Tore Ståhl, Educational Researcher, Department of Culture and Media, Arcada UAS
Two recent blogs by Owen Kelly (2019, 2020) inspired me to some unsystematic reflections, firstly from a general educational perspective, and secondly in the light of my own research regarding so-called epistemic beliefs.
Learning by doing or parroting
The first experiences described by Kelly invite me to reflect about various areas within both educational practice and educational theory. One reflection comes from the description of rote learning and parroting, which illustrates how educational practice, the local educational culture and the teacher’s own epistemic beliefs (more about that below) all interplay. In the case described, the teachers act as ‘truly omniscient authorities’ and see their role as handing down knowledge to the novices, which is not the same as supporting the novices to learn. The example also illustrates how the teachers’ conceptions of “using computers” and how to learn it formed an obstacle for the students’ own learning processes.
Kelly’s description of the teachers’ preconceptions about what to include in and how to learn the fundamentals (Kelly, 2019) may serve as an illustration to the discussion about how much we actually need to know about the tools we are using, a question that has been around ever since humanity began using tools. In order to drive a car, do we need to know in detail what happens under the motor hood? Definitely not. In order to run a statistical analysis on SPSS, do we need to know the exact computing procedure? Not so that we should be able to perform the procedure by hand, but we need to know the main features of the method and for which purposes it can (and cannot) be used. In order to use a basic calculator, do we need to know how to do the arithmetic computing procedures by hand? Yes, definitely, since basic arithmetic procedures are often used in situations where it is crucial that we can evaluate the result and assess if it is within a reasonable range.
Thus, the example may illustrate a blurring of computer science vs. computer use among the teachers. Or is it an “over-academization” of a practical tool? Today I blush with shame when I think back a few decades and remember how I (according to current common practice) used to build up the basic courses in computer use, starting from the components in a computer, zeros and ones, bits and bytes etc.
The connection to epistemic beliefs
Unsurprisingly, I associate Kelly’s experiences with my own research and wonder, how might the epistemic beliefs among the students in the project be described?
Let’s start with a short description of epistemic beliefs. Just as every discipline has its own, agreed-upon epistemology, every individual has their own conceptions about knowledge and how it is created. In my research (Ståhl, 2019), I’m exploring epistemic beliefs using a set of “classical” dimensions labelled Structure of knowledge, Certainty of knowledge, Omniscient authority and Ability to learn to learn, to which I have added the dimensions Constructivist approach, Learning by dialogue and Internet reliance, the last one constructed to capture the JFGI attitude (Wiktionary, 2008).
Epistemic beliefs can be measured using statements to which you respond on a disagree-agree continuum. The poles represent a naïve or sophisticated level, respectively. To exemplify, Certainty of knowledge expresses if you believe (naïvely) that knowledge is certain and never-changing, or alternatively, if you have developed towards a sophisticated level, where you can understand that knowledge may develop and change. Omniscient authority expresses that you (naïvely) believe that knowledge should always be handed down by some authority, or in contrast, that knowledge can be developed by personal reasoning.
Kelly (2020)describes the participants as being unable to complete their school studies and as living below the poverty line. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to assume that they have never been encouraged to develop their epistemic beliefs towards a more sophisticated level. Kelly’s invitation to experiment made them puzzled and left them waiting for instructions, which suggests that they don’t dare to try developing ideas by themselves but instead, wait for the authority to tell them what to do. Unfortunately, it seems they have also been restrained from developing their view of “Ability to learn to learn” – that is, they may have a conception of themselves as poor learners but what’s worse, they may also have been led to believe prior to this experience that their learning competence is fixed and cannot be improved.
An epistemic leap
Kelly’s stories do, however, also contain encouraging parts. Demonstrating the literal mind of the cat in Scratch served to introduce the students to the rules and limitations of algorithmic functioning. The goal of the task, to get the cat to move over the whole screen, aroused their hunger for learning about the Scratch syntax. All of a sudden, the students made an “epistemic leap” where they forgot about authorities and started exploring the Scratch syntax by themselves and more than that, exchanging experiences with each other. An interesting empirical example of epistemic change! For those interested in more in-depth explanations about this phenomenon I can recommend the articles by Muis & Duffy (2013) and Dai & Cromley (2014).
In his last blog, Kelly suspected that the question as to whether the students had actually learned from the workshops or had merely ‘parroted’ would provide an unhelpful distinction. I think this can indeed be a helpful distinction if we add the concept of reflection. If we allow parroting to continue without encouraging reflection, we may restrain students from trusting and developing their own ability for reasoning. In contrast, by encouraging the students to explore and to exchange ideas, Kelly encouraged the reflection and dialogue than can promote their learning from a lower cognitive level of parroting, recalling and recognizing, up to higher levels of understanding and applying that knowledge on the path towards analysing, evaluating and creating (cf. Krathwohl, 2002).
What can we learn?
Arcada as a higher education institution is operating in a cultural and political environment characterized by the Nordic welfare model, where one of the main components is free education for all. In contrast to their peers in many developing countries, all our students have completed a high quality primary and secondary education. Due to this, in combination with a rather high standard of living, they also have prior experience of using computers and IT for different purposes. This does, of course, not mean that we could just rest on our oars.
Currently, pedagogical development is being promoted at Arcada and I think the experiences shared in Kelly’s blogs contain several lessons relevant for us, despite the cultural differences. As Kelly points out, there are things that we should reflect upon and question, instead of taking them for granted.
One of them is that students often come with varying levels of prior ambient learning that we should not neglect but instead, use to support both individual and collective learning processes. Another is to pay attention to the epistemic climate that requires us to ask: how do we as teachers regard knowledge within a specific subject; what do we know about students’ epistemic beliefs; and how do we build the knowledge climate in the classroom to support what Dai & Cromley (2014) describe as an epistemic match?
Dai, T. & Cromley, J.G. 2014, “The match matters: Examining student epistemic preferences in relation to epistemic beliefs about chemistry”, Contemporary educational psychology, vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 262-274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.06.002
Kelly, O. 2020, Learning from Scratch, Arcada University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved from https://inside.arcada.fi/kultur-och-media/learning-from-scratch/
Kelly, O. 2019, Paying it forward: taking Finnish skills to India, Arcada University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved from https://inside.arcada.fi/kultur-och-media/paying-it-forward-taking-finnish-skills-to-india/
Krathwohl, D.R. 2002, “A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview”, Theory into practice, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 212-218. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip4104_2
Muis, K.R. & Duffy, M.C. 2013, “Epistemic Climate and Epistemic Change: Instruction Designed to Change Students’ Beliefs and Learning Strategies and Improve Achievement”, Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 105, no. 1, pp. 213-225. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029690
Ståhl, T. 2019, “Epistemic Beliefs and Googling”, Frontline Learning Research, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 27-63. https://doi.org/10.14786/flr.v7i3.417
Wiktionary 2008, JFGI – Just Fucking Google It! Available: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/JFGI.