Personal Epistemology in the Classroom: Theory, Research, and Implications for Practice
reviewed by Ben Kotzee - October 27, 2010
Title: Personal Epistemology in the Classroom: Theory, Research, and Implications for Practice
Author(s): Lisa D. Bendixen and Florian C. Feucht (eds.)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, New York
ISBN: 0521883555, Pages: 616, Year: 2010
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The study of personal epistemology, or peoples beliefs regarding knowledge, has received growing attention since initial research in the 1970s devoted to university students conceptions of knowledge. In Personal Epistemology in the Classroom, Bendixen and Feucht present the first major work devoted to personal epistemology in a school setting. Whereas earlier work has assumed that peoples beliefs regarding knowledge remains fixed and rather primitive until the first years of university, in this collection of new research, Bendixen and Feucht uncover a trajectory of development that can fairly be said to start much earlier. In a book that will appeal to educational and developmental psychologists and to psychologically-minded educators, they present studies of this development from the pre-school years through to early and secondary schooling. Staying with the school focus, the book also contains chapters devoted to the personal epistemology of teachers.
The book is organized in three main parts with an introduction and conclusion by the editors. In their introduction, Feucht and Bendixen sketch the development of personal epistemology research since Perrys pioneering work with university students (p. 4-5). The important conjecture from Perrys early work is that students views regarding what knowledge is and how one comes to know things are not fixed, but that they develop according to a predictable path: from naïve or dualistic views according to which knowledge is certain, reflects facts, and is handed down by authority to a view on which it is complex, doesnt reflect settled facts and is arrived at individually. The importance of epistemic development to the educator lies not only in that students beliefs about knowledge are interesting for their own sake (though they are), but also in that improved learning and higher academic achievement are associated with more developed student views regarding knowledge and that, in developing students personal epistemology, we may improve their learning overall (p. 368). Feucht and Bendixen also outline some of the most important points of disagreement in the field, such as what the different stages of epistemic development are and whether development always takes place stage-by-stage and whether personal epistemology is a system of independent beliefs, a more integrated theory of knowledge, or a set of organized epistemic resources (pp. 9-12).
The content chapters of the book comprise three parts, to do with frameworks and conceptual issues, with students personal epistemologies and with teachers personal epistemologies. It is impossible in a review of this sort to give insight into all the contributions, but the general reader (or the educator coming to the topic for the first time) may find the contributions in Part II to do with the basic concepts of personal epistemology most helpful. In his own contribution to the book, Feucht (Ch. 3) discusses epistemic climate as a concept and asks how the knowledge climate that reigns in a class may shape the learning that takes place there. Feucht holds that it is not just the teachers beliefs regarding knowledge that may shape how she teaches, but that students personal epistemologies may also rub off on each other and even on their teacher. Following on from this point, Rule and Bendixen (Ch. 4) discuss in their integrative model for personal epistemology development the possibility that students personal epistemologies may influence those of other students around them (p. 109); so-doing, they make clear how much of a persons epistemic development may not be intentional, but may be tacitly derived from the influence of others.
Bendixen and Rule ask what the desirable epistemic development of children should be (p. 119) and the next two chapters, by Yang and Tsai (Ch. 5) and Bromme, Kienhues and Porsch (Ch. 6) provide answers. Yang and Tsai investigate personal epistemology and its relation to scientific reasoning. They argue convincingly for the importance of scientific reasoning outside a strict science context and an interesting question is to what extent scientific reasoning can serve as a model for fully developed thinking regarding all knowledge. (I would suggest that mileage can be made by taking, as Yang and Tsai do, cues from the literature regarding scientific reasoning and critical thinking in making clear what a fully developed personal epistemology should be like). Bromme, Kienhues and Porsh (Ch. 6), again stress the importance of being able to evaluate the strength of peoples knowledge claims and to judge their suitability as informants or experts. Often, in paying attention to personal epistemology development, epistemic sophistication is taken to consist in the student being able to make up her own mind or discover a matter for herself. Bromme and his co-authors raise an important question for this bias toward self-directed discovery and make clear that there is nothing epistemically primitive or second-rate about relying on the knowledge of others. Students need not only learn to judge for themselves, but also to judge when they cannot judge for themselves; the basic model needs revision to account for this.
