Epistemology, historically the province of philosophers, concerns the origin, nature, limits, methods, and justification of human knowledge. From a psychological perspective, personal epistemology refers to individual conceptions of knowledge and knowing and how people develop, interpret, evaluate and justify knowledge (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, 2002). Knowledge and knowing appear to develop in a patterned sequence across the life span. Understanding the trajectory of epistemological development and how it relates to learning and education can be useful for teachers, students, and educational researchers.
Research on epistemological development began with the work of William Perry, who conducted longitudinal interviews with several classes of Harvard students beginning in the mid-1950s, asking them a set of open-ended questions at the end of each academic year. Perry was interested in how individuals responded to the intellectual and moral relativism encountered in a pluralistic university. At the outset of his research he expected that the differences he had observed in undergraduates' views about learning and teaching were likely to be related to personality. For example, a dichotomous view of knowledge as right or wrong and to be transmitted from an all-powerful authority would be evidence of an authoritarian personality, a construct of considerable interest to psychologists in the era following World War II. What he and his research staff found, however, was that the way in which students thought about knowledge and knowing changed during the college years, and most important, this change occurred in an ordered and predictable sequence of intellectual and ethical development.
The trajectory that Perry and his colleagues identified suggested that over time individuals transformed their views of knowledge and knowing from a position of dualistic thinking (a world viewed in absolutist polar binary terms of black and white, right and wrong) toward more contingent, relativistic thought. Thus the perception of knowledge as objective and certain was not a personality characteristic, but something malleable and apparently influenced by education. Perry's research resulted in a nine-point scheme of development that became the precursor for a significant body of research and the foundation for a wide range of ideas about educational implications of epistemological development.
Other similar schemes of intellectual development with epistemological components followed, all based on Perry's work. These models include reflective judgment, developed by Patricia King and Karen Kitchener; women's ways of knowing, developed by Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarule; and epistemological reflection, developed by Marcia Baxter Magolda. Additionally, Deanna Kuhn, in her research on the skills of argument, outlined a set of epistemological assumptions that further refined into a pattern of epis-temological development with colleagues Richard Cheney and Michael Weinstock. Overall, each of these approaches involves a stage-like progression of from three to nine positions, but the components and the trajectory are remarkably similar.
Typically, individuals in any of these studies, primarily of college students and adults, are perceived as beginning with absolutism, a worldview marked by dualism and certainty: knowledge is black or white, right or wrong, highly certain, composed of discrete facts, and handed down from authorities unquestioningly. This position is modified as individuals come to recognize the legitimacy of other viewpoints. A midpoint on most schemes is characterized by multiplism, the idea that one opinion is equally valid as any other, that knowledge is highly uncertain, and that there is no agreed-upon means for justification. Advancement from this subjective state to a position of evaluativism (or commitment within relativism, as Perry called it) is marked by a growing realization that there are means for justification of various positions and that this enables an individual to assert some positions with confidence even if knowledge is evolving and contingent. Individuals who see the world from the upper levels of development are able to evaluate expertise, reconcile theory and evidence, provide support for their claims, and re-evaluate those claims in the light of new evidence.
Although the original scheme of development was based on Perry's study of males at an elite post-secondary institution in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, the research was later extended to include broader populations: females, older adults, individuals not attending college, children and adolescents, and individuals in diverse cultures. One particularly important expansion of Perry's work in the decades that followed was the inclusion of women in the research sample and more deliberate attention to the perceptions of women, as in the women's ways of knowing study, or on gender-related patterns in the epistemological reflection research.
Belenky and her colleagues determined it important to study women only, as a means of understanding how women in particular approached knowledge and knowing. One of their contributions was in their attention to women's perceptions of the source of knowledge— whether knowledge was viewed as external and received, entirely internal, or constructed in interaction with the environment. In the fourth level of a 5-point scheme, called procedural knowing, individuals may be either separate knowers who are detached, critical, and skeptical, or connected knowers, who are empathic and trusting, valuing understanding over judgment. The final stage, constructed knowing, involves integration of these two approaches, a more complex recognition of the relation between the knower and the known and a tolerance for contradiction and ambiguity.
The epistemological reflection model, derived from longitudinal interviews of both male and female college students, suggests that some patterns of knowing may be gender-related but not gender-specific, as had been hypothesized by the authors of the women's ways of knowing study. At various stages in a five-point scheme that culminates in contextual knowing, women are more likely than men to be described as received knowers rather than mastery knowers, interpersonal rather than impersonal, and inter-individual rather than individual.
