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?

References

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

 

Review: What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

This Easter holidays I read David Didau’s 350+ page compendium.

Basically, this book is an essential must read for any teacher. It is detailed and covers quite the range of ideas relating to classroom practice. On top of that, it is very well written, with clear and accessible language.

It is broken into four parts.

Part 1 “Why we are wrong” introduces the reader to a few general psychological concepts. Throughout the book, David references Daniel Kahneman’s work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” a lot and I think much of what is written here is sourced from that book, although, perhaps, simplified and certainly written in a much less head scratchy way. If you have read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” many of the ideas about psychological traps and biases will be familiar to you. Still, David is able to show how to apply these concepts succinctly to the classroom setting. He also provides an excellent explanation of effect sizes and the statistical techniques used to compare the effectiveness of classroom interventions before giving some real food for thought as to why this evidence might not be as robust as we think. His critique of Hattie’s work was quite surprising for me and I welcomed the explanation of a concept I had heard lots of people talk about, but nobody has ever explained.

Part 2 lays out what David refers to as the threshold concepts for learning to teach effectively. David unpicks many commonly held myths about classroom teaching and learning and makes an argument as to why many of these cherished ideas are wrong. The key idea here is that learning does not equal the same thing as performance in class. Learning is essentially an invisible process happening in peoples heads and by looking at performance in class we assume that this equates to learning in the mind of the student. Classroom observers look for evidence of “rapid and sustained” learning during class time, however learning, David makes the case for, is messy, non-linear and if it is going to be sustained cannot be rapid. Aside from the difference between learning and performance he covers concepts such the difference between novice and expert learners, the structure of our memory in terms of storage and retrieval strength and cognitive load.

After explaining our cognitive biases and how they apply in education before unpicking many myths about classroom practice held in educational circles, in part 3 David goes on to apply the cognitive concepts from part 2 directly to teaching practice. He gives a clear exposition of interleaving, the spacing effect, the testing effects and the effects of feedback. His writing will prompt you to think about these topics and how they may apply in your own planning and instruction – I know that they certainly have for me.

In the final part, he examines other pet theories in education that we could be wrong about. The first chapter deals with formative assessment and presents a surprising critique of Dylan Wiliams work, with a reply for Dylan Wiliam. There are also chapters on the problems of lesson observations, differentiation, praise among others.

One of the things that I was most surprised about and enjoyed reading was the critiques of the work by very established researchers. The work of both Hattie and Wiliam were picked apart at different points in the book. I am not sure I am fully convinced by the arguments but it was a pleasure to read something that was a little bit different in the sense that I have never come across critical reflections of these, much discussed, in schools at least, concepts before.

I also like the way the book is laid out. Now that I have read it through, I am able to easily go back and find relevant chapters for different concepts again.

This book has given me quite a bit to think about in terms of my curriculum planning and my classroom practice. Despite having just finalised my DP curriculum, I am already prompted by thoughts in this book to review it – particularly in line with David’s thesis that we should plan curriculums around threshold concepts. Doing that first involves identifying them which will probably be the springboard for my next CPD drive. However, I am fully aware that even the threshold concept of threshold concepts may turn out to be an unevidenced and unprovable claim made by education researchers and that my time here will be wasted. Only time will tell!

Goals For This Year (2016-2017)

In this post I am trying to clarify my ideas for my goals and focus of my pedagogical practice for the academic year 2016-17.

Teaching

Firstly following on from my reading this summer and as discussed in an earlier post I want to bring thinking more to the front and centre of classes. By this I mean that I want to make the types of thinking used by scientists more explicit to my students and to help them further develop their thinking dispositions.

1) Learner Profile

I have come to see the learner profile as the the dispositions of a learner. It is these dispositions that we are trying to develop.

Goal #1: Make the Learner Profile front and centre of class.

2) ATLS

If the Learner Profile is the disposition then the ATLS are the tools for developing those dispositions. Highlighting the approaches to learning and showing students how to develop these skills will develop their own learner profile.

In terms of IB teaching, this year I plan to spend more time focussing on the approaches to teaching and learning (ATLs). Thinking skills is a subgroup of this and the work of Ritchhart is referenced by the IB on their ATL guide in the thinking skills section. Ritchhart also talks about the need to make his thinking routines explict, as what students cannot name they cannot own. I think that this applies to all of the approaches to learning and  I am convinced that the methods used to make thinking more explicit would also be beneficial in terms on making all the learning skills more explicit to students, and therefore helping them develop the skills to become independent learners.

