Epistemology, Ideology and Education


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Heathwood researcher Beth M. Titchiner presents an overview of the factors that
shape education and education systems around the world, including how education systems are constructed, how education is practised, how curricula are designed, and the justifications given.

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Epistemology, Ideology and Education

  1. 1. Epistemology, Ideologyand Education
  2. 2. Why this lecture?One of the objectives of this module is to understand the factors thatshape education and education systems around the worldEpistemology (theory of knowledge and how it isconstructed/acquired), and Ideology are two very important factorsThey play a very significant role in how education systems areconstructed, how education is practised, how curricula aredesigned, and the justifications given.They also play a significant role in how educational problems areperceived, evaluated, and addressed – and influence the hiddencurriculum of education.
  3. 3. What is Epistemology?“epistemology is a branch of philosophyconcerned with the nature and scope of knowledge” (Edwards,1967)It includes theories about what knowledge isIt also includes theories about what constitutes truthAside from this, it encompasses theories about howknowledge is constructed or how it comes to be knownPersonal epistemology: We can refer to personal epistemology, meaning individual,personal epistemic beliefs, “including beliefs about the definition of knowledge,how knowledge is constructed, how knowledge is evaluated, where knowledgeresides, and how knowing occurs” (Hofer, 2001).Epistemological paradigm: We can also identify and refer to certain epistemologicalparadigms – meaning, a collective view of what knowledge is and how it isconstructed, that is shared by a group of people or the majority of a society.
  4. 4. Epistemology and Education – WHY?Because much of educational systems and practicesrevolve around the transmission and construction ofknowledge (teaching, learning, research, etc.)The ideas that we have about what knowledge is andhow it is constructed shape the way we structure oureducational institutions, our pedagogical practices, andour curriculaEpistemology in education also has strong implicationsfor issues of social justice/injustice (explanation tocome...)When evaluating educational problems or practices around the world, being able toidentify the epistemology that shapes a particular practice can be really useful. It canhelp us to understand where potential problems may lie, and what factors of thatpractice might be contributing to social injustice or to social justice. I will explainthis more as we go along, but for now it is my hope that this lecture will give you afew useful conceptual tools for evaluating different educational practices andperspectives around the world.Hint - the content of this lecture might be especially useful for your presentations andessays.
  5. 5. What do you think?With the person next to you, discuss the following questions:What is knowledge?What is truth?How do we come to know something or knowabout something?How do we tell what is true from what is not?
  6. 6. Different Epistemologies: A Brief OverviewMythRationalism/Positivism (modernism)Post-modernism (social constructivism)Multi-dimensional, mediated knowledge(Holistic)There are a number of different epistemological perspectives (theories of knowledgeand how it is constructed) that have developed throughout human history asparadigms. Some have become highly dominant during specific historical periods, orin specific geographical locations. Today we can find all of these perspectives presentin societies, some more predominant in certain contexts than others.Today I will give a very brief (and rather over-simplified) overview of some of thesedifferent epistemological models. Enough to get a general (but not a complex)understanding of what they are and how they can impact on education. Everybodyhas their own idea of which of these epistemological models they prefer.Note – The models/paradigms presented here are not definitive.
  7. 7. MythEssentially, seen to be the epistemology (knowledge structure) ofmythology, religion, superstition, and certain forms of spiritualismKnowledge is found in the word of god(s)/prophets/deities and isknown by reading/hearing the word of gods and prophetsTruth is found in the word and actions of god or the prophetKnowledge and truth are often interpreted (constructed) byreading signs in phenomena. e.g – a flood = sign of gods wrath,a black cat = good luck is coming, a new job = god cares for meSubjective interpretation is present but not always recognised,and knowledge/truth is generally regarded as absolute rather thanas constructedFor thousands of years, before the establishment of science, humans have interpreted and made senseof the world through myth.Myth was the foundation of the knowledge systems of the earliest known human civilisations.Ancient Mesopotamia - in order to explain the occasional submersion of the flood-planes in which thecivilisation was situated, and the devastation that this caused, people assumed that there must bepowerful gods who controlled nature, and who caused the flooding as a means of punishment forhuman wrongdoing.Ancient Egypt – The regular flooding of the Nile which sustained agriculture by irrigating the land wasassumed to be controlled by the gods. In order to maintain a sense of security that the rhythm offlooding (which sustained life) would continue, it was necessary to please the gods.Mayans – their entire understanding of the world revolved around the gods. When things went badly, itwas because the gods were angry, and when they went well, it was because the gods were pleased. It isthought that when the Spanish began to invade Latin America, the Mayans believed them to be sent asa punishment, and resorted to mass human sacrifice in order to appease the wrath of the gods.In essence, myth was a way of understanding and maintaining a sense of security and control in aworld that seemed threatening and at times unpredictable.Today, religion provides people with guidance and a sense of security in the face of all that isfrightening or unexplainable about life.
