5. Epistemology and Theories of Learning
5.1. What is Epistemology?
In the dinner party scenario, Stephen and Caroline had quite different beliefs about the nature of knowledge. The issue here is not who was right, but that we all have implicit beliefs about the nature of knowledge, what constitutes truth, how that truth is best validated, and, from a teaching perspective, how best to help people to acquire that knowledge. The basis of that belief will vary, depending on the subject matter, and, in some areas, such as social sciences, even within a common domain of knowledge.
Our choice of teaching approaches and even the use of technology is absolutely dependent on beliefs and assumptions we have about the nature of knowledge, about the requirements of our subject discipline, and about how we think students learn. The way we teach in higher education will be driven primarily by our beliefs or rather, by the commonly agreed consensus within an academic discipline about what constitutes valid knowledge in the subject area.
The nature of knowledge centres on the question of how we know what we know. What makes us believe that something is ‘true’? Questions of this kind are epistemological in nature. Hofer and Pintrich (1997) state:
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and justification of knowledge.
The famous argument at the British Association in 1860 between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, over the origin of species, is a classic example of the clash between beliefs about the foundations of knowledge. Wilberforce argued that Man was created by God; Huxley argued that Man evolved through natural selection. Bishop Wilberforce believed he was right because ‘true’ knowledge was determined through faith and interpretation of holy scripture; Professor Huxley believed he was right because ‘true’ knowledge was derived through empirical science and rational skepticism.
An important part of higher education is aimed at developing students’ understanding, within a particular discipline, of the criteria and values that underpin the academic study of that discipline and these include questions of what constitutes valid knowledge in that subject area. For many experts in a particular field, these assumptions are often so strong and embedded that the experts may not even be openly conscious of them unless challenged. But for novices, such as students, it often takes a great deal of time to understand fully the underlying value systems that drive the choice of content and methods of teaching.
Our epistemological position therefore has direct practical consequences for how we teach.