Chapter 2: The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching
I have chosen just a few epistemological approaches that influence teaching and learning, but I could have chosen many others. Theologies reflect another epistemological approach based on faith. Elements of scholasticism can still be found in elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, particularly in their tutorial system.
It can be seen then that there are different epistemologies that influence teaching today. Furthermore, much to the consternation and confusion of many students, teachers themselves will have different epistemological positions, not just across different disciplines, but sometimes within the same discipline. For instance, subject areas such as psychology and economics may contain different epistemological foundations in different parts of the curriculum: statistics is validated differently from Freudian analysis or behavioural factors that influence investor behaviour. Epistemological positions are rarely explicitly discussed with students, are not always consistent even within a subject discipline, and are not mutually exclusive. For instance a teacher may deliberately choose to use a more objectivist approach with novice students, then move to a more constructivist approach when the students have learned the basic facts and concepts within a topic through an objectivist approach. Even within the same lesson, the teacher may shift epistemological positions, often causing confusion for students.
At this point, I’m not taking sides (although I do favour in general a more constructivist philosophy). Arguments can be made for or against any of these epistemological positions. However, we need to be aware that knowledge and consequently teaching is not a pure, objective concept, but driven by different values and beliefs about the nature of knowledge.
Arguments are also being made today that academic knowledge is now redundant and is being or will be replaced by networked learning or more applied learning. I have made the case though that there are strong reasons to sustain and further develop academic knowledge, but with a focus as much on the development of skills as on learning content.
Different theories of learning reflect different positions on the nature of knowledge. With the possible exception of connectivism, there is some form of empirical evidence to support each of the theories of learning outlined in this chapter. However, while the theories suggest different ways in which all people learn, they do not automatically tell teachers or instructors how to teach. Indeed, theories of behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism were all developed outside of education, in experimental labs, psychology, neuroscience, and psychotherapy. Educators have had to work out how to move from the theoretical position to the practical one of applying these theories within an educational experience. In other words, they have had to develop teaching methods that build on such learning theories.
The next chapter examines a range of teaching methods that have been developed, their epistemological roots, and their implications for teaching in a digital age.
1. Teaching is a highly complex occupation, which needs to adapt to a great deal of variety in context, subject matter and learners. It does not lend itself to broad generalizations. Nevertheless it is possible to provide guidelines or principles based on best practices, theory and research, that must then be adapted or modified to local conditions.
2. Our underlying beliefs and values, usually shared by other experts in a subject domain, shape our approach to teaching. These underlying beliefs and values are often implicit and are often not directly shared with our students, even though they are seen as essential components of becoming an ‘expert’ in a particular subject domain.
3. It is argued that academic knowledge is different from other forms of knowledge, and is even more relevant today in a digital age.
4. However, academic knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge that is important in today’s society, and as teachers we have to be aware of other forms of knowledge and their potential importance to our students, and make sure that we are providing the full range of contents and skills needed for students in a digital age.
Activity 2.9 Choosing a theory of learning
Entwistle (2010) states:
‘There are some important questions to ask when considering how much weight to place on evidence or how valuable a theory will be for pedagogy. For example:
- Is the theory derived from data or observations in an educational context?
- Is the theory presented in language that is readily intelligible to teachers?
- Can the aspects identified as affecting learning be readily changed [by the teacher]?
- Does the theory have direct implications for teaching and learning [in the particular context in which you are working]?
- How realistic and practical are the suggestions?
- Will the theory spark off new ideas about teaching?
It is not sufficient for a pedagogical theory simply to explain how people learn; it also has to provide clear implications about how to improve the quality and efficiency of learning.‘
Using Entwistle’s criteria and your own knowledge and experience of teaching, answer the questions below.
1. Which theory of learning do you like best, and why? State what main subject you are teaching.
2. Does your preferred way of teaching match any of these theoretical approaches? Write down some of the activities you do when teaching that ‘fit’ with this theory. Can you think of other possible activities you now could use within this theoretical framework for teaching?
3. Does your teaching generally combine different theories – sometimes behaviourist, sometimes cognitive, etc.? If so, what are the reasons or contexts for taking one specific approach rather than another?
4. How useful are these theories in terms of teaching practice? In your view, are they just jargon or useless theorising, or ‘labelling’ of commonly understood practice, or do they provide strong guidelines for how you should teach?
5. How do you think new digital technologies, such as social media, affect these theories? Do new technologies make these theories redundant? Does connectivism replace other theories or merely add another way of looking at teaching and learning?
Entwistle, N. (2010) ‘Taking Stock: An Overview of Research Findings’ in Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press
For more on the relationship between epistemologies, learning theories and methods of teaching, see:
Bates, T. (2015) Thinking about theory and practice, Open Learning and Distance Education Resources, July 29