Such findings about gender-related patterns may need to be placed in the historical context of research conducted primarily in the 1980s. Little work in the 2000s has been done to assess the continuing validity of gender-related patterns of epistemological development and to determine whether changes in child-rearing or increased successes of females in education at all levels may have had an influence on epistemic worldviews. Continued research is needed in this area, and any application of gender-specific findings from these early studies should be made with caution. As with any group-level findings, generalizing from group differences to the individual is not recommended.
In addition to expanding epistemological research to include women, researchers have pursued epistemological development prior to the college years, an area that as of 2008 also needed further study. The early research on college students posited a trajectory beginning in absolutism, which implied that younger individuals simply viewed the world in absolutist terms until their beliefs were challenged in college. Surprisingly little longitudinal research has been conducted prior to college, but researchers such as Michael Boyes and Michael Chandler, who have assessed epistemological development in adolescence, have identified parallel stages similar to those in the college years. Chandler and others have thus raised questions about whether development might be recursive: Perhaps individuals move through the stages repeatedly, with enhanced understanding at each passage. In general, research on adolescence would indicate that high school students can exhibit post-absolutist perspectives, but more work is needed to distinguish this from the more nuanced perspectives of advanced college students. An established trajectory of epistemological development prior to the college years was as of 2008 not available.
Research from the late 1990s and early 2000s on young children began to illuminate the origins of epis-temological development and to connect it to cognitive development. Very young children appear to begin at a state of egocentric subjectivity, a period in which the only perspective available is the knower's own. The attainment of theory of mind, a cognitive development between 3 and 5 years of age that involves a growing awareness of the beliefs, desires, and intentions of others, creates the potential for advancement toward an early sense of epis-temic objectivity. Typically assessed through false belief tasks, theory of mind allows a child to know that another individual can believe something erroneously. This cognitive awareness of multiple perspectives on knowing, and of the sense that one person can be right and another wrong, provides the foundation for absolutism.
Other researchers have been interested in understanding whether the developmental trajectory evidenced in U.S. studies is consistent in other cultures, or whether it might be an artifact of western education. In one cross-cultural study of Perry's scheme, Li-Fang Zhang found that students in Beijing, unlike those in the United States, became more dualistic during their college education, perhaps as result of an educational system that at the time of the study permitted few opportunities for individual decision making. Results of this and other studies suggest the need for sensitivity to cultural context and for more explorations of the interaction between educational environment, cultural context, and epistemo-logical development.
Much of the research on epistemological development is based on a presumption that a general cognitive framework guides one's views of knowledge and knowing across domains. Thus an individual who believes that there is one right answer and that authorities are the sole source of knowledge would believe this regardless of the area in question. By contrast, research on epistemic beliefs has been examined both generally and in regard to specific disciplines, such as math, science, or history. Students have been found to hold differing beliefs about disciplines, for example, that knowledge in chemistry is more certain than knowledge in psychology, as well as beliefs specific to disciplines, for example, that knowing history means learning dates. Math and science educators have extensively pursued an understanding of students' epistemic beliefs within these particular disciplines, exploring such conceptions as the nature of science. This area had as of 2008 seldom been investigated develop-mentally, however, although Ala Samarapungavan, Erik Westby, and George Bodner found that the epistemic development of chemistry students was influenced by aspects of their research experience and engagement with expert researchers.
Within the paradigm of epistemological development, some researchers began to explore domain differences, but little of this research focused on disciplines. In one such report, King and Kitchener (2004) noted in their overview of research on reflective judgment that there is a high rate of consistency in the use of epistemic assumptions in reasoning about ill-structured problems, regardless of domain. Other research on domain differences in epistemological development addressed domains not as disciplines, but in regard to judgment domains, such as taste, morality, aesthetics, values, or facts. In their study of individuals from second grade through adulthood, Kuhn, Cheney, and Weinstock found that individuals can be at different epistemological levels depending on the domain, with individuals, for example, accepting multiple viewpoints in regard to personal taste before they accept them in regard to objective facts. The movement from multiplism to evaluativism is more likely to occur first in regard to objective facts, where warrants for claims begin to supersede individual opinions.
Domain differences have also been explored in studies of young children by Cecilia Wainryb and her colleagues, who found that even 5-year-olds display evidence of relativism in some domains more than others. Children can be expected at a fairly early age, for example, to know and accept that a friend prefers a different flavor of ice cream but can be quite certain that hitting is wrong. What this continued line of research suggests is both that epistemological development varies by judgment domain and that it is possible for aspects of multiplism to occur much younger than might have been predicted in the pioneering studies of college students.
