How you think about knowledge influences how you teach and learn

Why epistemology matters for pedagogy

Peter Ellerton Jun 15, 2020

There are many undercurrents in the classroom, related to student and teacher assumptions, experiences, or expectations. But there is one particularly strong influence that can dramatically affect the dynamics of the classroom and how students are set up to be lifelong learners — or not.

It has to do with the way that students — and importantly teachers — understand the nature of knowledge. Understanding what we mean by knowledge and how we process knowledge claims is the subject of a field of philosophy known as epistemology.

Epistemology is quite a complex area, but let me present a simplified version of how we understand knowledge and knowledge claims. On the one hand we might see knowledge as fixed, eternal, and as existing separate from the knower. Let me call this an absolutist epistemology.

In an absolutist epistemology, inquiry is all about accepting that the truth is out there and that it is our job to discover it. That sounds pretty straightforward, and perhaps you think that's how modern inquiry systems work. But, as we know, life is often more complex than it seems.

Another way of understanding knowledge and knowledge claims is to think of knowledge as tentative, evolving and intimately connected with the knower. I'll call this an evaluative epistemology because the main focus in such a system is not so much on acknowledging something as true as it is on justifying why we ought to believe it. In other words, how to evaluate the credibility of knowledge claims.

This might all sound a bit technical, but it has some significant implications for how we teach and learn.

If we have an absolutist epistemology, then it follows that knowledge is best passively received. After all if the truth has been found, surely the most important thing is to make people aware of it. In such a model the teacher is seen as a knowledge broker, transferring knowledge from places where it is in excess to where it is in deficit, i.e. from experts and teachers to students.

Thinking about knowledge like this also leads to a compliance model of education, in which students can achieve knowledge by carrying out the prescribed steps set out by the teacher.

If we have an evaluative epistemology, however, then we understand that knowledge is not so much passively received as it is constructed by the student. It is continually tested and evaluated to see if it is worthy of acceptance. This is not to deny the existence of some kind of reality, but rather to appreciate that our interaction with that reality is something that we have to interpret carefully and rigorously.

In such a model the teacher is not so much a knowledge broker as a co-creator of knowledge with the student, leading to a far more collaborative approach to learning in the classroom.

Ultimately the classroom has either an environment in which the transfer of knowledge is the priority, or an environment in which inquiry is valued because we understanding that inquiry itself is the means of production of knowledge.

But if we focus solely on the transfer of knowledge, then we cut off students from the means of production of knowledge, which seems to be and extremely odd outcome for an educational institution.

Teaching for Thinking is best achieved using an evaluativist epistemology, in which justifications of knowledge claims takes precedence over simply accepting claims from authority. Critically, this must be the case on the part of students and teachers.

As a colleague once said to me, you can't have a thinking classroom without a thinking staffroom.