Chapter 7: Epistemic thinking

7.1 Knowledge and knowing as an open system

Contemporary views of learning and cognition that take dynamic ecological perspectives, often describe human cognitive processes in terms of “goal”, “agent”, “feedback, “control”, “emergence”, “dynamic stability” and other such systems-theoretic language. However, such accounts can be constructed in two radically different ways: as an account of an observed system or as an account of an observing system (Banathy & Jenlink, 2004; van Foerster, 1995). Van Foerster (1995) describes these two views in terms of answers to two simple questions:

“Am I apart from the universe?” Meaning whenever I look, I’m looking as if through a peephole upon an unfolding universe; or, “Am I part of the universe?” Meaning whenever I act, I’m changing myself and the universe as well.”(van Foerster, 1995, 5)

Indeed the answer to this question is critical for understanding actionable knowledge and knowing in the world. Foerster continues:

“Whenever I reflect on these two alternatives, I’m surprised by the depth of the abyss that separates the two fundamentally different worlds that can be created by such a choice. That is to see myself as a citizen of an independent universe, whose regulations, rules and customs I may eventually discover; or to see myself as a participant in a conspiracy, whose customs, rules, and regulations we are now inventing.” (van Foerster, 1995, 5)

Without making direct links, we could draw a broad parallel between two fundamentally different views of human cognition and these two orders of cybernetics that evolved in modern systems sciences: the first-order and the second-order, respectively. From the first-order perspective, an account of cognitive processes is constructed from an external observer’s point of view, as if the cognitive system’s activity was independent from the meanings enacted within it and the system itself was unaware of its own functioning. In this case, the system is operationally “closed” from its own cognitive performance, thus unable to purposefully modify it. From the second-order perspective, an account of cognitive processes is constructed from the point of view of an observer who is a part of the system. In this case, the very process of meaning-making becomes a part of this cognitive system and the observer (who is also observed) is aware of his or her viewpoint and the overall system performance. This awareness makes it possible to open the system and modify its action.

Current views of learning and cognition often take the “first order” cybernetic perspective. They see the relationships between human mind, body and action as a closed system. A view about how meanings are constructed – epistemology – is either seen as an implicit control structure or an emerging phenomenon, but generally it is not seen as something that an agent purposefully enacts or can independently modify. Adding epistemic resources to the very core of the actionable conceptual system opens this system up. In this case, cognition is the “second-order” phenomenon; it depends on the actor’s perspective, not just on a body-world-concepts coupling. If we see cognition in this way, then space is opened up to teach about disciplinary perspectives, productive stances, different ways to frame and approach tasks, about the importance of thinking how to link concepts to material and social contexts and embodied experiences. In short, it makes it possible to take human epistemic agency seriously.[1] Epistemology is not only a construct that can be used to describe human performance. It is also a construct that could be purposefully enacted within human performance.

Many of the concepts that refer to phenomena in the world are made explicit in teaching and learning, but epistemic concepts are often left implicit. (It seems they are often treated in an optimistic spirit of “lets hope they will get it right”.) One of the core limitations of education is that it pays very little explicit attention to helping students develop more articulated epistemic resources. Indeed, our everyday language is generally quite impoverished when it comes to naming the epistemic constructs that people use in sense-making. For example, ask a student or even an experienced practitioner “How do you know this or that” and they will quickly run out of words with which to answer the question. A relatively rich epistemic vocabulary has been developed by researchers, often for detecting “flaws” in students’ thinking. Some awareness about students’ epistemic resources may be embedded in instructional approaches used by teachers. But epistemic concepts are rarely taught to students – which makes it harder for them to notice when there is a “fault”, and less able to correct things for themselves. Moreover, when students go into the professional field there is no teacher standing by to help activate these productive epistemic resources.

In this chapter, we introduce questions of epistemic thinking and personal epistemic resourcefulness. In section 7.2, we briefly review the main ideas and terminology and in the next section (7.3) introduce the main research approaches, in this field of work. In the sections after that (7.4-7.8) we describe some recent extensions that bring established research on personal epistemology closer to how people think and act within specific cultural and material settings. These extensions provide the basis for the view on epistemic resourcefulness that we develop towards the end of the book. (See especially Chapter 18).

[1] Epistemic agency can be understood as the capacity that enables one to engage deliberately in knowledge-producing activities (Damsa et al., 2010).

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 7 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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