usual ways of thinking." The conception is "a basic understanding of a situation or a principle" (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary). The learner's conceptions are part of what they bring to the learning situation. It influences the way that they perceive the task, the perception that they form of the task.

On this basis, I argue that if we can influence the student's conceptions of key subject matter concepts then we will influence their perception of the task. In the case of my thesis, I am arguing that the learner's conception of a program (the way they understand or think about its nature) influences the learner's perception of the task "learning to program." What we are endeavouring to do is influence the way that the learner understands the world around them.

Likewise Bowden and Marton (2003) have argued that "the most important form of learning" involves a change in the way that the learner sees something in the world (that is conceptual change). Why is this important? Conceptual change influences the way a person perceives things and consequentially their response to those things.

My reflection is that I seek to change conceptual understanding that is the way concepts are understood possibly through adding new concepts. I do this on order that they might perceive a situation differently and as a consequence have a different perceptual understanding (perception). Conception in this context is the way the concept is understood.

Perception is the way that they regard or understand a situation or task. What I am trying to do is use perception in relationship to new encounters or situations and conceptions for existing experiences and understandings.

I would contend that in order to foster conceptual change, we need to present variations that will challenge the learner's current conceptual thinking I would contend that I am trying to influence the way a learner perceives the concepts. In the case of programming, I am targeting the nature of a program but I will also target conceptual understanding of the software development process.

Mental Models

Minsky (1986) describes a mental model in terms of "a model to be anything that helps a person answer questions" (p 303). This is something that exists inside the brain or more generally a model that help us explain or understand the world around us. Minsky uses the terminology "model of the world" and talks of "our models of our models of the world" (p 304). Minsky's terminology makes it clear that he sees individuals as having different mental models.

Technically the categories from a phenomenographic study are not any individual's mental model but they do include characteristics of features of how people express their understanding of the world or at least the phenomenon being studied. I, therefore, don't have a problem with saying that the outcome of a phenomenographic study may challenge models of the phenomenon.


Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer.

Bowden, J. A., & Marton, F. (2003). University of learning. London: Routledge Falmer.

Minsky, M. L. (1986). The society of mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Waddington, T. (2008, 23 November). Conception Leads Perception: On enhancing your powers or perception. Retrieved from

Goldstone, R. L., & Barsalou, L. W. (1998). Reuniting perception and conception. Cognition, 65(2-3), 231-262.

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