Epistemology and Learning Theories
Epistemology, the study of what and how we come to know, has been challenging researchers over the years to develop instructional theories to help learners acquire knowledge. Epistemology is a philosophy which focuses on the mind and how it functions in knowledge acquisition. Instructional theories direct their attention on a learner’s behavior to build knowledge from external conditioning (the learning process). Both epistemology and instructional theories compliment each other during the learning process. The instructional theories use scientific research to develop instructional methods to process how the learning is going to occur.
There are many different learning theories that have evolved to assist the instructional designer in developing instruction for learners. Models of learning are the processes of learning theories (the methods) in which the learner is actively or passively doing something. Instructional methods have progressed from learner observations to more cognitive processes allowing the learner to be responsible for constructing knowledge. This student-centered model of learning is focused on creating real-world problem solving opportunities. Research has shown problem-based instruction creates a deeper understanding of knowledge through authentic and relevant activities. In the end, the goal of learning theories and epistemology is to develop instruction that will contribute to learning.
Epistemic Stances: Positivist, Relativist, and Contextualist
Epistemic stances are the cognitive processes of knowledge consisting of positivist, relativist, and contextualist. Each of these three epistemic stance contradict the others. The positivist believes knowledge is an observable fact without any question. Whereas, the relativist does not believe in absolute knowledge and things may change between individuals or observations. Finally, the contextualist sees knowledge as understanding the subject and being able to solve problems.
My primary epistemic stance is that of a contextualist. I firmly believe in building knowledge from actively completing a task. Throughout my life I have learned best when I have been able to be “hands-on” with learning a new skill or task. I learn best by actively constructing the knowledge or solving a problem. It is quite fitting for me to be a contextualist and also teach technology courses. Constructivism and problem solving learning styles have been the focus of my classrooms. The learning is student-centered because the students “learn by doing” with authentic real-world projects. The students are building/creating web sites, animations, and video productions. Students collaborate and work in groups to complete different tasks related to their website or video production. I have been the “guide on the side” for my students as my focus is to facilitate the classroom. This can be difficult at times when students need to trouble shoot and solve problems they encounter. Students simply want you to tell/show them what is “broke” and they can move forward.
Identifying an instance when my epistemic stance conflicted with that of an instructor is difficult. My high school biology teacher had a positivist view of the world. Everything had a purpose and reason for its existence. Myself and a few classmates had some questions about his view of Darwinism and evolution. We would try to have a conversation with our instructor and it would always end with him referencing the textbook or encyclopedia as the absolute truth to dispel our questions or skepticism. Our conflict was completely over the differences in our epistemic stance. That instructor forced me to have an open mind when discussing differences with others and to never be so confrontational or stubborn with my students. I’ve learned as an educator to be flexible with my philosophies and to keep my opinions out of the classroom.
Epistemic Stances Related to Problem-Solving
The behaviorist approach to problem-solving is based primarily on observable events. Environmental antecedents would be signals from the environment or case confirming the necessary behavior occurred. Empirical data from the case would be signals the required steps are being followed before and after any observed behavior. The desired behaviors would be objectives to complete during the problem-solving. The instruction or learning is not student-centered as the teacher is attempting to evoke the required behavior. The environment drives the knowledge for the learner to internalize and transform into knowledge. Evaluation is immediate for the learner as the problem-solving progresses. If the desired behavior has not changed then the teacher can address the evaluation objectives in the instruction. The teacher is directing the learning and the students in the end are problem-solving after receiving small “chunks” of instruction. The goal for immediate feedback is to help motivate students answer correctly and proceed onto the next behavior to solve the problem.
Constructivist’s quickly point the differences between a behaviorist approach and that of a constructivist approach to problem-solving. The constructivist learner is the focus of the instruction and knowledge is directed from within the student out to the environment. The objectives are to extract higher order thinking and reasoning skills for learners to formulate their own learning. The constructivist case while problem-solving will be an authentic representation of complex learning environments. Learners will check for their own understanding and organize the environment to facilitate the process to construct their own knowledge. Collaboration among groups will offer learners opportunities to work in a team environment similar to real world collaborations. The students leads themselves through the instructional strategies monitoring their own progress and learning. In the end, the students are acquiring relevance to job performance through active engagement with the outside world.
The motivation for students to learn does not correlate the same for the behavioralist and constructivist approach. The behavioralist approach may cause students to be less motivated due constant formative feedback. Boredom may creep into these students as they progress through the small “chunks” of learning. The constructivist approach reinforces intrinsic factors to motivation as students are directing their own learning and knowledge. The motivation for constructivists will be enhanced with real-world learning they will be experiencing and pride they are in control of their goals and future.