Unintended learning in primary school practical science lessons from Polanyi's perspective of intellectual passion

Jisun Park, Jinwoong Song, Ian Abrahams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study explored, from the perspective of intellectual passion developed by Michael Polanyi, the unintended learning that occurred in primary practical science lessons. We use the term ‘unintended’ learning to distinguish it from ‘intended’ learning that appears in teachers’ learning objectives. Data were collected using video and audio recordings of a sample of twenty-four whole class practical science lessons, taught by five teachers, in Korean primary schools with 10- to 12-year-old students. In addition, video and audio recordings were made for each small group of students working together in order to capture their activities and intra-group discourse. Pre-lesson interviews with the teachers were undertaken and audio-recorded to ascertain their intended learning objectives. Selected key vignettes, including unintended learning, were analysed from the perspective of intellectual passion developed by Polanyi. What we found in this study is that unintended learning could occur when students got interested in something in the first place and could maintain their interest. In addition, students could get conceptual knowledge when they tried to connect their experience to their related prior knowledge. It was also found that the processes of intended learning and of unintended learning were different. Intended learning was characterized by having been planned by the teacher who then sought to generate students’ interest in it. In contrast, unintended learning originated from students’ spontaneous interest and curiosity as a result of unplanned opportunities. Whilst teachers’ persuasive passion comes first in the process of intended learning, students’ heuristic passion comes first in the process of unintended learning. Based on these findings, we argue that teachers need to be more aware that unintended learning, on the part of individual students, can occur during their lesson and to be able to better use this opportunity so that this unintended learning can be shared by the whole class. Furthermore, we argue that teachers’ deliberate action and a more interactive classroom culture are necessary in order to allow students to develop
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-20
JournalScience & Education
Issue number1-2
Early online date13 Nov 2015
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • Unintended learning
  • Practical work
  • Primary science
  • Polanyi
  • Heuristic passion

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