I think it would be wise then, to start by making the ATLs and the essential questions of science visible and on display in the laboratory. The same could be said for the TOK classroom and the college counseling office. What are the essential questions in these areas of school life?

In delivering my curriculums I will try to use routines more readily for study and thinking, the challenge now is to work out which routines will be best suited for my subjects in my lesson planning. And develop good routines for the other ATLs not necessarily just the thinking routines.

Goal #2: Make the approaches to learning explicit in class.

3) Thinking routines

A subset of the the ATLS are the thinking skills and routines have been developed by Harvard’s Project Zero. In using thinking routines I need to develop my skills of questioning to make thinking more visible and encourage my students to share their thinking. After all, individual thinking benefits from being challenged; from the need to articulate things clearly to others. Therefore collaboration is the stuff of growth and acts to give students the tools to work together by developing their own thinking skills.

For something to be truly valued it has to be well articulated and identifiable. To value thinking we have to unpack it and identify what it entails in any given situation, therefore leaders of any group need to articulate what kinds of thinking they value – what kinds of thinking do we want in a science class? In TOK class? Vygoytsky stated that children grow into the intellectual life of those around them therefore we need to surround children with thinking.

In the DP Biology course the Nature of Science sections lend themselves perfectly to developing the types of thinking required by scientists.

Steps to thinking involve: honesty with students, essential questions for science. Types of thinking moves. Thinking routines.

Goal #3: Teach for scientific and critical thinking.

4) Concept Inventories

Goal #4: Become more familiar with the research on “threshold concepts” and the Biology “Concept Inventories”

5) EdTech

On the EdTech front I am going to try to integrate Periscope more into my teaching. I think that the app has a lot of potential benefits for schools including the ability for students to connect in a non-threatening way with other students across the world, disseminate information to parents, and getting feedback on my teaching like a digital lesson study.

Twitter and Instagram could also be useful research tool for students and could be co-opted in to class if students are given advice on useful people to follow.

Goal #5: Make more use of Twitter and Periscope in my work in school.

 

 

 

Is Content King?

I have reached a watershed in my thinking about teaching and my philosophy about teaching science.

I trained and begun learning to teach in a school with a very robust academic record. Teachers were considered absolute experts in their field and students were, on the whole, very high achieving but who had high expectations of their teachers academically too.

In this environment I learned that the teacher’s fundamental responsibility was to be an an absolute expert in their field; if you didn’t know everything, and could not answer every question, the community of students would lose faith in you. Or at least that it is what it felt like.

I mentioned in my review of Ritchhart et al of comments made by an ex-colleague of mine which reinforced this sentiment.

In those formative days then learning to teach was about mastering your subject knowledge. Content was King. Delivered in lovely little powerpoint slides where students would simply copy down their notes and then memorise them.

I left that school confidently arrogant that I was an expert in my subject and in the IB. That any school was going to want to employ me after the time that I had spent in that school. And indeed I was partly right. I secured a position as Head of Biology at a prestigious boarding school. The time there was little different. I benefitted from working closely with the chemists and physicists, in a closely knit science department. However the sentiments were the same. Content was King. Our role as science teachers was to deliver the curriculums content. The learner profile was dismissed by the Head of Science as fluff.

Since moving on from that school I have been involved in setting up a school and taking it through its IB authorization process as the only Biology teacher and as one of two or, more recently, three science teachers. I cannot point to any single experience from this time that has been the catalyst but my thinking has begun to change. Perhaps it was being forced to seriously consider the IB’s other bits; the ATLs; the IB Learner profile. Perhaps it was being exposed to and challenged by the MYP. Perhaps it was teaching a new DP Biology syllabus with so much focus on the nature of science. Perhaps it was beginning to teach TOK. Perhaps it was becoming a workshop leader. Perhaps it was working with so many truly excellent IB educators. I don’t know.

But I now question the sentiment that content is king in science teaching.

I am beginning to think, to really think that more important than learning the content, my students need to learn to think. It might sound like an odd thing to write. It certainly feels like an odd thing to write.

I’m sure that many people who aren’t teachers would raise their eyebrows at what I wrote above. Surely, a teachers job is to teach students to think? But it’s not as simple as that. Teaching students to ask strong questions and to develop different thinking dispositions is no simple task. It’s much easier to focus on the curriculum delivery. What are my students supposed to know? Fill the time in with student-centred activities, and group work, debates and presentations and you are doing a good job right?

I’ve moved on from didactic lecture like teaching in my early days to worksheet, activity based teaching but has anything really changed? My students still present as apathetic. School is still something that they just do on the whole. I’m sure most of them forget what they “learn” instead of engaging with the deeper issues.

