Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My new E-Word: Trying to make sense of it

I recently learned about a word that I never really considered before. I had heard it in passing, but never took the time to explore it. It's very long and funny sounding, so I just glossed over it. The word is Epistemology. What is it? What does it mean? Why should I care? And how does it affect my practice?

Please, note that this is new to me and I may be way off base with some of this. Please, discuss any errors in the comments below - of course, I could only be wrong if knowledge is external to the learner!

What is it?
To me, epistemology is basically a worldview. Maybe more specific than a worldview. It is basically how one views the construction of knowledge in the world. 

What does it mean?
There are three main epistemologies: they are objectivism, pragmatism and idealism. Again these are all words that I knew, but never really took the time to explore, especially pragmatic and idealist. 

Essentially an person with an objectivist espistemology believes that knowledge is real and exists in reality. As a learner we learn by experiencing and understanding the content that is out there. I compare this to objective questions on an exam; there is a correct answer out there that can be achieved.

I will jump to the other end of the spectrum to idealists. Idealism could also be called subjectivism. The idea behind idealism is that the learner constructs knowledge. The way I picture this is that there is "stuff" in the universe and an idealist would say that each person interprets and makes sense of this stuff differently. I relate this to scientific models; for example, in science we make theories to try to explain things that we can't see or experience. An idealist would say that every person does this with everything they experience; the learner has an experience and makes their own meaning or model to understand it, but the crazy part is that there isn't a correct model - everyone's model is their own reality. 

Pragmatism falls in the middle of idealism and objectivism. Pragmatism states that there is an external reality out there, but we can't experience it directly. We still interpret things in order to make meaning, but there is meaning out there and it is subject to change.

Why should I care?
Good question! As an educator, it is important to care about this because it really shapes our teaching. If we are hardcore objectivists, then that will show in our teaching. I think the roots of instructional theories were all based on an objectivist epistemology. Eg. "There is knowledge that we as teachers know and we need to fill your heads with it." If, on the other hand, the teacher is an idealist, then that would have major implications on the instruction and evaluation. How do you evaluate if you believe that all knowledge is created and relative to the learner? These have huge implications to our practice!

How does it affect my practice?
Those of you who have been reading this blog, know that I have been focusing on blended learning and more specifically flipped teaching. Where does flipped teaching fit into an epistemology? I would have to say that at its very nature, flipped teaching comes from an objectivist epistemology. If I don't believe that there is specific knowledge out there that I can transmit, then I am wasting my time making a video. 

That notion makes me uncomfortable because I don't like the implications connected to being  totally objective. Can flipped teaching be used in another way? I tend to feel that no, it can't. Flipped teaching is objectivist, BUT - I am so glad there's a but - flipped teaching can help open the doors to deeper learning as explored in my post Flip This! The big picture. It is when the students have time to explore big problems and issues that they will be able to "interpret" the external reality and move more towards pragmatism. 

Here's a big question that I will leave with you: 
How do our students' personal epistemologies affect teaching and learning in our classrooms? 


  1. Sadly, I'm guessing your excellent final question is seldom even considered by teachers. We think about our own epistemologies (even if we don't know the word) and I agree it influences how we approach all kinds of things. But we seldom if ever turn the coin over and think about how our students believe learning happens for them. Because of the content of this class and our approach I get to think about it all the time, as I listen to all of you unpack your growing awareness about your own learning. But I'm just in a lucky position -- not more astute than anyone else.

  2. I think that students' different epistemologies probably push them into different areas of study. Eg. Many of the sciences, especially at an introductory level are all taught with from an objectivist epistemology. This would push away students that view knowledge as something that they construct themselves. This is definitely something that needs to be considered more because those students might be just as brilliant scientists as the ones who stick it out.