Epistemology is Not a “Four-Lettered” Word #1: Certainty of Knowledge

I found a draft of an essay I wrote a few years ago that still seems relevant… the essay never made it off my hard drive… until now and it is going to be a series of blog posts.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy in which we consider the nature of knowledge.

  • What is knowledge?
  • What is the human role in defining it?
  • How does it change?

These are all questions epistemologists consider. For educators, these are questions that need no attention; they are to be considered in graduate courses, perhaps the focus of a research paper, then promptly ignored as they distract form the practical work of teaching and learning. While educators may choose to ignore epistemology (and ignore it like it is a four-lettered word…one of those words that merits a trip to the office when used by a student), epistemology does have important implications for how teachers design learning experiences and how they give students feedback. Even if there are now principles of epistemology articulated in the design process, all learning activities can be interpreted as embodying epistemological assumptions.

Consider the certainty of knowledge; epistemologists differentiate approaches to teaching and learning based on the assumptions about our confidence that what we know is accurate and unchanging.

certainty of information

For some epistemologists (and teachers) knowledge is well-known and unchanging. While this may seem an untenable position in today’s landscape of rapidly changing information technology and scientific discovery, those who advocate this position will adopt a more broad view of knowledge. Those who hold that reading and writing and the ability to perform calculations are fundamental skills in which all other knowledge (and all future learning) is grounded. They may also hold certain ethical stances towards knowledge, information, and ideas are unchanging as well.

Those who hold the opposite epistemological assumptions hold that both the skills necessary for knowledge to be created and the stances towards information, artifacts, and ideas are dynamic. For me, this seems the more sophisticated stance and the one that leads to knowledge that is more responsive to the advancement of knowledge.

Example #1

Consider the example of the mascots nicknames given to sports teams; in recent years there has been an increasing trend to replace those names and images that can be interpreted as racist or otherwise offensive. Those who see knowledge as fixed are likely to oppose (or at least be ambivalent) to those changes. They will claim the historic symbolism of these images and names is knowledge that must be conserved. Those who advocate the changes will claim our society has developed deeper and more sophisticated understanding and that the oppression associated with those names and images represents new (or t least more widely-recognized) societal knowledge that should be reflected in our language and symbols.

Example #2

As the internet and web 2.0 tools (including social media) have put the ability to create, curate, and disseminate  information into the hands of any person with modest resources and skill, the range of sources has expanded. Today, we have fiction, non-fiction, opinion, fiction presented as non-fiction, and purposely prepared fabrications in the information landscape and it is difficult to perceive the differences. Those who believe knowledge is changing will suggest being literate in this new information landscape requires the ability to differentiate kinds of information and that reading instruction should change to reflect that reality. Those who hold knowledge is fixed argue that the ability to understand text is sufficient and are likely to see teaching how to differentiate information as an unnecessary intrusion into one’s beliefs.