I've often thought of education – my chosen field – as applied epistemology. This was a conceit. Education does not explore or enact the subtle, rich, body of epistemological thought. Education has an epistemology, a vulgar blunt-object affair that is, essentially, the product of the limitations of the structures of traditional schooling.
The problem can be seen if one looks at the act of assessing knowledge. As a teacher, you’re expected to assess the knowledge of the kid in front of you continuously through the learning process. What does the kid know when he or she comes to you? What do they come to know from your lessons? What do they know at the end of the unit? What do they know at the end of the year? What do they know while walking the stage in their cap and gown? This should all sound familiar. These reflect basic questions of epistemology. What is it possible to know? How do you know? How do you know what they know? How do they know what they know?
Brushing up on your epistemology won't help. In its most abstract form (if you’re talking about “neutral monism,” for example) epistemology provides no comfort to the teacher trying to determine whether or not the kid in front of her “gets” the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Every teacher knows you can’t directly access the kid’s knowledge. We recognize that typical school tests are a proxy for such direct knowledge. We recognize that with our assessments we are constructing epistemological “if-then” statements. We are setting up a condition with an outcome that would only be possible if the student held such knowledge. If the student can answer questions about the French Revolution on a test, then, it is supposed, they know about the French Revolution.
But we've all crammed for a test, and then forgotten it all in the moments following. Or even prepared diligently for a test, passed it, then spent months away from the subject, and needed a complete review in order to get up to speed. In either case, can we be said to know the material? Possibly. The honest teacher will concede that, even assuming it's a good test, the test elicits knowledge of what the kid knew at the moment they were taking the test.
Call this a straw man. “No educator,” you say, “would argue that knowledge, once achieved, is permanent and immutable.” But the structures of traditional education do exactly that, and many educators accept these structures because … well … what’re ya’ gonna do? Credits are gathered marking the supposedly steady accumulation of knowledge over the course of years. This asserts an epistemological stability that is illusory. If you learn something in class, this structure says, then you can add it to your accumulation of knowledge. You own it forever. Traditionally, decisions about promotion, graduation, and dispersal of resources are made based on exactly this model.
More importantly, the traditional assessment suffers from the problem of the false negative. The proxy/test may be constructed as such: if the kid answers this question, then that is evidence that the kid knows what I want them to know. But the inverse of that – if they don’t answer this question, then that is evidence that they don’t know – doesn't scan. Kids don’t answer questions correctly ... because they’re hungry. They’re pissed off. They’re indifferent to the material. They’re indifferent to you. They've fallen in love. They've fallen in love with you. They've fallen out of love. They’re sleepy. They’re wired. They’re about to be arrested for possession. Attendance is compulsory and the duty of every prisoner is to attempt escape! Etc. Etc. Etc.
There are many reasons a student might choose not to engage in a compelled behavior (in this case, answering a question on a test), and only one of those reasons is “ doesn't have the knowledge required.” To assert that such a wrong answer provides sufficient evidence of lack of knowledge is patently unethical. Yet educational structures urge us to do that all the time. Kid’s grades are averaged together, and the wrong answer is not only taken as evidence of momentary wrong knowledge, but that wrong answer contributes to the kid-algorithm as the measure of their knowledge. It becomes a grade, entered into their permanent record, the ultimate epistemological reifier!
Some assessments are better than others. Performance assessment – which was at one time cannily referred to as “authentic assessment” – asserts that, with skills, you can know if someone knows how to do something by watching them do it. And they’re right. If you want to know if a kid knows how to throw a ball, watching them throw a ball tells you that. But the problem of false negatives remains. Watching a kid not throw a ball, or throw a ball badly, doesn't tell you a thing about how well they are able to throw a ball. Assessment doesn't measure knowledge. It measures our ability to persuade students to behave in a way that can persuade us that they have demonstrated knowledge.
Does a careful study of epistemology provide a path towards assessing knowledge better, or more accurately? Or is it true that the only thing epistemology has to offer is solace in the form of epistemic humility. The Socratic mark of wisdom – I’m wise because I know I’m not wise – might prompt us to be more thoughtful and compassionate in the construction of our assessments – and in the construction of our relationships with kids. Many, many educators already evince this. Many are pushing to incorporate such humility in the structures of public education. This would be far more valuable than the illusion of certainty our structures currently pretend to.
Geoff Edwards says
Daniel David says
Well put, and thanks for another thoughtful post.
I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’ve ever looked into Ivan Illich. Your posts have brought him to mind a few times. He’s one I thought our media/semantics group might find interesting at some point in the future. Either “Deschooling Society” or “Tools For Conviviality” would probably provoke some very interesting discussions.
Gary Chapin says
I have read Illich. I began my parenting life as a fervent unschooler … reading mostly John Holt. There are reasons for this having to do with my psychology and experiences, and it made sense for me to be that way at the time, just as it made sense for me, later, to embrace the ethic of public education and try to push the institution to living up to its promise. So, I love “Deschooling Society,” and would welcome a conversation about that.
Daniel David says
I figured you had, given your background. I’d love to keep him in mind for a group reading down the road. I don’t know John Holt. I’ll have to go look him up.
