Epistemology and Education

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Epistemology and Education

WONG Yew Leong


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of knowledge, the processes through which we acquire knowledge, and the value of knowledge. A quick survey of the key issues and ideas in epistemology reveals an important implication for educators: although it is important to teach students the specific knowledge that experts in various fields have discovered or constructed, it is also important, perhaps more so, to ensure that students learn the specific skills and processes that experts employ in their discovery or construction of knowledge.

A Recent Development in Educational Practices

For the longest time, education in Singapore was essentially an exercise in making sure that students absorbed necessary information—specific facts, data, theories, methods, formulae—in time for the examinations at the end of each year. Some students understood what they were learning, but many did not (and hence could not be said to have actually learnt anything, even though a good number of them passed the examinations in the end). Examinations were like so many other obstacles that must be overcome on the way to a decent job and a nice salary. Generally speaking, the more examinations one cleared and the better one was at clearing them, the more decent one's job and the nicer one's salary would be.

For a while, this worked. Then, employers started to complain that local school graduates did not seem to be very competent critical thinkers and problem solvers. This was in spite of the many A's that students were scoring in the various examinations. They seemed unable to think for themselves and appeared to lack initiative. In short, they apparently lacked the basic process skills needed to perform the jobs they had been hired to do. In the end, many employers had to devote much time and resources to train the fresh school graduates they had hired so that these young people could do the jobs they were supposedly qualified to do.

The main reason for this situation was that, although subject knowledge and information was explicitly taught, the skills and processes necessary for acquiring the knowledge and information were not. Education was conceived as the transmission of knowledge from those who knew to those who did not, and knowledge was thought of as fixed—unambiguous, unequivocal and unmysterious—and non-overlapping between disciplines. Students were supposed to acquire knowledge by stocking their minds with information. As a result, genuine understanding, if it occurred at all, was more often than not an incidental outcome.

Knowledge and information can become obsolete or irrelevant after a time, and it was becoming so faster with the increasingly rapid pace of technological development towards the end of the twentieth century. Consequently, many fresh school graduates discovered that the knowledge and information they had learnt in school was not always applicable to the jobs they had been hired to do. To make matters worse, they had not learnt how to deal with these rapid changes. This meant that the learning curve was usually very steep at the initial stages of their working life. Had they been explicitly taught the skills and processes needed for acquiring knowledge and information in various disciplines when in school, they would have had a much easier time. Unfortunately, until recent years, this has not been the case.

Things have improved in the last five years or so. There is now, across the board, greater emphasis on the teaching and learning of process skills (critical thinking, creative thinking, writing, oral presentation, data analysis, data collection, etc.) in the school curriculum.1 Private schools and organisations that specialise in teaching critical and creative thinking skills, as well as in training teachers to teach these skills, have also sprung up in the last two to three years.2 In the coming years, we should start to see some significant improvement in the range of abilities that students will possess by the time they graduate from the Singapore education system.

This development has occurred elsewhere too, for example, in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Lipman (Lipman et al., 1980; Lipman, 2003) reported that in the 1970s and 1980s education researchers had recognised the ineffectiveness of the American education system. Courses in schools generally lacked relevance, interest and meaning. Subjects were treated as completely unrelated to one another and therefore taught as discrete entities, even though in reality existing knowledge in various fields was increasingly being integrated to create new forms of knowledge. There was little attempt, if any, to engage students in critical thought about what they were learning. As a result, American students became more and more disaffected. This prompted a movement to introduce critical thinking skills into the school curriculum. Since the mid-1970s, education researchers have developed and refined various programmes and methods specifically designed to ensure that learning takes place through active critical thought (e.g. the Philosophy for Children curriculum developed by Matthew Lipman and the Understanding by Design framework of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe). These programmes and methods have been gaining popularity over the last ten years, not just in the United States but also in Australia, New Zealand and, now, Singapore.3

However, things are still very much in transition, both locally and overseas. Many teachers remain unsure about how exactly to teach the various process skills in the classroom or why they should do so. The primary aim of this chapter is to show how a basic understanding of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of knowledge, the ways in which we acquire knowledge, and the value of knowledge, can help educators see why the teaching and learning of the skills and processes required for knowledge construction is crucial.

Key Issues and Ideas in Epistemology

Epistemology deals with three key issues:4

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. What are the best and most secure ways of acquiring knowledge?
  3. What is the value of knowledge?

