The purpose of this study was to explore high school students' ideas regarding two theoretical scientific models, either electron cloud or sodium chloride crystal, in the context of active learning in small groups. Conversations among peers regarding these models took place during two types of active learning activities: small-group discussion and whole-class debate. The study was conducted in four different high school classes, each of which was in a different school for girls in Oman. The study included 108 grade 10 female students. Two of the classes discussed the electron cloud and the other two classes discussed the sodium chloride model. Qualitative data included students' written responses to prompts, class worksheets, and field notes of student ideas in class debates. In each class, the teacher used a teaching sequence during which the participants expressed their justifications for their positions in writing regarding the particular model on five different occasions, as they progressed through three interactive small group learning activities. The participants' written responses were analyzed using a coding scheme comprising of eight different categories describing the participants' type of justifications regarding the theoretical scientific models: nonsense, approval, mental, experimental, appreciative, external, structural, and modeling. The findings indicated that participants' justifications for their positions regarding theoretical scientific models tended to change over time following each group learning activity. Participants focused their discussion more on external factors, such as the teacher, textbook, religion, and media, after discussions with peers in small groups. In contrast, later their attention focused more on the submicroscopic structural orientations of the model under study during and after engaging in a debating activity. The researchers reasoned that the nature of cognitive demands during each type of active learning activity might play a role in this regard. However, further research to advance the understanding of this phenomenon is needed.
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