I want to elaborate on a discussion that followed a re-posting of call for university students to stop whining and suck it up when “scary new ideas that challenge your beliefs…” (supposedly by Larry Winget) are presented. In my re-posting, I said:
Mary Catherine Bateson called this experiencing epistemological shock. I have felt that as a teacher (even when I was a grade school teacher) I was obligated to provide opportunities for students to experience epistemological shock. For what other reason was I in the classroom? Reading, writing, and all the rest were important, but the most important reason was to provide opportunities for children or adult students to grow, to learn how to think more deeply, to re-evaluate what they thought they knew. Everything else was secondary. Some of my own and biggest epistemological shocks occurred in junior high and high school. And, I don’t even think the teachers knew what they had done to me, but the impacts were huge. I’ve tried tracking them down to thank them, but by the time I found them, they had already died. They had given me a great gift. I hope they knew.
The more I think about it, the more this idea of epistemological shock seems to be of critical importance to teaching. We formulate epistemologies or explanatory ideas for just about everything about our world: cultures, relationships, communities, natural phenomena, living things, technology, and so forth. We are epistemological beings, but then most living things are probably epistemological beings. Dogs, cats, horses, rats, and birds certainly have epistemologies. They have understandings of their social and physical worlds and their relationships. They have expectations of their relationships. My dog expects to go to the dog park or go for walks at certain times during the day. She knows where the rabbits hang out. And, she knows where each PetSmart store keeps their Guinea pigs. My cats expect to be given attention, especially if we are sitting on the toilet or sitting at specific locations. The rats I’ve had acted much like dogs and had expectations for petting, cuddling, and receiving treats. I haven’t had horses, but from what I’ve heard they have complicated expectations and thought processes. I suspect epistemologizing (to make it a verb) is a common characteristic of living systems. Bacteria, plants, fungi, protists, and the full range of animals most likely have epistemologies that provide frames for understanding or making sense of the world.
That’s what we do… we create epistemologies to help us make sense of the world. But, such epistemologies do not guarantee any sense of accuracy or truth. They just provide a frame of reference that may seem to work. A racist may have an extensive epistemological framework that justifies his or her views of the world. Every input seems to make sense in terms of this framework. If it doesn’t make sense, then it is dismissed as nonsense, as a lie, or as some other blasphemy. At the other extreme, we may create what seems to be a fairly equitable and accurate epistemology. But, whatever epistemologies we create, they certainly are not absolute truths. They are subject to change, no matter how much we’d like to solidify them and believe that they are absolute truths. Every time there is a scientific revolution at whatever scale, there is an epistemological shock running through a particular scientific community. The scientists in that community may have thought they had pretty solid evidence for a specific theoretical framework, then all of a sudden it’s turned upside down. People get defensive, angry, and lash out. But, the old epistemological framework no longer works.
As teachers, at whatever level (K-graduate school), we are faced with the responsibility of confronting a vast array of personal and “official” epistemologies. These epistemologies may have to do with the subject matter we are teaching or they may have to do with students’ assumptions about the nature of the professional community or the nature of our professional work or the nature of one’s relationship to oneself as a learner or inquirer or whatever. If we take our work as educators seriously, we examine where our students are and teach to their particular needs or situations. We may feel obligated to cover certain material (depending upon our field and the particular course), but somewhere along the continuum of [student situation—-to—-subject matter] we are going to address epistemologies of students and epistemologies of the field.
However, the way the institution of education is moving, grade school is more concerned with subject matter coverage than with any concern for epistemology, whether personal or official. The approach is to memorize content to pass a test. The content doesn’t have to make sense, which would be an epistemological concern. At the university level, we’re not that far away from the grade school version. We don’t have the high stakes tests, but the underlying drive for profit is still there. Online learning, large classes, and multiple section classes that follow the exact same template are all aligned with the same approach to minimizing a concern for epistemology, while maximizing superficial coverage of content.
There were times when I was teaching multiple sections of the same course when I felt like I needed to keep all sections at the same point along some arbitrary continuum of content and to cover the exact same material. But, every time I tried, I found it impossible. Each group of students took the material in class in different directions. They had different questions, different ideas, and different interests. Each section became its own distinctive epistemological context. And, this epistemological context is what we need to remember when teaching. Each individual makes sense of the material in her or his own way by drawing on individual experiences, previous epistemologies, and all kinds of idiosyncratic contexts of meaning. Put a bunch of people together in a room and you have a social context of epistemologizing that can’t be replicated.
To view teaching as an epistemological endeavor, you need to see classrooms as social contexts where students are trying to make sense of whatever it is they are studying. As an epistemologizing mentor, you as the teacher need to encourage exploration, inquiry, questioning, critiquing, challenging, and examining things from multiple perspectives. You need to encourage your students to be scientists, poets, artists, writers… and not just get stuck in one perspective. We should be encouraging epistemological flexibility.
Epistemological shock occurs when a solidified structure is shaken by a new insight that undermines the solidified epistemology. If we can help students create flexible epistemologies based on the idea of changeability, maybe the shocks will not occur, but will be part of the expected changeability.