Category Archives: Epistemic fluency in professional education book

Universities should take stronger leadership on knowledge and how it matters

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Through their commitments to, and dependence on, professional education and multidisciplinary research, universities have skin in the epistemic game.

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.

Popular media in the US turns to epistemology as they confront the diminishing role of knowledge in politics.
David Maxwell/AAP

Read more:
Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth

In academia, where knowing about knowledge still elicits some respect, philosophers refer to “epistemic virtues” such as careful and attentive reasoning, openness to evidence, and critical thinking.

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.

In education, researchers and teachers are working on ways to foster students’ “epistemic cognition” and help them become more capably knowledgeable about knowing; to develop “epistemic fluency”.

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.

Read more:
How do you know that what you know is true? That’s epistemology

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.

A pharmacist may need to combine various types of knowledge to tailor advice to individual customers.

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.

Lina Markauskaite, Associate professor in Learning Sciences, University of Sydney and Peter Goodyear, Professor of Education, University of Sydney


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Our presentations at EARLI 2017

The slides of our presentations at EARLI 2017 are now available in our slideware (click on the images below). Five-page summaries of these two papers could be downloaded from ResearchGate.

Markauskaite, L. & Goodyear P. (2017). Learning as construction of actionable concepts: A multimodal blending perspective. Paper presented at the 17th Biennial EARLI Conference for Research on Learning and Instruction “Education in the Crossroads of Economy and Politics Role of Research in the Advancement of Public Good”. 27 August – 2 September 2017. Tampere, Finland.

Markauskaite, L. & Goodyear, P. (2017). Insights into the dynamics between changes in professional fields and teaching in higher education. Paper presented at the 17th Biennial EARLI Conference for Research on Learning and Instruction “Education in the Crossroads of Economy and Politics Role of Research in the Advancement of Public Good”. 27 August – 2 September 2017. Tampere, Finland.

Extensions: Approaches for making connections between academia and work

Chapter 2 includes a brief overview of the main educational approaches that are used to help students make connections between academic study and workplace performance: simulations, role plays, case-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, internships, reflective practice, communities of practice, etc. Our colleague George Hatsidimitris created a nice re-interpretation of the schema of these approaches also insightfully extended it with one element “communication technologies”.  Indeed, communication technologies could help create a hybrid space for linking the lecture hall and workplace. Thank you George.


Schema of approaches to professional formation. Image by George Hatsidimitris (July 2017)

Preparing teachers for knowledgeable action: Epistemic fluency, innovation pedagogy and work-capable graduates

In our slideware you can now find a new set of slides entitled “Preparing teachers for knowledgeable action: Epistemic fluency, innovation pedagogy and work-capable graduates”. These slides were used in the seminar-discussion “How do we know it’s because of us? University prepared teachers and our impact on classroom readiness” organised by the Initial Teacher Education and Professional Learning (ITEPL) Research Group @ QUT. It is not a completely new presentation, but it sharper articulates some implications for pre-service teachers’ education and “measurement” of their readiness.


What kinds of epistemic tools do skillful teachers use in their work and what kinds of epistemic games do they play? How could teachers’ preparation for knowledgeable action benefit from engagement of pre-service teachers in professional innovation? What different kinds of professional artifacts-tools produced by future professionals could tell us about their workplace readiness? Could current bureaucratic accreditation infrastructures and regimes (at least partly) be replaced by an open infrastructure for teachers’ (including pre-service teachers) professional innovation and professional knowledge co-creation? If foundational courses in law introduce students to legal thinking, and foundational courses in medicine teach students clinical reasoning, shouldn’t pre-service teachers also be helped to learn their professional ways of knowing?

But as the first thing, teacher education should move beyond (now dominant) evidence culture that sees teaching as a rigorous  application of firm, robust and often inflexible externally generated knowledge, to an epistemic culture that sees teaching as a skillful knowledge craft and values professional ways of knowing.

Epistemic fluency in higher education: bridging actionable knowledge and knowledgeable action

In our “slideware” you can now find a set of slides from a presentation that reviews the main ideas from  our Epistemic Fluency book.  These particular slides were used during  the seminar entitled “Epistemic fluency in higher education: Bridging actionable knowledge and knowledgeable action” @The Oxford Centre for Sociocultural and Activity Theory Research (OSAT). Similar (but not identical) slides were also used during our presentations @University of Sydney (CRLI),  University of Oslo (ExCID), University of Bergen (SLATE), University of Helsinki (CRADLE), University of Southern Denmark, and University of Stirling (ProPEL). If you can’t find something important, then email us and ask.

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What does it take to be a productive member of a multidisciplinary team working on a complex problem? How do people get better at these things? How can researchers get deeper insight in these valued capacities; and how can teachers help students develop them? Working on real-world professional problems usually requires the combination of different kinds of specialised and context-dependent knowledge, as well as different ways of knowing. People who are flexible and adept with respect to different ways of knowing about the world can be said to possess epistemic fluency.

Drawing upon and extending the notion of epistemic fluency, in this research seminar, we will present some key ideas that we developed studying how university teachers teach and students learn complex professional knowledge and skills. Our account combines grounded and enacted cognition with sociocultural and material perspectives of human knowing and focus on capacities that underpin knowledgeable action and innovative professional work.  In this seminar, we will discuss critical roles of grounded conceptual knowledge, ability to embrace professional materially-grounded ways of knowing and students’ capacities to construct their epistemic environments.