Of specific interest in Part III, on students personal epistemologies are Chandler and Proulxs (Ch. 7) and Wildinger, Hofer and Burrs (Ch. 8) discussions of the development of young childrens beliefs regarding belief and knowledge. The picture is not always unified. Chandler and Proulx highlight some of the confusion in the field of personal epistemology in which, on the one hand, some writers see the development of quite sophisticated epistemic beliefs as occurring during the preschool years, whereas others hold that proper development only takes place at university level. Either some in the area are confusedly calling radically different things by the same name, or someone has obviously gotten their facts badly wrong (p. 199). Chandler and Proulx hold that children may believe different things regarding knowledge depending on the domain of knowledge (p. 213). Wildinger, Hofer and Burr back up this point (p. 229) and also hold that epistemic development need not be entirely one-directional there may be a shift from more absolutist views to more relativist views and back again in very young children (p. 238-9). Both conclusions call into question the basic assumption that there is a single trajectory according to which peoples views regarding belief and knowledge inevitably develop.
Bendixen and Feucht have tried very hard to represent a diversity of perspectives in their book. At the same time, what is to be applauded is the very studious attempts they made to project a picture of the whole, from the very useful summary (in table format) of what is covered in the chapters, through to the guide regarding important things to look for in the introduction (p. 21). Another feature contributing to the unity of the book is that almost all authors of the content chapters end their chapters with separate sections on the theoretical and the educational implications of their contributions.
The clarity and detail of the book notwithstanding, some reservations do arise; these have as much to do with the very starting points of the field as with any of the specific contributions in the book. Firstly, that absolutist (or, in any event, realist) views of the nature of knowledge are in the book painted as more primitive and relativist (or constructivist) views painted as more sophisticated would strike some ears as odd. The ears would be those of epistemologists working in departments of philosophy in the English-speaking world, who, for the most part, would hold the opposite. Far from being a sophisticated epistemological position, relativism has been disparaged since Platos day and, aside from a rather short period of fashionability in the 1960s and 70s notably also the period of the earliest work on this topic in educational psychology the settled view in the subject has been that it is contradictory to hold that there is anything relative about what is true (at least about the physical world). (See, for instance, Siegel, 1987, Goldman, 1999 and Boghossian, 2006). This is not to start a disciplinary fight regarding the nature of knowledge, but simply to add to some of the voices in the book (e.g. Bromme and others and Chandler and Proulx) who seem ready to question individual construction of knowledge as the height of cognitive sophistication.
Rather than holding that philosophers are perforce right, let us take it that at least some quite sophisticated thought regarding the nature of knowledge takes place amongst professors of analytic philosophy and that, amongst them, a significant number are realists, committed to the idea that there are, indeed, facts, and that what is true is absolute. This would show, at least, that believing in absolute truth is not a primitive epistemic position. Much of the confusion can be traced to sliding together matters to do with truth, facts, and the world (ontology), on the one hand, and what people can know of the world (epistemology), on the other. (Olafson and Schraw, in Ch. 16 in the book, do draw the distinction, but attempt to conceptualize ontology in a rather curious way according to which almost no-one turns out an ontological realist). As Greene and his co-authors point out, philosophers mostly start from the position that knowledge is justified true belief, meaning that any belief that counts as knowledge must be true (that is: it must be so or must describe a fact) (p. 374). While all of what anyone genuinely knows must be true, this does not imply that people automatically do know anything. When someones belief is false, they may well think they know something that they, in fact, do not know. Epistemologists do not simply count whatever people believe (or even, whatever they are convinced of) as part of their knowledge; the approach of many in the book is more on the level of studying peoples beliefs rather than their knowledge.
Admittedly, neither in the book, nor in the wider field, is there anyone who thinks that a very naïve idealism (according to which what is true comes down to what people belief is true) is a sophisticated intellectual position, but idealisms epistemological cousin, relativism, is treated too generously and, certainly, no space is made in the book for the philosophically serious positions of epistemologists who would combine realism about the nature of the world and a correspondence view of truth with fallibilism in epistemology that is the view that one may, in principle, always be wrong about (at least the physical) world and, then, not know it (even though one may think one does).
Secondly, regarding the project of improving students learning through teaching, there may be an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in consciously developing students thinking regarding knowledge according to something like the schemes advocated in the book. If teachers believed that some form of relativism is the right view of knowledge (which would be contradictory, by the way if they thought that they knew, absolutely, that all knowledge is relative) and taught this to students, it would be no surprise if students tended to shed their confidence that anyone could discover facts about how the world is and came, instead, to adopt a more relativistic view. Development toward relativism would, then, be an artefact of what students are taught and not a psychologically natural phenomenon. This reflects another reason why research in this area may find it useful to pay attention to developments in philosophy in the forty years since the relativism of, e.g., Kuhn and Feyerabend. One needs the philosophical study of epistemology to shed light on what knowledge is really like in order to answer the question of whether what people believe about knowledge (their personal epistemology, if you will) is right and in what directions their beliefs about knowledge should be improved.
Boghossian, P. (2006). Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goldman, A. (1999). Knowledge in a social world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Siegel, H. (1987). Relativism refuted: A critique of contemporary epistemological relativism. Dordrecht: Kluwer.