The first issue concerns the nature of knowledge. Epistemologists are interested to find out what exactly it is to know that something is the case. This quest is usually characterised as the task of specifying a set of conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for a person to have knowledge. To say that these conditions are individually necessary for having knowledge means one must satisfy all the conditions in order to count as knowing something. If one fails to satisfy even one of these conditions, then one does not have knowledge. To say that these conditions are jointly sufficient for knowing something means that satisfying them all will guarantee that one has knowledge.

The traditional account of knowledge is based on the following specifications:

(K) S knows that P if and only if(a) S believes that P,
S's belief that P is justified, and
P is true,

where S stands for the knower and P for the proposition or statement that describes what the knower knows.

This account of knowledge is often traced back to Plato's Theaetetus and Meno.5 It serves as a starting point for many contemporary epistemologists in their attempts to explicate the nature of knowledge—only a starting point, because there is a well-known problem with this account. There are cases where a person has satisfied all the three conditions in (K) but nevertheless fails to have knowledge, because there is some element of luck involved in the way the first and third conditions are met. Yet, according to (K), the person counts as having knowledge.

Let us illustrate the problem with an example. Suppose that one morning I ask my colleague Kevin to give me a lift home after work and he agrees. I thus have a very good reason to believe that I'll be getting a lift home from Kevin that day. However, unbeknownst to me, Kevin gets into an accident while driving out for lunch that day. Although he is unhurt, his car needs major repairs. Kevin's mechanic happens to be his uncle, who, quite by chance, has a spare truck in the workshop that day. He loans Kevin the truck. At the end of the day, Kevin gives me a lift home in his uncle's truck. Now suppose that someone asks me during lunch how I'll be getting home that day, and I tell him what I believe, namely, that I'll be getting a lift from Kevin. Well, my belief is true. It is also justified, because Kevin has told me earlier that he will be giving me a lift home that day. This is very good evidence for my belief. But do I know that Kevin will be giving me a lift home that day? No, because there is an element of luck involved in Kevin still being able to give me a lift home that day. Furthermore, if I had known about Kevin's accident, I would not have continued to believe that he would be giving me a lift home that day. Yet, according to (K), because my belief is both true and justified, I do know that Kevin will be giving me a lift home that day. So, (K) must be wrong.

This problem was first made famous by Edmund Gettier (1963) and has become known as the Gettier problem. Many epistemologists have attempted to solve this problem. These various attempts all have one aim, which is to specify the way in which one's justification for believing a true proposition rules out the possibility that one has arrived at the true belief by chance.6

Some epistemologists attempt to understand the nature of knowledge via a different route. They focus, in the first place, on the scope and limits of human knowledge. Some subjects, like the nature of the physical world, appear to lie within the realm of knowledge, but others, like the existence of God (although this example may be controversial), seem to belong to the domain of opinion or faith. Here epistemologists explore whether there is a principled way of separating the realm of knowledge from other domains. Secondly, they ask whether there are important divisions within the realm of knowledge. For example, some epistemologists make a distinction between knowledge that is acquired, at least in part, through experience or observation (often called “a posteriori knowledge”) and knowledge that is acquired independently of experience (often called “a priori knowledge”). Pure mathematics is often given as an example of the latter sort of knowledge. Other epistemologists, however, disagree that any such distinction exists.7

The second key issue in epistemology concerns the following questions: Is there just one way of acquiring knowledge, or are there several, depending on the sort of knowledge in question? If there are several ways of acquiring knowledge, which is (or are) the best and most secure? Can we improve on the ways we acquire knowledge? Some philosophers believe that there are fundamental differences between how knowledge is acquired in the natural sciences and how it is acquired in the social sciences. Some have held that scientific methods of inquiry are far superior to other methods and have argued that we should attempt to make all forms of inquiry as scientific as possible, regardless of the subject matter under investigation.

But whatever the methods and processes employed in an inquiry, they inevitably involve some combination of the following faculties and sources of knowledge: perception, reason, testimony and memory. It is uncontroversial to note that we have sometimes been led astray by our perception, our reason, our memory, and our reliance on the testimony of others. Given this, how is it even possible that we can reliably acquire knowledge using these faculties and sources?

Many epistemologists have tried to answer this question, with varying degrees of success.8 The response given by seventeenth-century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes is perhaps the most famous and influential. Descartes wanted to find an absolutely secure way of acquiring knowledge. In pursuit of this goal, he adopted this strategy: he will accept a proposition as true only if it remains secure under the most unfavourable circumstances imaginable. For Descartes, such circumstances involve our being comprehensively deceived by an all-powerful demon so that everything we have ever believed to be true is in fact false, but whether our beliefs are true or false we can detect no perceptible difference in how the world seems to us. For any given proposition, unless we can eliminate the possibility that we are currently being deceived by this demon about its truth, we cannot rightly claim to know that it is in fact true. From Descartes' point of view, it does not matter that our perception, our reason, our memory and the testimony we receive from others sometimes lead us astray. For any given proposition, as long as we have eliminated all the doubts we can possibly raise against it, regardless of how improbable those doubts may be, we can be certain that we know the proposition is true.9

Some philosophers have commented that Descartes had set the standards far too high. On Descartes' account, aside from our own individual existence, we do not have genuine knowledge of anything else.10 Some others have thought that Descartes had misconceived the problem entirely.11 Yet others have taken Descartes seriously and have tried to prove that Descartes' demon cannot possibly exist.12

The third key issue in epistemology concerns whether knowledge itself is worth having and, if it is, why. Suppose that we want knowledge. What do we want it for? Do we want it in an unqualified way or only for some specific purpose? Is knowledge the only goal in inquiry?13

Some Implications for Educators

One important lesson we can draw from the above introduction to epistemology is that many of the things we claim to know—in our daily undertakings, in the sciences, in the social sciences, in the humanities, and perhaps even in mathematics—would not count as knowledge if we were to apply Descartes' epistemic standards to them. This is because a lot of our claims to knowledge are based on evidence that does not provide us with complete certainty about their truth. In response, we may either reject Descartes' standards as unrealistic and at odds with what we intuitively regard as knowledge or try to improve on the ways in which we acquire knowledge in the various fields of inquiry so that we come closer to Descartes' ideal, even if we fail to fully achieve it. In practice, inquirers in various fields have come to resolve this tension between description and prescription by, on the one hand, recognising the tentative and fallible nature of their conclusions while, on the other hand, constantly seeking to improve on the ways in which they arrive at their conclusions.

The implication for educators is that the information and knowledge we attempt to transmit to our students in the classroom is not fixed but is constantly subjected to critical evaluation, refinement and revision. But this means our students would be better off learning how to conduct their own inquiries, how to critically evaluate their findings, and how to refine and revise them. The main objectives of education should be the following:

  1. To teach students how to decide whether a particular piece of information counts as genuine knowledge or whether it is no more than the best guess we can come up with at the moment. (What is knowledge?)
  2. To teach students how to determine whether a particular piece of information has been acquired in the proper ways, whether there are good reasons to think that it is correct or whether there are good reasons to think that it could be false after all, even though there is strong evidence for it. (What are the best and most secure ways of acquiring knowledge?)
  3. To teach students how to determine what the goal of inquiry is in a given situation and to evaluate whether a particular piece of information or knowledge is worth having. (What is the value of knowledge?)

It is not that the question “What are the things that we know?” is unimportant. Obviously, if we are trying to get something done, it is crucial that we figure out what we know about the situation before proceeding. To carry on without doing so is to act blindly—usually a recipe for disaster. But, even here, it is critical to ensure that we have acquired our information in the right ways and that we have solid evidence to think that the information is correct, for to proceed without doing this is to act without establishing that the information—our basis for action—is reliable, an equally likely recipe for disaster.

Concluding Remarks

Recently, at the beginning of a knowledge and inquiry lesson on the nature of mathematics, a teacher asked his students to write down their preliminary ideas about what mathematics is. One student wrote that, although she knew how to perform a number of complicated mathematical calculations, she had no clue what the basis of these manipulations is—she did not understand why or how those mathematical manoeuvres work.

We should do better as educators. As Lipman (2003) puts it, the focus of the educational process should not be on the acquisition of specific information and knowledge, but on the grasp of the relationships within and between the subjects under investigation. Genuine understanding occurs only when students are able to be thoughtful and reflective about the information and knowledge they have been presented with, and when they are sensitive to the goals of inquiry and are therefore able to be reasonable and judicious in their assessment of the processes and conclusions of inquiry. Introducing new subjects that are specifically designed to teach critical thinking, creative thinking and other process skills into our curriculum is a step in the right direction, but the benefits will be limited if students are not also given the opportunity to use these skills in their content subjects, such as physics, economics and history. Physics students should also be taught how to think like physicists, economics students like economists, history students like historians, and so on. Only in this way can we produce students who are able to be sensitive to what is problematic in any given situation, to be reasonable and judicious in their work, and to think for themselves.