The original research on epistemological development was inherently phenomenological, with open-ended interviews that prompted meaning-making on the part of the student being interviewed. Perry, for example, began his end-of-semester interviews by asking “What stands out for you about this year?” Some of the researchers who followed Perry continued to use open-ended interviews, and others have posed ill-structured problems as a means of eliciting epistemological assumptions. For example, reflective judgment interviews involve responding to questions about issues such as the dangers of chemical additives in food, e.g., “Can you ever know for certain that your position on this is correct? How? Why not?” and “How is it possible that experts in the field could disagree about this subject?” Similarly, research on the epistemological aspects of argumentation employed questions about the certainty and justification of knowledge on topics such as reasons for criminal recidivism and other topics for which there are not likely to be simple, agreed-upon answers. Other studies on epistemological development involved asking individuals about the possible causes for a fictitious war or required a simulation of juror reasoning. Research interviews with young children, particularly in regard to domains of judgment, have been more likely to involve puppets and other props or vignettes with illustrated depictions of the scenario involved.
Interviews that require individuals to respond to ill-structured problems are called production tasks, as the interviewee is asked to produce a response. The transcribed protocols that result are complicated to score and typically require trained raters. Although this method provides rich data and affords a complex understanding of participants' thinking, it is also an expensive and time-consuming approach. The need for measures that can be administered and scored more easily led to the design of written instruments, typically aimed at providing some means for scoring developmental level. These are more likely to involve recognition tasks, in which individuals indicate the similarity of prepared responses to their own understanding. For example, participants indicate how similar a statement such as the following is to their own thinking: “It is my perspective that what researchers conclude is just their own opinion.” These instruments make it possible to conduct larger studies more quickly, but there is also concern about validity, reliability, and reductionism, as complex developmental phenomena are reduced to recognition of simple statements, potentially inflating individual scores.
Epistemological development has significant implications for the ways individuals consider and approach knowing and learning in a wide range of contexts, across the life span. Individuals often need to make considered judgments on a wide range of issues from personal health to global environmental concerns, and these judgments typically require weighing of evidence and evaluation of competing knowledge claims. Yet research on epistemo-logical development suggests that the skills required to do this, evidenced in the position of evaluativism, are not all that common and that adults in the United States are more likely to be either absolutists, convinced one position must be right, or, more often, multiplists, basing decisions on personal judgments and viewing opinions as equally valid. Kuhn and others have argued that episte-mological understanding matters and that preparation of an educated citizenry requires more attention to this process within the educational system at all levels.
A number of researchers who work within the developmental tradition assert that the higher levels of epis-temological development are consistent with the skills of critical thinking and adaptive complexity. Thus episte-mological development has been viewed by some as one of the aims of education and as a potential outcome measure for a college education. Accordingly, a number of studies have evaluated students' progressions toward higher stages of the various schemes, particularly during the college years. Longitudinal interview studies conducted in college and in some cases beyond suggest that college does have a small but measurable impact on epistemological development and that graduate school may advance this further, particularly in terms of higher stages of reflective judgment. Cross-sectional studies generally show a correlation between education and level of development and also between expertise and epistemo-logical development.
Epistemological stance can also lead students to have different views of education, classroom tasks, and expectations of teachers. For example, absolutists would be likely to want teachers to provide objective truth, multip-lists might have difficult understanding how teachers could make the judgments they do, and evaluativists would expect substantiated support for various positions. Educators' awareness of these general schemes can help them understand student reasoning and responses to particular aspects of education and to enable them to provide support for developmental transitions. The relation between education and development can also be viewed as reciprocal, with individuals interpreting learning through a current lens that is also being transformed in the process.
Overall, educators may wish to help students make a progression toward competence in evaluating multiple truth claims and understanding how knowledge is constructed, supported, and evolving. Research on epistemo-logical development suggests that teachers need to attend to thinking skills and cognitive development as well as the mastery of content. Teachers can provide students with opportunities to discuss ill-structured problems, for example, and to recognize that not all problems have one right answer. Educators might also structure assignments so that students learn to gather support for particular positions, consider opposing viewpoints, coordinate theory and evidence, and evaluate expertise and authority. These are challenging tasks, but they are critically important in helping students develop intellectual skills.
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