Students' Conceptions of Controversial Knowledge

John G. Nicholls, J. Ron Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Elementary school students were interviewed about the questions of the existence of intelligent life in space and of whether more money should be invested in space exploration than health care on earth. Students in grades 1 through 6 recognized the lack of social consensus on these topics and made subtle distinctions between them and noncontroversial topics. For example, they said that it would be legitimate for teachers to teach the positions students themselves endorsed on noncontroversial matters. Yet, students (in upper grades more so than lower grades) rejected the idea that teachers might teach the positions the students favored on the controversial matters. The results are consistent with suggestions that elementary school students might cope well with inquiry about controversial topics and that these students should be recognized as curriculum theorists and critics of schooling. The likely importance of conceptions of knowledge in students' motivation is suggested.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)224-230
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Educational Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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