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Personal Epistemology and Teacher Education

reviewed by Kristy Kowalske Wagner - January 11, 2013

coverTitle: Personal Epistemology and Teacher Education
Author(s): Jo Brownlee, Gregory Schraw, & Donna Berthelsen (eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415883563, Pages: 310, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

As an educator, why study epistemology?  Understanding one’s own and other’s beliefs in the nature of knowledge can be very illuminating.  It can provide clarity about instructional practices, alleviate frustrations arising from conflicts between school system mandates and preferred teaching style, and offer insight into how instructional techniques evolve and why some educators are able to embrace change more easily than others.

Personal Epistemology and Teacher Education provides a variety of perspectives about the emerging field of research on epistemology’s impact on teacher education.  The nature of knowledge and knowing is a topic of study for graduate students and researchers, but it has rarely been a component of teacher education programs.  This collection of research studies offers information into the impact of knowledge about personal epistemologies on learning environments.  

Epistemologies range from positivist to social constructivist.  Social constructivist theory defines effective instruction as one where instructors facilitate learning by providing opportunities for students to construct knowledge in social contexts.  This can be established by providing higher order thinking opportunities such as ill-structured problems and collaborative learning.  The acceptance of this approach to learning has progressed as instructors have moved away from teacher-centered instruction to teacher-facilitated instruction, but further advancement remains.  Certain influences impact this development for educators including how they view the role of authority in knowledge construction, the certainty of knowledge, and how knowledge is justified (p. 4).  

Contributors to this collection from the Netherlands, Cyprus, Australia, United States, Canada, Norway and Taiwan offer diverse perspectives about theory and practice for early childhood, elementary, secondary, and tertiary teaching.  The book is divided into two sections: pre-service teaching and in-service teaching. The pre-service section provides an overview of epistemological beliefs in the context of teacher education, an in-depth look at personal epistemologies of university faculty members, and pre-service teacher education in early childhood, elementary and secondary contexts.  The second section examines the links between epistemic beliefs and pedagogy in the classroom. Classroom practice is examined in problem solving, support of student autonomy, teaching students with disabilities, and in reading and science instruction.

Several questions are raised and explored throughout the book:

How can the field promote a unified model of epistemological beliefs?

To what extent are teachers’ personal epistemologies domain-specific versus domain-general?

How are teachers’ personal epistemologies related to their teaching?

How do teachers’ personal epistemologies change over the short and long-term?

These questions are examined in relationship to the concept that beliefs change due to greater explicit awareness of personal epistemologies and classroom practice.  The work by the researchers suggests that constructivist epistemologies lead to better teaching.  Calibration between beliefs and practices creates dilemmas and challenges for teachers.  Explicit articulation is necessary.  Strategies recommended for developing personal epistemologies include discussions, reflections, journals, diaries, peer dialogues, and modeling (p. 281).

Two chapters are noted as important to college and university staff:  Chapter Nine Personal Epistemologies and Pedagogy in Higher Education: Did We Really Mean to Say that to Our Students and Chapter 10 Fostering Critical Awareness of Teachers’ Epistemological and Ontological Beliefs.

Rose M. Marra and Betsy Palmer (Chapter 9, p. 129) explored the role of faculty pedagogical choices and students’ personal epistemological development in different domains.  They concluded that discussions, debates, and hearing an instructor’s view that differs from or expands on the text are activities that encourage independent thinking.  As students may enter the classroom with sophisticated beliefs about the nature of knowledge, instructional activities should be offered to match those beliefs.  Metacognitive activities allow pre-service teachers to understand cognitive processing in correlation to personal epistemology.  Employing problem-based learning can provide a wealth of opportunities for the students and alter the instructor’s understanding of the nature of knowledge.

The chapter contributed by Gregory Schraw, Lori Olafson, and Michelle VanderVelt (Chapter 10, p. 150) emphasized the importance of action research in establishing reflection and critical awareness of epistemological beliefs.  From this, beliefs can be revised as necessary and explicit connections between theory and practice can be established.  The researchers used three instruments to assess beliefs: a Four Quadrant Scale of epistemological and ontological beliefs (realist-realist, realist-relativist, relativist-realist, and relativist-relativist), Teacher Belief Vignettes that portrayed realist, contextualist, and relativist views, and Essays to justify their beliefs.  Interviews were conducted at the end of the study to examine how and why beliefs changed over the course of the semester.

The authors created a hypothetical instructional sequence model to foster calibrated teaching.  During Stage 1, class content and activities are aligned to course objectives.  Stage 2 promotes discussion, reflection, modeling and action research based on connecting personal epistemological beliefs and potential teaching practices.  Stage 3 includes explicit articulation of beliefs and current practices with an emphasis on potential conflicts.  Readings and teacher modeling may serve as formal teacher modeling.  Teacher training interventions occur during Stage 4 where theory is integrated with practice.  Dilemmas and constraints between school curriculum and pedagogical mandates can be explored during this stage.  Finally, Stage 5 allows for calibrated teaching that achieves belief-motivated teaching goals.  School-based interventions can be included in this stage through the use of videos, journals, action research projects, and collaborative discussions (p. 280).  

At the conclusion of the book, the authors describe how the theoretical models used to understand personal epistemologies are expanding rather than converging to a unified theory.  Convergence to an integrated model would encourage easier data comparison and syntheses of research findings.  This would also establish an understanding of how beliefs can be changed.  

This book will be beneficial to a variety of audiences including researchers working to bring clarity to epistemological models, those working to develop robust and nuanced measures of personal epistemology, individuals working to clarify domain-specific epistemologies, college faculty in teacher education programs and those in charge of faculty training programs. Others who may find these studies of interest are directors of curriculum in school systems, administrators, and instructional coaches.  In the future, this collection of research studies may serve as the backbone for books that could serve as a practitioner’s guide.  

The research in this book has the potential to impact curricular and pedagogical choices teachers make in their classrooms, assessment of learning outcomes, and classroom management practices. College faculty should be aware of how they can pepper information about epistemological beliefs throughout their curriculum, expectations, and assignments.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 11, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16990, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:33:59 PM

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About the Author
  • Kristy Wagner
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    KRISTY KOWALSKE WAGNER is completing her PhD in Educational Psychology specializing in Gifted and Creative Education in the Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia. She works as an adjunct professor at Western Carolina University and has been a teacher of gifted middle school students at Rugby Middle School for nine years. Her interests are flow in the classroom, spiritually gifted students and online teaching and learning. Her article, “Social Media in Higher Education: Using Wiki for Online Gifted Education Courses” will be published in The Handbook of Research on Transnational Higher Education Management.
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