Epistemology Matters

Consider my friend and former colleague Mrs. D. Until recently, she was a first and second grade students teaching for decades. She knows the students that arrive in her classroom are diverse; some are readers and writers, some some are still trying to learn the alphabet. Mrs. D. is always looking for the next thing in literacy education. She attends summer workshops, conferences, and she pays attention to the emerging literature; and she nags her principal so he will buy her the latest resources which she uses. When I asked Mrs D. About her epistemology, her response was “my what?… I don’t know… I just try to find whatever works for each kid… If they don’t learn to read before they leave my class, they are in trouble.”

In Mrs. D’s response, she claims no epistemology; she does not care to articulate a specific set of beliefs about learning, but an epistemology is clear in her response (and in her practice). She believes each learner is different. Some learners are able to pick up reading and writing skills like everyone picks up speaking and hearing. Other learners need specialized instruction; yet others need different specialized instruction. Mrs. D. believes that as she collects each new fad, she’s building a toolbox and that she can find the tools and resources to get each student to be able to read and write. Even if it is a tool that is no longer en vogue, she will use it with a student if it appears to be working for that student.

Also, she believes that reading and writing is a skill that helps students to learn and that it is a valuable cognitive skill that helps students organize and build knowledge. She believes reading and writing is essential to success in school, she believes reading and writing imposes a structure on human brains that is useful for many purposes. Her epistemology is in the background of her classroom, informing all of her decisions, and she is remarkably consistent with this over the decades.