Chapter 20: Creating epistemic environments

“We do not just self-engineer better worlds to think in. We self-engineer ourselves to think and perform better in the worlds we find ourselves in. We self-engineer worlds in which to build better worlds to think in. We build better tools to think with and to use these very tools to discover still better tools to think with. We tune the way we use these tools by building educational practices to train ourselves to use our best cognitive tools better” (Clark, 2008, p59).

This richly recursive conception of “self-engineering” provides both resources and challenges for those involved in rethinking professional education. The main goal of this chapter is to introduce a fifth epistemic project and to outline some thoughts on educational approaches which align with this notion of building “better worlds to think in” – better environments for engaging in epistemic activity.

20.1    From rational thought to embodied skill to grounded actionable knowledge

In Chapter 3, we described four “epistemic projects” that can be found in professional education and in writing about the nature of professional work, knowledge and action. These are:

  • Reflective-rational
  • Reflective-embodied
  • Knowledge building
  • Relational expertise

To recap: the reflective-rational project is centrally concerned with connections between theory and practice – between codified academic or professional knowledge and emergent problems of practice; the reflective-embodied project relates to notions of professional identity, being and becoming; the knowledge building project captures the future-oriented aspects of professional work and includes learning to innovate – to work on novel problems, and the relational project foregrounds working with others, particularly across professional and other boundaries.

We also mentioned in Chapter 3 that we want to add to this set a fifth epistemic project, which we will now label “Grounded actionable knowledge”. This is not a rival to the other four projects: in a sense, it draws them together. It connects them by grounding human knowledge and knowing in the physical environment and the embodied conscious and conscientious self.

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Of the four accounts of professional knowledge and knowing in our four epistemic projects, two emphasise “thinking” or “reasoning” like a lawyer (or doctor, engineer, nurse, etc.) – the “Reflective-rational” and “Knowledge-building” and two emphasise “acting” like a lawyer (doctor, engineer, nurse, etc.) – the “Reflective-embodied and “Relational”. The literature tends to the view that expertise is either strongly associated with thinking, reasoning and the mind or deeply embedded in tacit skills, dispositions and the material context. It quietly constructs a Cartesian divide between knowledge and skill, mind and context. One can also see a split between views which privilege rational thought and fine-tuned, embrained skills (on the one hand) and views which imply that social and material context and practices matter more than minds and brains (on the other hand).

But what if we take all of these seriously: the mind and practice, and the body – in which the brain and mind are embodied – and contexts – in which practices are embedded? Mind, body, perception, action and matter all matter. From this perspective, knowledge and knowing involve fine-tuned coordination: “thinking like”, “acting like”, “seeing like” and “touching like” a professional.

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This fifth educational approach could be summarised as “learning by creating an epistemic environment”. It also involves some important aspects of “self-assembly” – in the sense of assembling a conscious and conscientious inhabitant of epistemic environments. We need to see both environment and inhabitant(s) as one system.

To explain what we mean by creating an epistemic environment, let us return to David Turnbull’s notion of an “assemblage” of knowledge practices:

“…the amalgam of places, bodies, voices, skills, practices, technical devices, theories, social strategies and collective work that together constitute technoscientific knowledge/practices” (Turnbull, 2000, 43)

We then need to say that the epistemic is not merely mental, social or technological – it is an interdependent, multimodal, dynamic and complex system. So when we think of an “epistemic environment” we are thinking of something social and material, in which a rich meshwork of tools and other artefacts, infrastructure, people, inscriptions and speech afford epistemic activity.

On the part of the professional worker, this involves both conscious and conscientious habitation. It involves both consciousness, in the sense that this perspective taking is a deliberate, self-aware act.[1] In addition it involves habits associated with conscientiousness – a desire to do things well, to be orderly, thorough and vigilant – acting with a deep sense of moral responsibility and “moral know-how”.

[1] In this, it resembles familiar acts of metacognition or self-regulation – though the focus of attention is on oneself as an agent within a system, rather than on some kind of independent, disembodied mind.

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 20 of Markauskaite, L., & Goodyear, P. (forthcoming, 2015). Epistemic fluency and professional education: innovation, knowledgeable action and actionable knowledge. Dordrecht: Springer. This is a close-to-final draft. Please check the final published version if you are going to quote it. The book  is available from Springer’s e-shop.

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2 responses to “Chapter 20: Creating epistemic environments

  1. Pingback: Understanding the learning brain in the world | epistemic fluency

  2. Pingback: Teaching and learning to think and work across disciplinary and professional boundaries | epistemic fluency

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