This is a longer read. Enjoy!
If reports in the media can be trusted, then “knowing” isn’t what it used to be. It seems that we are all caught in a rip, being swept helplessly from a knowledge-based world into a post-truth society, where robots will take all the best jobs.
The latest edition of the Innovating Pedagogy report, published annually by the UK’s Open University, names “epistemic education” as one of the “high impact” trends that will become widespread in education over the next two to five years.
Simultaneously, the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s Trend watch list is topped by the word “epistemic”. Something is going on here, but is it just a flash in the pan? An educational fad feeding off a moral panic about fake news, alternative facts and information bubbles?
Understanding today’s ‘epistemic’ world
“Epistemic” comes from the Greek epistēmē meaning “knowledge”. Epistēmē has some specific connotations in the philosophy of knowledge, but “epistemic” has taken on a broad role in contemporary usage, covering everything to do with knowledge and how we know things.
In the popular media, one finds it used in such terms as “epistemic closure”, “epistemic violence” and “epistemic crisis”. These terms are coupled with a deep disquiet about the diminishing role of knowledge in political argument and decision-making, particularly in the US.
Anthropologists identify “epistemic artefacts” – “tools for thinking”. These include scientific models, organisational plans and architectural sketches, which people use when solving problems and creating new knowledge.
Epistemic fluency is the capacity to recognise different kinds of knowledge and to work flexibly with different ways of knowing. For example, effective action on climate change, obesity, cybersecurity, or gun control needs specialist knowledge from research on these problems, combined with knowledge from areas like economics, politics and the law.
Why do students need epistemic fluency?
Our research suggests university teachers are very conscious of the need for epistemic fluency, but don’t always have the language to explain what it entails. We can point to at least four sets of challenges in economic, social and political life where more explicit attention to epistemic fluency is possible and urgent.
Acting knowledgeably in the workplace
Our own research focus has been on professional education – where students are being helped to prepare for work in areas such as pharmacy or nursing. In these courses, students are often given assessment tasks intended to help them connect academic knowledge with workplace practice.
The difficulties students face in doing this are not really problems of “transfer” – not simply a failure to apply prior knowledge. It turns out acting knowledgeably in the workplace involves constructing new actionable knowledge. This is knowledge that fuses together a number of different forms of knowledge and ways of knowing in order to deal with a specific situation.
For example, a pharmacist may combine knowledge of the medical properties of a drug, the prescribing habits of a local doctor and the various needs of elderly clients to customise advice for the person they’re serving.
Working in multidisciplinary teams
The second area of our research explores how multidisciplinary teams of academics learn to work together. This is a significant challenge when academics move out of their disciplinary silos to work together in research centres that are oriented to complex societal problems, such as obesity and climate change.
Differences in what counts as reliable knowledge to biologists, computer scientists and sociologists are quite important in such organisations. The ability to work together depends on mutual respect and a degree of understanding of how various disciplines create knowledge.
Epistemic fluency is likely to remain valuable in these two important areas of university work – professional education and multidisciplinary research.
Working with smart machines
The third area in which this matters is future employment: specifically, what is sometimes succinctly called “heteromation”. Complex knowledge work is no longer done in individual human brains.
Now, it’s distributed across humans and machines. This includes computer programs that can extract useful information from large databases, measuring equipment that can detect things inaccessible to human senses, and robots that can perform complex physical operations that are beyond the capacities of human beings.
The knowledge and skills people need in order to participate productively in networks of other people and machines are different from the ones that will do for more autonomous work. The development of these network capabilities can be helped by a careful mix of explicit teaching and practical tasks. But those doing the teaching must master the new tools, as well as the concepts and words needed to explain to students new ways of working with knowledge.
Navigating post-truth societies
The fourth challenge is where we began: fake news and how to spot it. This is where schools are focusing their attention, extending courses on digital literacy to include the skills needed to break out of one’s own “information bubble” by engaging with alternative views and fighting “alternative facts” by testing the reliability of knowledge sources.
This educational initiative is unlikely to succeed on its own. Schools work best when their efforts align with broader movements. For some decades now, many school teachers have learned at university the fundamental truth that all knowledge is suspect. But this epistemological position offers shaky foundations for learning to participate in the joint creation of actionable knowledge necessary for working on complex societal challenges. It undermines the possibilities for informed action.
What could be done about this?
Concerns about fake news and the need to educate knowledgeable voters are important reasons for giving more serious attention to knowledge in universities and schools. There are also other deep and sustaining reasons for taking knowledge and knowing more seriously.
Students need to master epistemic tools with which they can act more knowledgeably in their future workplaces and communities. Tools need material to work on. So students’ learning activities need to involve both mastery of tools and progress on substantial problems: working across disciplinary and professional boundaries and in cooperation with other people and intelligent machines.
It will help if we all become better able to articulate the importance of understanding knowledge, and of knowing how to find the most useful combinations of knowledge for solving problems that we face in our lives.
Through their commitments to, and dependence on, professional education and multidisciplinary research, universities have skin in the epistemic game. It’s in their interests to take much stronger leadership over knowledge and how it matters.