Learning Physics through Transduction : A Social Semiotic Approach

Abstract: This doctoral thesis details the introduction of the theoretical distinction between transformation and transduction to Physics Education Research. Transformation refers to the movement of meaning between semiotic resources within the same semiotic system (e.g. between one graph and another), whilst the term transduction refers to the movement of meaning between different semiotic systems (e.g. diagram to graph). A starting point for the thesis was that transductions are potentially more powerful in learning situations than transformations, and because of this transduction became the focus of this thesis. The thesis adopts a social semiotic approach. In its most basic form, social semiotics is the study of how different social groups create and maintain their own specialized forms of meaning making. In physics education then, social semiotics is interested in the range of different representations used in physics, their disciplinary meaning, and how these meanings may be learned. Students need to gain representational competence in interpreting and using the different representations they meet in their physics education and this thesis examines how this might be achieved. Empirically, the thesis investigated interactive engagement through the use of probeware. Such approaches have been shown to promote learning, although the reasons why this occurs are less well understood. The above matters are given consideration in three case studies that investigate the collaborative learning of introductory physics students’ when using a particular probeware tool, the Interactive Online Laboratory System or iOLab. The thesis presents two central findings. First, probeware tools are found to be particularly effective in teaching and learning of disciplinary content when they combine high pedagogical affordance with high disciplinary affordance with respect to the intended learning goals. Second, transduction is shown to be central to teaching and learning physics in the case study setting of student laboratory work. This is because the movement between semiotic systems helps create the variation necessary for students to notice disciplinary relevant aspects. Moreover, the results suggest that physics lecturers should pay particular attention to students’ personal transductions as these provide insights into what, and how learning is taking place. The thesis suggests that introductory level physics students will initially view coordinate systems as fixed in a standard up-down orientation. The analysis demonstrates how students can come to appreciate the movability of coordinate systems without the need for mathematical calculations. It also suggests that part of the reason that interactive engagement is effective is because it requires communication about physics conceptualisations with peers. Finally, the thesis proposes a refined definition of representational competence and suggests how such representational competence can be effectively developed. The implications of the research findings for the teaching and learning of physics are discussed and suggestions for future work are presented.