Examining My Epistemological Issues
by Chase Young
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I will not pretend to be an expert on epistemology (though I do enjoy saying the word). In fact, I am still unclear on my epistemological views. However, I think it is important to examine my belief in the acquisition of knowledge relevant to my educational practices. I will use the Cunningham and Fitzgerald (1996) to analyze my epistemological perspectives. To begin, I will answer some questions to orient myself.

Can we have knowledge of a single reality that is independent of the knower? No. I believe our reality is based on the knower. What I believe to be real is based on my interpretation of the known, and will differ considerably from your reality; therefore, it would be difficult to assume a single reality.

Is there such a thing as truth? I think there is definitely such a thing as truth. I realize this question has been the subject of discussion since the Sophists of ancient Greece, yet discussions continue to the present day. I believe there are many truths, most of them based on socio-cultural norms. Truths may vary contextually. It is safe to assume, in my mind, that some truths are even shared in a community. Perhaps these shared truths are what bring some of us together and fortify existing relationships.

What primary test must proposed knowledge pass in order to be true? I believe the primary test can be explained by coherence. The interpretation should be weighed against external and internal consistency of the knowledge. That is, knowledge should be consistently coherent within an individual when interpretation calls for private knowledge, and consistently outwardly in public domains. This is to assume that the test is not written before interpretation. However, correspondence is not to be completely ignored. This opposing belief considers the knower’s interpretation based on a predetermined truth. For example, a reader gleaning the main idea represents a knower interpreting the intended author’s message. Coherence would reject the notion of a single “main idea”, and would test an interpretation of the text against the coherence constructed within an individual. This issue seems to my biggest struggle. Answering this question is difficult as both of the beliefs manifest in my classroom for one reason or another. A topic explored later in this blog.
 
Is knowledge primarily universal or particular? I have planted myself directly in the middle on this issue. My centrality stems from my inability to commit to the true test of knowledge. This reciprocal notion of knowing makes it difficult to determine whether knowledge is completely universal or particular. I might believe that learning begins with universals. We absorb popular belief, interpret it, and use it as our discretion, thus making the knowledge particular. Or, I might believe that knowledge begins as particular, and slowly assimilates towards universalism. Through constant tests and retests of our hypotheses could either lean our beliefs inwardly toward a particular understanding, or allow us to latch on to preexisting norms. Finding a cluster of individuals with similarly held beliefs draws is nearer to believing knowledge might be universal. However, so many schools of thought on the issue lead me closer to knowledge as particular. We merely find others who value such particulars. Still, when infusing ourselves in a group, beliefs have a way of balancing, thus losing some particulars to group interpretation.

Where is knowledge located relative to the knower? In this case I fall into a dualist category. I believe knowledge is located between the subject and object, or between the knower and the known. Still, it is interesting to consider monism. Monists believe knowledge is located in the knowing itself. For example, knowledge is socially constructed and exists outside the knower. What is known has everything to do with where and who you are. I would like to think I hold pluralists beliefs—a school of thought that believes in dissonance. Knowledge it located everywhere. When knowledge is explained differently in two places, there is no need for resolution. However, in my actions, I tend to try to synthesize beliefs in an effort to understand the big picture. This tendency places me in more of a dualist perspective. Considering my epistemology has changed drastically over the past five years, there is hope yet that I might understand the monists’ believe in social construction, or embrace dissonance.

What are the relative contributions of sense data and mental activity to knowing? On one hand you have sense data, and the other you have a belief that knowledge is viewed through different lenses, or mental activity, and no lens can be discounted. I lean towards the mental activity perspective. I believe that interpretations comprise knowledge. This can be done alone, or with a group, so perhaps not simply particular to an individual, yet still based on interpretation. In this case, then, I would reject radical empiricism and positive thought, especially because I believe knowledge is constructed, not simply observed.

To what degree is knowledge discovered versus created? After reading my previous thoughts, you may not be surprised that I lean towards the notion of knowledge creation. Still, surprisingly, I am not completely swayed to the right on this one. A more middle stance allows me to deny complete objectivity, but acknowledge some standards in which knowledge is created. Our bias is present in everything we learn. How we interpret knowledge is largely tied to our epistemological stance. To assume complete objectivity is impossible. We bring prior knowledge and experiences to every learning situation and the results are directly affected by our schemata. Therefore, in a sense, knowledge is created by our personal interaction with it.

How does my epistemology affect my teaching practice? Heretofore, this discussion has been quite abstract so I will focus on reading instruction to ground my beliefs. Like Cunningham and Fitzgerald (1996), I will consider two major theoretical models in reading education. I will examine the interactive (Rumelhart, 1977, 1985) and the transactional (Rosenblatt, 1938, 1969, 1978, 1985a, 1985b, 1993, 1994) views of reading.

The interaction model is a dualist perspective that places knowledge between the reader and the text. Knowledge, while reading, is both created and discovered, but there is a real meaning—the author’s message. The transactional model is more of reciprocal process, and private act between the reader and the text, and there is no real meaning. The meaning is unique to the reading. In other words, each reading of a text is as unique as its interpretation. It is evident that the interaction model is all about correspondence between a universal truth (author’s message), while the transactional model’s test is coherence (validity within the self and others).

My implementation of literature circles mirrors both of these beliefs. I think I know why. I lean towards the transactional model of reading. The reader creates and recreates meaning as they read. Once the reading is done, the students have an opportunity to share their private beliefs through group discussion. I think this type of learning is necessary and valuable. I think unique interpretations of text are what make literature circle discussions magnificent. I would stop here if it were not for the external influences on my curriculum. It is clear standardized testing would be impossible to implement based on the transactional model. Standardized testing cannot consider multiple interpretations as it stands today. Therefore, perhaps the next step in my literature circles is a blend of transitional and interactional beliefs. Students are required to journal. Some of the prompts are transactional in nature (I believe… I think…. I hope… This reminds me of…), while others are interactional (The main idea is… This chapter was mostly about…). Still I am unsure if standardized testing is the only influence. I think I value the universal meaning portrayed by the author. Still, I value the unique interpretations of the students. When reading about both models, I did see some overlap, but not to the extreme as in my classroom. Perhaps this dialectic is necessary for a broad synthesis of interpretation. 

In the end, my epistemology is all over the map. I walk through the lines of hypothetico-dedcutivsm/formalism, contextualism, and postmodernism (and slightly in a host of others). I think it is important to know why we do what we do. This small exercise has helped me immensely in understanding my instructional practices based on the pathology of my epistemological underpinnings.


© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.