And this is what I want: I want my students to be engaged, passionate and switched on critically to the world around them and be scientifically literate.

How do I do that when sometimes I question my own scientific literacy?

Perhaps its time to really focus on the thinking and the types of thinking that are needed in science and needed to be developed in students of science. The trouble is I am sometimes not sure that I know what thinking really means…

In Making Thinking Visible Richhart et al (2011) discuss turning the content into a vehicle for teaching and framing certain thinking skills. It is argued that developing thinking skills is important because these skills are the tools that students will take forward into future life when the content is forgotten. They are the tools the future adults will utilize to navigate life.

The thing is, thinking doesn’t just happen. As teachers, we need to be explicit with students about the types of thinking that are useful in certain situations and provide strategies that help students learn to think in these ways. We can’t just leave it up to chance. After all, traditionally, we don’t leave the content up to chance (normally), instead, we are explicit with it. We need to give students the chance to think about their own thinking and what it means to them.

Ritchhart provides a list of “high-leverage thinking moves that serve understanding well”:

  1. Observing closely and describing what is there.
  2. Building explanations and interpretations.
  3. Reasoning with evidence.
  4. Making connections.
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives.
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
  7. Wondering and asking questions
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

I will be posting these “moves” in my classroom as a start as well as try to relate the activities we are doing to these types of activities.

As science teachers, we need to ask ourselves: What type of thinking is important in science? More specifically what types of thinking do we want to develop in students of science? How is thinking framed in terms of the work that scientists do? What are the essential questions of science?

Clearly, the thinking moves above are addressed by different elements of scientific enquiry. Observing closely is an important part of observational studies and also hypothesis generations so is wondering and asking questions. To generate a hypothesis requires building explanations and reasoning with evidence. When we draw our data out we try to capture the heart of a problem and draw a conclusion,

Once we have a clear idea of this then we can begin to teach the thinking alongside an understanding of the nature of science through well-planned content. The difference is that our learning objective is twinned – we have a thinking objective and a content objective.

Understanding how to teach in this way is important.  Biology teacher Paul Strode has written some articles in this vein. In one he looks at reasoning like a scientist and the other deals with teaching the hypothesis. Although he still focuses on framing the content instead of necessarily framing the questioning, these are good reads. However, I feel that the questioning and thinking strategies needed to become front and centre of the teaching instead of the content.

Thinking relies heavily on questioning. In science we are trying to ask the following questions:

What do I notice?

What does that tell me?

Why does it work like this?

How can I test this idea?

How can I be sure that my findings are valid?

Or, according to strode whose list is below:

Step 1: What claim am I being asked to accept?

Step 2: What evidence supports the claim? Is the evidence valid?

Step 3: Is there another way to interpret the evidence?

Step 4: What other evidence would help me evaluate the alternatives?

Step 5: Is the claim the most reasonable one based on the evidence?

Teaching like this requires teachers to step down as the “font of knowledge” in their classrooms and have the courage to be wrong. I have worked in schools where the culture of the school would simply not allow that to happen.

As Ritchhart points out we need to be able to ask our students authentic questions, meaning that the teacher needs to not know the answer, and if teachers are worried about seemingly not knowing something how can they do this?

This academic year I am going to try and put thinking centre and front in my classroom. I just hope that the crazy timetabling and work-load pressure doesn’t push me back into easy, old habits.

Review: Making Thinking Visible

I recently read part one and part three of Ritchhart et al’s 2011 book “Making thinking visible”. The book espouses a methodology for promoting thinking in students and for making that student thinking visible in the work that we do as educators and is broken into three parts.

Part one deals with the philosophy, terminology and theory of putting thinking at the centre of the classroom experience for students; part two details specific strategies that can be used to promote thinking; while part three deals with advice on how to get the most out of these strategies in the classroom.

I have struggled with this question in my own professional practice for a couple of years now. How do you balance, with the limited time you have in class, the need to develop the thinking skills used in the process of doing science with the need to develop knowledge of the content?

I can think of many conversations with colleagues where we have debated this. Often the running theme amongst science teachers in my experience has been that the content is king; that student needs the building blocks that the content gives them in order develop that deeper understanding of more complex science. You can’t just jump into redox reactions and the electron transport chain if students don’t have some understanding already to work with.

Often this has been levelled as a critique against the whole idea of inquiry teaching, the philosophical backbone of the IB. In science class how can you reasonably expect a G8 student to uncovering understanding that has literally taken scientists 400 years to develop?

Often-times science is taught in spiral way; students meet similar topics through middle and high school and each time they go into more depth. This allows students to construct understanding piece by piece year by year.

This book lays a clear challenge to that type of thinking but goes further by actually providing practical steps and examples of the types of questions teachers should be asking to develop students thinking. Undoubtably developing thinking skills in our students is one of the most important things we can be doing as teachers as these skills are inter-disciplinary and underpin lifelong learning. If you know how you can learn anything.

Thus as science teachers we need to examine why we do what we do and think more cleverly about how we use our time. After all, as this book highlights, quality in education is about developing dispositions and habits of mind, not simply high grades on exams with content that is then forgotten.

Students need to see us as learners and thinker, modelling those attitudes and valuing them. learning often occurs through reflecting on mistakes. This can be a challenge in schools where the culture sets the teacher in centre stage. I remember an ex-colleague once saying to me that if he ever admitted to not knowing something then his students would lose all their confidence and trust in him.

Part one of this book details the steps to making thinking visible through modelling an interest in ideas, constructing understanding, facilitating and clarifying thinking all through questioning, listening and documenting.

Ritchhart focusses on asking questions that model an interest in ideas, construct understanding and facilitate and clarify thinking. The key is to ask authentic questions; questions to which the answer is not predetermined, and to elicit these questions from the students as well.

Questions that model an interest an ideas set the classroom culture and allow students to see teachers as learners. Essential questions fall into this category. Questions that construct understanding are ones that guide, direct and push student’s understanding forward of the big ideas and concepts. “constructive questions frame the intellectual endeavors in which students are to be engaged and point them toward uncovering fundamental ideas and principles that aid understanding. Questions that clarify and facilitate thinking enable learners to get what is in their heads out and into the teachers. For example asking students “what makes you say that?” instead of simply responding to a comment will give you insight into how the student is thinking.

We need to learn to identify the key ideas and concepts with which we want our students to struggle and engage instead of just covering the curriculum and judging our success by how much we get through. This will enable us to put students in charge of their own learning and progress not merely providing them with material for the test.

We need to draw our attention to what types of thinking we want to foster in the classroom and what we think thinking actually is. We need to highlight thinking when it occurs in class. Until students can name a process they cannot control it.

As well as questioning, listening and documenting are highlighted as essential parts of the process. Modelling listening, a vigorous and interested attention in what the other is saying, is essential for modelling group interactions for students, showing them how to work collaboratively. Documenting as well as providing evidence of the thinking that is taking place should also act as a stimulus to drive the thinking forward.

Part two introduces the reader to a set of thinking routines that are grouped as to their purpose in the type of thinking they are trying to develop. Each routine contains detailed instructions for its use and clear examples on how to deploy it. Routines are not intended to be used as stand alone activities but as repeated structures in the classroom that students can eventually gain mastery of themselves.

I haven’t yet read part two yet as I didn’t feel the time for me would right until I had spent sometime addressing challenges that part one put before me. Once I have reflected on the types of thinking that I wish to elicit in my classroom then I will plough on into part two.

Part three provides useful case studies of from teachers using these routines over time, providing an excellent guide on how to bring these routines to life.

I was once again reminded of the usefulness of mindfulness in teaching practice. Mindfulness reminds us to remain in the present with attention and this is essential for all of these skills of questioning, listening and documenting and being able to respond to our students.

This book is certainly one every teacher should read, as it provides some excellently researched food for thought about what we are doing in our day to day as educators. Are we placing thinking, and the development of thinking skills at the centre of the learning experience of our students? or are we more focussed on content and assessment?

Got me asking:

  • Is memorisation and rote practice ever useful?
  • Don’t people need to train and doesn’t training involve practice and isn’t practice often rote learning?
  • What types of thinking do we want to encourage today?
  • What types of thinking do we want to encourage in science? What types are valuable to scientists?
  • How to balance the need for content knowledge vs thinking skills especially when curriculums are so broad and time is so short and universities expect a certain level of knowledge in undergrads?
  • What is a quality education?
  • What types of adults are we trying to develop?
  • What are the essential concepts in Biology identified in the literature of teaching biology?
  • What essential questions are we trying to ask in science/Biology class?
  • What routines do I want to use in my classroom?
  • What does our schools mission and vision say about thinking?
  • How can I incorporate more non-written, non-verbal reflection into my students learning?
  • What expectations do I set in my learning environments?
  • Is shorter lessons a good thing to promote deeper thinking?
  • How useful is individualization in developing understanding and advancing deep learning?
  • What are the essential questions to propel learning in Biology?
  • How do these change and morph through a teaching unit?