There’s an interesting article by Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm. You can access the research document re moral clarity “Specifically, we propose that the subjective experience of power can increase punishment severity by instilling a heightened sense of moral clarity.”
As a parent when do you become and enabler (being to close to the situation) vs. an advocate (observing the situation) for a student who is your son, while respecting the power of an education and our teachers (educators)?
is there a meaningful difference here between “epistemology” and psychology?
Gary Chapin says
That’s a great question. I answer as someone with only a generalist’s understanding of psychology. I think this essay is exploring the relationship between education and the field of epistemology, and attempting to describe the epistemological artifacts (on the ground behaviors that are evidence of epistemology) found in the educational field. You are right in that I am arguing — without naming it as such — that psychological states impact “what it is possible to know.” So, that statement — psychological states impact epistemology — might be considered an axiom of epistemology, and whether it is affirmed or denied would impact the character of that epistemology.
do you know of any pedagogical approaches/theories that directly address the challenges of:
Gary Chapin says
I think a number of initiatives along these lines have sprung up since the 1960s. There is a current movement around “21st century skills” which is getting a lot of play but not articulated especially well. The most thorough work that I’m aware of was done within the field of General Semantics. Specifically, Neil Postman used to do work schools. One of them, Fort Meyers Elementary in Texas. After he finished his work with them, they wrote a curriculum based on the work. It’s available for free at http://www.generalsemantics.org/tag/postman-enthusiasts-project/ I think it’s pretty extraordinary, and if any school actually implemented it, it might be amazing.
John Stackhouse says
Loved the essay. I’m a public school teacher nearing the end of my 27th year. A couple of essays based on lectures in the 30’s by Martin Buber have sustained me from time to time: “Education” and “On the Education of Character”. The epistemological implications are incongruous with how most educators operate. I’m just as guilty. Maybe the next essay can address “Bad Faith”?
Gary Chapin says
John, thank you for the kind words. Can you expand on the “Bad Faith” reference? I’m not sure of the reference. I recognize it from Sartre, but can’t connect that to your comment.
Benjamin Byron says
It seems to me that the best form that we have of remedying this, or at least coming as close as possible to approximating recognition of a student’s knowledge, is through the testing of method over trivia. While testing trivia (dates, names, definitions; descriptive information) is most often a test of applied memorization (or of assessing rather that they did their homework and studied, which seems more like a test of previous effort rather than ‘knowledge’), testing method, most often seen in the constant appeals for students to “SHOW YOUR WORK” when solving a mathematical problem, comes as close as possible to testing knowledge.
In this sense, if we have hammered into their minds a method that can and will be applied to future learning in a particular area of study over many years, then perhaps it won’t be lost to students in the way trivia will inevitably be forgotten. And if the specifics of method are forgotten over time, perhaps ‘learning’ it once before will allow for greater ease in picking it up again and putting it to use.
My two cents. Great article, Gary.
Gary Chapin says
Thank you, Benjamin. I’ve wrestled with this for years, and even now, with my eleven year old, I find myself thinking, “I really don’t care what she knows about Ancient Egypt, as long as she knows how to learn about Ancient Egypt.” (True story: I had that conversation with the eleven year old just this morning.) So, this seems to be arguing that content is, in and of itself, an avenue for teaching the “skills of inquiry.” I think a lot of people would agree with this, while simultaneously agreeing with the contradictory idea that it’s important for kids to learn certain THINGS — Shakespeare, for instance. I think this is a live tension in education right now. Wendell Johnson said, “You can’t write writing.” In other words, in order to write (or learn to write) you have to have a subject about which to write. If the point is to learn to write … does it matter what that subject is? Ken O’Conner (15 Fixes …) would say the writing matters, and the subject matters, but you should assess the two as separate things because they don’t matter to each other.
So, I guess that’s a long paragraph that could be summed up as, “I agree with you.” Testing method over trivia is superior, but it still doesn’t solve the false-negative problem. If you are testing a method, and a kid does poorly, you don’t know why they’ve done poorly. Which isn’t to say you can NEVER know (although I think one can’t ever know with certainty …) but that the validity of the assessment has much less to do with the questions and the curriculum than it does with the relationship between teacher and student.
Gary Chapin says
There are a number of threads to the Reform movement and many of them come in for well deserved drubbings. The current conservative move towards charter school and gutting public schools is drawing so much oxygen out of the room, that any attempt to reform (my own efforts at promoting learner-centered education) get painting (and tarred and feathered) with that broad brush. That said, the problems of implementing merited reforms to education are manifold and documented in Cuban and Tyack’s book, “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” which charges the progressive reform movement not with carrying out fraud in the name of myth, but simply with political and communicative incompetence. You don’t get people to change their beliefs and practices about something as intimate as learning by demonstrating the rightness of your position through argument. Reason simply is not enough.
now an educational psychology/pedagogy that could work through the implications of
” You don’t get people to change their beliefs and practices about something as intimate as learning by demonstrating the rightness of your position through argument. Reason simply is not enough” would be a real improvement. Can’t also not wonder what it means for efforts like this very one by the PEL collective and the ongoing relationship between philosophy and rhetoric which came up again in the recent show on Deleuze.
a Deleuze inspired take on education: