Reductionism and the problem of testimonial belief

For 10 weeks in term 3 I completed an online course on “Theory of Knowledge” from the University of Oxford’s department for continuing education. As part of this course, I have to submit two assignments. The second, was due at the end of the course and is copied below. The first can be read here.

What is the reductionist position as regards the epistemology of testimonial belief? Is such a view defensible, do you think?

In this essay, we will examine the nature of knowledge and the relationship of testimonial belief to it. We will look at the problem of testimony and the various ways of responding to this problem before addressing the question above.

A summary of the structure of knowledge

Some context is necessary here. I assume that justification, truth and belief are all necessary conditions for knowledge but in and of themselves are not sufficient conditions for an agent to claim knowledge. In addition, we need an understanding of the nature and type of the justification given. Normally we would require justification to be rational and based on evidence. In order to maximise true beliefs we are concerned with epistemic rationality: rational thinking and ways of thought that lead to the acquisition of a maximum number of these true beliefs. Epistemic rationality is either internal or external. If it is internal, the agent is aware of how they formed their beliefs and can justify them. If external, the agent may not be aware of how they formed these beliefs and is therefore not in a position to justify them consciously. However, if these beliefs were formed through epistemic norms, ways of acting and thinking that likely lead to the formation of true belief, we can still claim them as justified (Pritchard, 2014). This distinction is important when we consider testimonial knowledge and I will provide some examples later in the essay.

Testimonial knowledge

Testimonial knowledge is the knowledge gained by the transmission of information verbally, through reading or other activities where an agent is gaining knowledge from another agent. We depend on testimony for forming many of our beliefs. Most of what we claim to know through formal education is acquired through testimony. The knowledge that our parents impart to us is also testimonial. Testimony is therefore central to knowledge and can be a way of acquiring knowledge (I acquired true belief X through testimony) and also a way of justifying the knowledge an agent claims (Belief X is true because I was told or I read it). For example, I justify my belief that the moon orbits planet earth because I was told this in school. I also received this knowledge through the testimony of my teacher at the time.

The problem of testimony and the responses to it.

The problem with testimonial knowledge arises from our inability to independently justify knowledge that we gain through testimony. By independently verify, I mean that we cannot verify this knowledge in most cases without resorting to some other form of testimony. For example I know that the moon orbits the earth because I was told this by my teacher but if I wish to independently verify this, I normally would have to consult a textbook (a form of testimony). To illustrate this further, I could look for other means of justification: I could call NASA to ask them to verify this is the case but this would also mean I was relying on their testimony. Without actually acquiring a telescope and making empirical observations of the movements of the sun, moon and stars and making advanced calculations I would have no way of independently verifying this knowledge without resorting to more justification via testimony.

Reductionism and credulism both try to answer this problem. Reductionism claims that testimony based beliefs will always ultimately reside on non-testimonial evidence. Or, if we are to rightly hold a testimony based belief then we must also hold evidence that is not testimony based (Pritchard, 2014). This is an epistemically rational internalist position because reductionism requires an agent to know how they formed those beliefs and be able to explain how they formed those beliefs.

The reductionist position easily applies for local beliefs, things we can verify through our own perception and perhaps through our own empirical investigations, like a preschooler learning about the world through perception and empirical experience, for example, I know what a banana tastes like from experiencing it. Reductionism gets harder to apply with non-local beliefs, where we are simply unable to empirically verify a testimonial belief, for example, my belief that the moon is not made of cheese.

Credulism offers another response to the problem of testimonial knowledge. This position holds that we don’t always need independent grounds to justify a testimony based belief (Pritchard, 2014). Instead, it claims, such beliefs are justifiably held unless there is special reasons to doubt them. This is an example of external epistemic rationality where we don’t require an agent to be able to justify how they formed their beliefs so long as they have been following epistemic norms. In this case, an epistemic norm could be that being told something by an authoritative source is one way to maximise true belief. Holding to views acquired by testimony in this way is an entirely rational thing to do.

When credulism is modified thus we can begin to appreciate its advantages. For example, most of the knowledge that we learn at school and university is taught to us by teachers or experts in a particular field. Many of the things that we may wish to independently verify, we cannot. Would we say that something we learned in school or university was not knowledge? Intuitively not. We may regard facts acquired in this way as more robust than picking something up in a pub from a casual conversation. So we can have a methodology in terms of discriminating how reliable someone might be by their level of expertise.

The problem with credulism is that it can seem to make a virtue out of not knowing but of trusting (Pritchard, 2014). Perhaps we should be more sceptical of the information that we receive, after all, teachers can often make mistakes, or be misinformed themselves (I know from my experience of being one!)

Is reductionism defensible?

We can think of both reductionism and credulism as lying on a spectrum of justification. On one hand we have the reductionist who requires that every belief acquired through testimony needs to be independently verified and on the other hand we have the credulist who accepts that so long as these testimonial beliefs have been acquired through epistemic norms then there is no need for independent verification.

The reductionist position is the ideal because it forces agents to acquire more than one line of evidence to justify a true belief. Ideally agents should be able to justify those beliefs acquired through testimony via other means, be it through perception or empirical investigation but this ideal has some serious difficulties.

Firstly the process of independent verification of every belief acquired through testimony would take an extremely long time, enough to render the exercise impractical on an individual level. If an individual was responsible for independently verifying each one of their beliefs acquired through testimony, they would not be able to necessarily maximise their true beliefs. If we try to answer this by allowing many agents to independently verify different beliefs they hold in common, we run into the problem of relying on testimony from other agents again. Thus this doesn’t seem to be an epistemically rational way to maximise true belief.

The second problem that arises from the reductionists position in that it is not always possible to independently verify beliefs gained via testimony. Should we discount these beliefs as knowledge then? It seems that if we were to ignore any beliefs that we were not able to independently verify we would miss out a large number of true beliefs and would therefore be impoverished in what we know.

The third problem is in some cases it is not necessarily appropriate to independently verify our testimonial beliefs: “it is improper to place too many intellectual demands on people’s everyday beliefs. … if the reduction is possible, requiring it is overly demanding; the requirement to reduce hyper-intellectualizes testimonial justification. Young children, for instance, lack the intellectual capacity to consider complicated issues regarding the reliability of their parents or others who give them testimonially-based beliefs, and so it is improper to place epistemic demands on them.” (IEP, 2018)

Therefore whilst reductionism offers a seemingly strong answer to the problem of testimonial knowledge, it leaves us with the more problems regarding maximising our true beliefs.

Credulism too has problems associated with it. How do we know that another agent isn’t trying to decieve us? One proxy I sometime hear people use for knowing if a written argument is well founded is that the argument contains references. This shorthand is often used in informal academic online discussions within education but what if one agent is deceitful and simply puts many references so that readers will trust them?

In reality, most of our beliefs will be justified through testimony. We should strive like the reductionist to independently verify these beliefs where possible. Where we can’t we should accept those beliefs where we can be more confident of the source of the testimonial belief. In this way, our beliefs will dot across a spectrum, where each individual belief occupies a position between pure reductionism and pure credulism.


IEP (2018) accessed on 26th July 2018\

Pritchard, D. (2014) What is this thing called knowledge? 3rd edition. Routledge.

Whole school support for EAL learners

One of the exercises on my online DPC course had the participants looking at IB research. I had a look at this summary article and I thought what I read warranted further reflection.

The summary highlights what I have mentioned in previous blog posts, that there is an agreement in the academic literature  that there is a specific academic language of school and that this is different from general language style:

There is a general consensus in the literature that there exists a specific style of speaking and writing which is appropriate for the school context of academic learning. Although researchers and theorists disagree on the exact nature of this language style, it is widely accepted that students who are learning in a second language require support in acquiring the academic language of the classroom

This could arguably highlight the concepts of BICS and CALPS identified by Jim Cummins and which I have written about here and here. Writing about EAL instruction in biology teaching has been one of the focusses of this blog and reflects my thinking and reflection around school practices that best support EAL teaching.


It is important that teachers are aware of the difference between academic and “general” language and take individual responsibility to instruct their EAL students sufficiently in the language of their academic subject when working at an advanced level. EAL “specialists” may be able to support with instruction at times, but they don’t necessarily have the technical expertise to have a strong enough grasp of subject-specific terminology and concepts to fill in the gaps left by teachers who maybe aren’t aware of these differences.

For example, I teach biology in y12-13/g11-12. This subject (like all subjects at this level) has a highly specific language. One that even native speakers struggle with when first encountering the subject at those grades. When I first was exposed to the distinction between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells at A Level, I had to repeatedly commit to memory what these terms meant.

I could understand easily that one had a nucleus, and the other didn’t but I still had to learn the distinction. The point is, this relied on me knowing what a nucleus was and developing my understanding further.

An EAL student may have to then learn what a nucleus is, either by translating from the knowledge they already possess in their mother tongue or depending on their academic background may have no conception of this in their own tongue.

An EAL specialist may or not be able to help them unpack these words depending on their own expertise – it is highly unlikely that any teacher without a biology background would understand immediately the distinction between these two types of cells and therefore would perhaps be limited in the support that they could give.

In order to provide effective instruction in the academic language needed for success in the content areas, teachers must be prepared to integrate academic language teaching into the teaching of the disciplines (Bunch, 2013; Heritage, Silva and Pierce, 2007; Wong-Fillmore and Snow, 2000). High-quality professional development programmes targeting academic language instruction can result in improvements in student performance (Kim et al., 2011; Anstrom et al., 2010; Dicerbo, Anstrom, Baker and Rivera, 2013).

The problem here is that many schools in my experience (which is limited) simply run a training session for staff (maybe on BICS and CALPS) but offer very little in terms of helping subject teachers develop practical skills in terms of language teaching of their subject.

Even less so, do schools spend time educating parents on these issues. I remain surprised by how many parents think they can switch there child from one academic language to another in upper secondary and not understand the difficulties this might pose for their child.


Data from this report shows that many schools will assess students level of English at the point of entry but do no follow up to that assessment

The survey results indicate that when schools are assessing the proficiency of second language students on an ongoing basis, they are doing so using appropriate measures. However, almost half of the schools which responded to the question (45%) provide no language proficiency assessment beyond initial screening for identification. This is potentially problematic in cases where teachers require ongoing information about students’ language proficiency in order to be able to provide effective support.

How can language learning be supported if there is no formative and summative assessment of a students progress to date.

So what would an effective policy for supporting EAL students look like?

I strongly believe that the best support for EAL students in the final years of secondary/high school will come from their classroom teachers. This based on the belief that these individuals are the experts in their subject and, having had a high level of academic training within their subject, will be best placed to understand the academic language norms of vocab, grammar and style or discussion unique to their subject area.

I also believe that these subject teachers may not initially be all that familiar with the needs of EAL students and should, therefore, receive ongoing support and training from specialists. These specialists would best be represented as individuals from the same department who have studied the subject at some depth.

It may be helpful to have these subject EAL specialists associated with an EAL support department comprising EAL generalists and subject-specific specialists in EAL instruction across the whole school. This department would be responsible for delivering training to teachers in the community which help them gain an understanding of EAL concepts like BICS/CALPS and tier 1, 2 and 3 words.

Teachers would have access to high-quality ongoing training. This would have to:

  • Have elements of direct instruction to get teachers familiar with some of the general principles in EAL teaching.
  • Have elements of flexibility that allowed teachers to continuously develop in this area as their needs allow – perhaps providing ongoing “clinics” where teachers can bring questions to the EAL specialists.

Schools needs to provide effective assessment measures for EAL development:

  • Initial assessment of a student’s needs and abilities to decide on what strategy of support to put in place. This needs to subject specific as well as general. For example in biology, I may have all students take a vocabulary test which includes tier 3 words but also tier 2 words like yield and coolant – it is important to assess each students understanding relative to one another.
  • Ongoing language assessment within subjects delivered by subject teachers – this may mean that students take vocabulary tests on specific vocabulary throughout the year. This should be done in such a way that the performance of all students can be compared and so

It is not acceptable to admit students into the higher grades of secondary school if they don’t have a good grasp of tier 2 vocabulary and the school isn’t willing to place resources into developing those students language skills. Neither is it acceptable to simply except classroom practitioners to differentiate down so far for these students who are placed in exam classes without additional support.

In addition the school needs to work proactively to educate its parent community about these issues if they exist.


A summary of the structure of knowledge

In the final term of this year, I completed an online course on “Theory of Knowledge” from the University of Oxford’s department for continuing education. As part of this course, I have to submit two assignments. The first, which is a summary of the structure of knowledge and limited to around 500 words, was due on the 5th June and I am posting a copy of it below.

A summary of the structure of knowledge

According to Pritchard (2014), we can distinguish between two types of knowledge: knowledge of something or knowledge of how to do something also referred to as propositional knowledge and ability knowledge respectively. It is the first of these that we are interested in in this summary.

Knowledge is valuable because knowledge has instrumental and non-instrumental value. Having knowledge is instrumentally valuable in the sense that it helps us achieve our goals, but it is also non-instrumentally valuable in the sense that having knowledge enriches our lives in and of itself.

To claim to know something is to make a claim or a proposition that a) you believe something and b) that your belief is true. If I claim that it is raining in London while I am living in Lausanne, and assuming that I have no ill intent to deceive those I am talking to, I am making a proposition which I must ultimately believe – how could I claim it was raining if I didn’t ultimately believe it to be so? Intuitively it seems that we cannot claim propositional knowledge if we don’t first believe it.

The claim that we know something “aims at” truth, to use Pritchard’s (2014) phrase. Claiming knowledge intuits at the truth of reality. We don’t normally count someone who holds a false belief as holding knowledge of something. For example, in a pub quiz, someone could be said to be knowledgeable of the topic in question if they hold what is commonly accepted as the “correct” or truthful response. Someone who incorrectly or falsely believes the answer is another proposition cannot be said to know the answer.

Thus, we can say that truth and belief are necessary conditions of knowledge. However, a guess (like a bet) that gets to the truth of the matter (that turns out to be true) is also a claim that contains truth and belief but is not considered knowledge. Under normal circumstances, someone who wins at roulette with the number 29 can’t be said to know that 29 was the correct number, but they did have a true belief that 29 was the number.

Therefore, to count as knowledge, a claim needs have more than truth and belief, it also needs to be justified. Knowledge has historically been counted as justified true belief. All three of these elements are necessary conditions for knowledge but on their own, they are not sufficient conditions for knowledge.

For example, Gettier cases show us that justified true belief isn’t always enough for knowledge. By luck, some agents can still hold true beliefs that are justified but that we would not normally count as knowledge. In the case of an agent who “knows” the time by looking at a stopped clock, if they look at the clock at the “correct” time even though the clock has stopped they will have gained a justified true belief, but they will have done so by luck. If they had looked at the clock five minutes later or five minutes earlier they would have acquired a false belief (Pritchard, 2014).

So, we also need more than justified true belief. We still need to consider the type of justification that is used when combined with true belief. More specifically we need to consider what supports our beliefs in order for them to be justified. There are normally three ways of considering this: a) beliefs do not need to be grounded on anything b) beliefs can be founded on an infinite chain of justifications c) beliefs can be grounded on a circular chain of beliefs. The different schools of thought of infinitism, foundationalism and coherentism offer different responses to this trilemma.

Justification and the support needed for belief is closely linked to rationality. Normally only rational beliefs would be considered knowledge. We can think of a judge who reaches their decision either by weighing up the evidence presented or on the basis of their emotional or prejudice. A judge who rationally weighs up the evidence to reach a verdict can be justified in their true beliefs but a judge who doesn’t, can’t be. However not all rationality is linked to finding the truth and to justify our beliefs we should be concerned with having epistemically rational beliefs. Pascal’s wager is a good example of the difference between epistemically and non-epistemically rationality. In the same vein, we need to consider whether agents can or should be held responsible for their beliefs.

Are people responsible for paying attention to how their beliefs are formed? Can we count a belief as knowledge if the agent in question has not considered how they have formed their belief?


Pritchard, D. (2014) What is this thing called knowledge? 3rd edition. Routledge.


Taking your Diploma Programme to the next level

In the fourth and final week of the Diploma Programme coordination category 2 online course we looked at some of the more intangible elements of a successful Diploma Programme. These included relationships with students and staff and strategies for managing these, particularly when stress levels might be quite high; making sure that students stayed with the full diploma program and got the recognition they deserved and how to use data to improve the program further.

In the first activity, we reflected on strategies to help bring enthusiasm for the program to students and faculty.

I think the key to providing the enthusiasm needed to champion students relies on the coordinator supporting teachers effectively so that they are able to support their own students effectively and maintain their own positive teacher-student relationships.

Of course, the DPC needs to think about their own relationships with the students on the programme, but to inspire kids, colleagues need to be empowered and supported in their own work.

This can come about through careful discussion and planning of the assessment calendar and support teachers in holding students accountable for making sure deadlines are adhered to. I have often witnessed the snowballing effect of when a teacher thinks they are being kind to a student by extending a deadline, only for that piece of work to then be happening at the same time as another piece and so the student ends up feeling doubly overwhelmed.

There, therefore, needs to be structures in place so that staff can get help with problems in their own areas but also so that students can get the support they need formally and informally.

Going forward I would like in a small school environment:

  • Mix the y12 and y13 homerooms so that DP1 and DP2 students can learn from, communicate with and support each other.
  • Facilitate meeting and communication between the school guidance department and the CAS advisors so that all students are receiving the same advice and all students feel that they have an individual teacher that they can go to if necessary.
  • Operate office hours so that teachers/students can book appointments to meet with me on an ad hoc basis.
  • Provide supervised study hall sessions so that students can get help with developing their ATLs.
  • Review the school’s assessment policy to ensure that teachers understand the differences between formative and summative assessment and know when each is appropriate.
  • Put systems in place to ensure that students are monitored and so that there are safety nets in place to stop snowballing of problems.
  • Think carefully about the assessment policies and procedures to maximise student wellbeing – making sure that staff understand formative and summative assessment, what it is used for and when it is appropriate.

In the second activity, we reviewed the role of the DPC in admitting students to the Diploma Programme and the need for communication and collaboration with the admissions department. We also looked at the IB research and were asked to comment on one article from this area.

In terms of the IB research, I am a little sceptical of some of it as I question its independence but  I have become increasingly interested in the status of second language learners who are studying the DP in languages, not their mother tongue. This interest has developed from working in two academic contexts where students had a Francophone academic background but our teaching was in English.

I had a look at the research summary for “Language proficiency for academic achievement in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme”.

This study was composed of a literature review looking at the academic literature of what is meant by academic language and the practices recommended to support students academic language proficiency, as well as a review of examination results from IBIS to examine how well students studying a second language perform. The third part of the research looked at the practices that have been implemented within schools.

I took away from this just how little ongoing monitoring for second language learners there is. It seems that while many schools give an initial assessment of a students proficiency they do not follow this up to inform future teaching. In addition, many schools leave second language support up to a small group of teachers.

The report recommends that schools give an ongoing formative assessment of students second lang development to inform teaching across their subjects and ensure that all teachers are engaged and trained on the teaching of EAL.

This is interesting because I have worked with so many schools where EAL training is restricted to a single inset day and then that is it. What I believe subject teachers need is also ongoing support and training, as the literature is vast and to get this right there is a lot of time that teachers need to invest in it.

Could school departments all have an EAL or equivalent lead who would be responsible for developing the department’s resources to support this?

In the final task we considered using IB data to further reflect and goal set.

Delivering the core of the IBDP

The core of the IBDP contains three elements: Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS); Theory of Knowledge (TOK); and the Extended Essay (EE).

In week three of my course, we have been focussing on how these three elements can be effectively delivered within the school system.

This has been a challenging week for me to engage with because, whilst I know how these things are structured in my current school and although I have direct experience with all three of these elements, I am not sure how they are organised in the context I will be joining this coming August and I am not sure of the value of simply regurgitating what my current school does during the online discussion spaces.

I took to emailing new colleagues with questions and making notes to address certain points this coming August and then simply commenting on what my current school is doing.


We were asked to take a check of the CAS situation in our school by reading sections of the CAS guide and ensuring that the school has:

  • a school CAS guide for students and parents
  • a process for students to develop a CAS plan
  • a process to encourage ongoing student reflection
  • student portfolios to document reflection and completion of the seven learning outcomes
  • a method for teacher evaluation of the students’ CAS portfolios 
  • reviewed the CAS programme questionnaire

This activity highlighted the importance of reflection for the development of a solid CAS programme. Reflection is one of those activities that has so much potential to be done badly; becoming forced – “reflect now!” – which totally undermines the point of it. The real challenge for schools is to develop a culture of reflection where the community sees the value of it and understands how to do it well. Like many things it is simply assumed that teachers do it and can do it well. One ongoing focus would be to help build the habits that drive reflection. The CAS guide has some useful pointers about the elements of reflection which, as reflection is not just a CAS thing, but something that underpins all good intellectual development, should be noted by all lifelong learners.

Elements of reflection

Taken from the CAS guide:

Reflection is a dynamic means for self-knowing, learning and decision-making. Four elements assist in the CAS reflective process. The first two elements form the foundation of reflection.

  • Describing what happened: Students retell their memorable moments, identifying what was important or influential, what went well or was difficult, obstacles and successes.
  • Expressing feelings: Students articulate emotional responses to their experiences.

The following two elements add greater depth and expand perspectives.

  • Generating ideas: Rethinking or re-examining choices and actions increases awareness about self and situations.
  • Asking questions: Questions about people, processes or issues prompt further thinking and ongoing inquiry.


How is a map a master metaphor for knowledge? In the same way that the map is a representation of reality and NOT reality, What we know is simply a representation of reality and not the same thing as reality.

How can a lab experiment be impacted by the emotions of a scientist?

These were some of the questions used to introduce TOK to the coordination trainees. As I have taught TOK in the past and I am currently taking another course online from Oxford on Theory of Knowledge, I am beginning to feel like I have a bit more of a handle on this subject.

In my own diploma programme, this would ideally really be a focus as I feel that getting TOK right is the key to overall academic success in the IBDP. If students really understand TOK and see its value, not only will they become that much more engaged with their subject but learn to appraise, analyse and reflect on them more deeply.

To achieve this I would try and explore all avenues for engaging teachers with TOK. Like the adage that all teachers are language teachers, it can often be overlooked that teachers themselves don’t know what TOK is or have never reflected on the nature of knowledge in their own subjects. If they haven’t even addressed these basic steps how can we expect TOK to be integrated fully into the curriculum? We also need to recognise the one session on its own is not going to be enough. Instead we need to invest in professionals in our community and encourage continued engagement with the ideas by getting them interested in it in the first place.

Extended Essay

The extended essay is a crucial element of the core and provides an explicit opportunity to develop research and organisational skills in a tangible activity of writing 4000 words on an academic topic. It is supported by explicit teaching of research, planning and self-management skills with the school’s librarian alongside teachers. Students must meet with a supervisor three times throughout the process and students and supervisors must compelte the reflections on planning and progress form.

There are a variety of ways that schools can support the process:

  • Handbook
  • Online scaffolding of the process
  • Research skills course
  • Blocked time in the schedule
  • Hold a retreat away to complete it
  • Dedicated research and writing days
  • Have department heads play a role as experts
  • Have teachers build in time to explain the methodology of an extended essay in their subject

If students are struggling the following safety nets can be in place:

  • Internal deadlines with a cushion of time for emergencies
  • Dedicated space for students to be sequestered
  • Dedicated teacher/coordinator/counsellor to give further support
  • Backwards design with many check-ins along the way

Reflection points

  • the importance of the core in achieving the diploma
  • the importance of the role you play as coordinator in supporting the core
  • structures and activities that can build further support for students so they meet with success in the core.