1 See the Singapore Ministry of Education Web site (http://www.moe.gov.sg) for details.

2 For example, the Idea Factory (http://www.ideafactory.com) and LogicMills (http://www.logicmills.com).

3 For the Australian and New Zealand experiences with these programmes and methods, see Cam (2006) and Millett (2006); for the Singaporean experience, see the articles by various local educators and researchers in Ho (2006).

4 See Audi (2003), Dancy (1987), Grayling (1995), Martin (1995), Shope (1983), Sturgeon (1995) and Williams (2001).

5 But see Kaplan (1985).

6 See Dancy (1987) and Shope (1983) for a survey of these attempts.

7 For epistemological debates along these lines, see Brandom (1994), Descartes (1984), Hacking (1981), Kant (1964), Kuhn (1962), Lakatos and Musgrave (1970), Locke (1975), Quine (1960) and Rorty (1979), to name just a few.

8 See Audi (2003) for a review.

9 See Descartes' The Discourse on the Method and Meditations from First Philosophy, both collected in Descartes (1984).

10 Descartes himself did not think this, but see, for example, Fogelin (2003).

11 See, for example, the seminal works of Charles Sanders Peirce, collected in Goodman (1995) and Haack (2006).

12 See reviews by Audi (2003), Chappell (2005) and Fearn (2005).

13 For discussions of these questions, see Brandom (1994), Davidson (1984), Feyerabend (1981), Kuhn (1962), Lakatos and Musgrave (1970), Putnam (1978), Quine (1960) and Rorty (1979); see also the essays collected in Goodman (1995) and Haack (2006).


Audi, R. (2003). Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Brandom, R. B. (1994). Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cam, P. (2006). Philosophy and the school curriculum: Some general remarks. In W. K. Ho (Ed.), Philosophy in Schools: Developing a Community of Inquiry (pp. 23–38). Singapore: Singapore Teachers' Union.

Chappel l, T. (2005). The Inescapable Self: An Introduction to Western Philosophy. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Dancy, J. (1987). Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davidson, D. (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Descartes, R. (1984). The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Edited by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff & D. Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fearn, N. (2005). Philosophy: The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions. London: Atlantic Books.

Feyerabend, P. (1981). Realism, Rationalism and Scientific Method: Philosophical Papers 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fogelin, R. (2003). Walking the Tightrope of Reason: The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gettier, E. (1963). Is justified true belief knowledge? Analysis, 23, 121–123.

Goodman, R. B. (Ed.) (1995). Pragmatism: A Contemporary Reader. London: Routledge.

Grayling, A. C. (Ed.) (1995). Scepticism. In Philosophy 1: A Guide through the Subject (pp. 43–57). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haack, S. (Ed.) (2006). Pragmatism, Old and New: Selected Writings. New York: Prometheus Books.

Hacking, I. (Ed.) (1981). Scientific Revolutions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ho, W. K. (Ed.) (2006). Philosophy in Schools: Developing a Community of Inquiry. Singapore: Singapore Teachers' Union.

Kant, I. (1964). Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by N. K. Smith. London: Macmillan.

Kaplan, M. (1985). It's not what you know that counts. Journal of Philosophy, 82, 350–363.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakatos, I., & Musgrave, A. (1970). Criticism and Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lipman, M. (2003). Thinking in Education. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lipman, M., Sharp, A. M., & Oscanyan, F. S. (1980). Philosophy in the Classroom. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Locke, J. (1975). Essay concerning Human Understanding. Edited by P. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, M. G. F. (1995). Perception. In A. C. Grayling (Ed.), Philosophy 1: A Guide through the Subject (pp. 26–43). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Millett, S. (2006). Teaching philosophy in Australian schools. In W. K. Ho (Ed.), Philosophy in Schools: Developing a Community of Inquiry (pp. 39–55). Singapore: Singapore Teachers' Union.

Putnam, H. (1978). Meaning and the Moral Sciences. London: Routledge.

Quine, W. V. O. (1960). Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rorty, R. (1979). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shope, R. (1983). The Analysis of Knowing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sturgeon, S. (1995). Knowledge. In A. C. Grayling (Ed.), Philosophy 1: A Guide through the Subject (pp. 10–26). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, M. (2001). Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

The following books provide helpful insights on the philosophy of education and the use of philosophical discussion in the classroom.

Curren, R. (Ed.) (2005). A Companion to the Philosophy of Education. Oxford: Blackwell.

Huemer, M. (Ed.) (2002). Epistemology: Contemporary Readings. London: Routledge.

Mathews, G. B. (1984). Dialogues with Children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.