Setting some epistemological flags

It is reasonable to suggest, and indeed this has been stated in various communication regarding this course, that my doctorate requires the addition of something new to the field of knowledge in which I am studying. Therefore, the myriad questions, concerns and ambiguities relating to the definition, and, even, existence, of knowledge necessarily plague my quest for that ‘something new’.

For example, I can easily propose something new, such as that young learners have become passive victims of their education rather than helmsmen and navigators or, even, creators. However, this can be quickly clouded from two directions simultaneously. Firstly, on what grounds (or, in other words, to quote Audi (2003), with what justification), do I claim that this proposition is, indeed new? Secondly, how am I able to graduate this proposition from mere belief to actual knowledge?

Superficially sightseeing the various destinations in several millennia’s epistemological journey, it is easy to be sent into a tailspin, and to land, instead, frustrated alongside Arcesilaus and Carneades, or happy with Pyrrho of Ellis (Nagel, 2014). But it seems to me that this is a cul-de-sac, and ignores what I (and, yes, even the next verb is questionable dress at an epistemologist’s party) believe to be the unquestionable existence of knowledge. So, going back to my original proposition, of the alienated and disenfranchised learner, I should not have to provide indefatigable proof thereof, and this is where I think I am helped by other travellers on the epistemological road: G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and John Locke.

Moore’s writings provide a sobering counter to the headiness of proof-hunting (Nagel, 2014, p. 20). If I have sufficient evidence for my proposition to be ‘common-sense’, then it can qualify as knowledge. Or perhaps, as Locke would argue, “Knowledge is not our only guide” (p.44), and its weaker sibling, judgement, can suffice. Like Russell, I am certainly very attracted to a simpler epistemological landscape, one in which, “other things being equal, a simpler explanation is rationally preferred to a more complex one” (p.21)

This is not to suggest I be happy to “fall into the pervasive temptation to take an imitation to be the real thing” (Audi, p.28), but more that I be less stringent in terms of knowledge justification than seems to be the fastidiousness of so many of my forethinkers. However, in this, my research does not need to possess less rigour or integrity, and I wonder whether the fundamentals of my research focus are critical here. For example, if I hope to explore a learner’s ‘attitudes to learning’, and whether they can be improved through various means, the knowledge I seek is either whether the learner feels certain attitudes before whatever intervention, or whether those attitudes have changed thereafter.

There are still problems in this. Which learner? Am I hoping to reach conclusions only about the specific learners on whom my research is focused, or about ‘the learner’ as a whole? If the latter, my the balloon of proposition will quickly pop; if the former, however, is there a danger that the proposition itself may have too little generality to be of use and, therefore, add something new to this field of knowledge? This approach will also be bedeviled by problems of correlation and causation, since, even if I can identify a change in attitudes in my learner(s), how can I ‘know’ that this is a direct result of the specific intervention(s) in question? How do I achieve factivity?

I am, currently, a regular speaker on the international conference circuit about student-level data, and the knowledge we can glean from it. Therefore, I am already on the floor of the epistemological debate already, whether I like it or not, but I use an analogy to help me. One of the slides I share is of an old man on a large beach with a metal detector, and I then provide the narrative.

He has gone to the beach brimming with optimism of the wealth awaiting him beneath pebble and stone and yet, at the same time, daunted by the simultaneous enormity of the beach and of the task ahead. He might pace for hours, finding nothing but the occasional bottle top, and he would be lying if he said this didn’t cloud his excitement a little. Imagine, instead, that a team of determined metal-seekers had already scoured and charted the beach, and had left flags marking each square meter where enough trinkets could be found to represent a successful day. As our old man explores the beach, he focuses exclusively on the flagged areas, and, rather than a metal detector, he carries a spade: how much more success he would have.

If we see the data as knowledge, an end in itself, it is bound to disappoint. Too many questions are waiting in the wings to spoil that performance. However, if we see each piece of data as a flag on the beach, and we then set to work with a spade, how much more efficient will our work be. I refer to educators as treasure-hunters, and our work as the unearthing of the myriad treasures within each and every learner; and, in that narrative, the data flag is our epistemological friend.

With this, I find parallels aplenty in my intended research, and in the newness I hope to bring to my field. And my flags? Testimonies. Or, more accurately, stories. Whilst Audi would argue that testimony lacks the essence of the four basic ways of knowing, for me it is as robust a means of transmitting and justifying knowledge as any other. I am buoyed by what I read of Akşapâda Gautama, who maintained that testimony is much more special than mere inference, and is both primal and inclusive in its validity and worth: “The classical Indian line is that knowledge can be gained directly not only from sages and ‘noble compatriots’ but also from ‘barbarians’, as long as they have knowledge and intend to share it.” (Nagel, pp.80-81)

If I want to ‘know’ about a young learner’s attitudes to learning, the testimony of the young learner himself surely has to be an easily justifiable way of knowing. If, as Edward Craig would argue, “Good informants are identified as knowers” (p.85), what better informer about a set of attitudes than the possessor of those attitudes herself? With this rationale, I feel epistemologically comfortable in seeking stories, as I intend to do.

If, as a result of hearing the stories from each learner with whom I speak, and also teasing out the stories from their data, I can offer to this field of knowledge a set of flags to guide the treasure-hunters after me, then I have elicited and transmitted knowledge with a sound epistemological base. Sure, some could question whether what each learner tells me is sincere, whether the data at my disposal has sufficient statistical robustness, or, even, whether I did more than dream the conversation with the learner, or whether the ‘brain in a vat’ which is me did any more than digest the data my ‘mad scientist’ told it to – but, increasingly, I see such detours as fun but frivolous.

Finally, I find myself wondering whether epistemological thinking is like an asteroid shower, and that, through the lens of Semantic Externalism (p.21), the knowledge we seek exists regardless. In the case of my research: children exist; adults expect them to learn, and have done for centuries; children have feelings in response to that learning; those feelings can be affected by multiple factors. My research simply (and I use that adverb with my tongue in my cheek) aims to listen to some of those children, to learn of their feelings, and to use that learning to help the adult world do better by them in future.

I wonder whether we are on the verge of a learning renaissance. For too long, our schools have been the educational equivalent of Sizzi (p.31), with his insistence on there being seven ‘roving planets’, to mirror the seven holes in an animal’s head, the seven days in a week, and other such nonsense (and lack of knowledge). There is much at stake here, and, contrary, for example, to the tenets of IRI (p.99), I wonder whether epistemological flags should be enough.

Audi, R., (2003), Epistemology, (New York, Routledge)

Nagel, J. (2014), Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

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