  8. 8. Myth and EducationBecause knowledge is seen as absolute influences missionaryactivities. Many of the earliest formal schools were set up bymissionaries in pre-colonial and colonial times. The objective toconvert and civilise the natives.Focus on didactic teaching, and on promoting requisite beliefsand practices, and on learners adherence to those beliefs andpractices (Adamson and Morris, 2007).This can provide spiritual well-being, but can also be to thedetriment of learning directly from phenomena. One interpretationof the world can dominate, leaving little space for students owninterpretations.Locus of power (knowledge) tends to lie with the authority of theteacher and the scriptures, as opposed to with the students.Note, this is NOT to say that spirituality is universally wrong and damaging, but to say that it hasan epistemological leaning towards abstraction from phenomena, and towards absolutism andobjectivism. These two elements open up space for destruction and domination in the name oftruth (Gods word, or one interpretation of it).Examples of education based on this type of epistemology include Qranic education (Madrasas).The teaching of creationism and bible stories in modern-day religious schools, education inEurope in the Middle-ages (often based on learning of religious scriptures and catechisms).The Dynamic that this epistemology tends to foster is one of authority (the teacher and text as thefountains of knowledge and authority). This depends on the religion; some encouragememorisation and literal interpretation of the text, while others encourage reflection andcontemplation using the text as a metaphorCan feed the spiritual side of people and provide security, hope, community and moral guidance.But interpretations of the words of gods and prophets can be damaging. i.e. - fundamentalism,oppression of women, emotional and sexual repression, domination over others (original sin inprotestantism and corporal punishment)..
  9. 9. Rationalism/PostitivismRationalism/Positivism was a product of the age ofenlightenment in EuropeIt emerged in response to myth – trying to bring an end tomans slavery to god and superstition. The idea was topromote the freedom and liberation of humanityKnowledge had to be grounded firmly in concretephenomenaIt had to be purely rational and objective (in contrast to mythwhich was seen to be subjective and ungrounded fromconcrete facts)Truth and knowledge were to be obtained through objectivestudy of phenomena to produce universal, quantifiable factsSubjectivity and emotion were seen as not belonging in theprocess of gaining rational, enlightened knowledgeProgress was associated with science and reasonReligious warfare had torn Europe apart, and the growth of scientific rationalism wasfuelled by the hope that a universally valid method of gaining truth would supplantendless doctrinal strife. (Miller)On the surface, this was a new epistemological paradigm, but in reality it followedthe same structure of assumptions. Science became the new religion. Science and thematerial world became the new authority and source of knowledge. Truth was stillseen as objective, and subjective interpretation was still denied, or discounted asinvalid.By the mid nineteenth century this movement became ferocious. Reality was believedto be essentially physical matter (which is measurable and manipulable) without anyspiritual, transcending force. It became more mechanistic, presuming that naturalevents are produced by lawful cause-and-effect relationships rather than anyoverarching purpose. It became more reductionistic, seeking to explain phenomenaby breaking everything into component parts and measuring the pieces. (Miller)
  10. 10. Rationalism/Positivism and EducationSecular schooling began to emerge (such as in France)High emphasis began to be put on the learning andmemorisation of facts rather than on studying religiousstories and textsKnowledge, still seen as absolute (but this time proven bythe study of concrete phenomena) was perceived assomething that could be easily transmitted from teacher topupil, like a package. (Didactic pedagogy)Emphasis in schools was on rational and intellectualdevelopment (rather than social and emotional)The emergence of the scientific method resulted in newforms of categorisation, stratification, and bureaucracySurvival of the fittest (a misinterpretation of Darwin)influenced emergence of competition as the status quoThe effect of this for education was the separation of knowledge into separatecomponents, taught in isolation from each other. The development of modular (ratherthan integrated) curricula was another result, as well as the teaching of scientific factin isolation (disconnection) from subjective experience.Also teaching of enquiry methods (based on scientific method), experimentation andmathematics. Strong emphasis on developing rational and abstract thinking.Emergence of age-grade correlations, testing, continuation of rote-memorisation,institutional bureaucracyEducators ideally should be authoritative transmitters of unbiased knowledgeCulture is something students should learn about, but can also be a barrier tolearning. Students from diverse cultures must be trained in a shared language, ormedium of communication, before teachers can transmit knowledge to them.Traditional modernists believe that educators are legitimate authorities on values, andtherefore they should train students in universal values. More liberal modernistsargue that education should be "values-neutral." Teachers help students with "valuesclarification"--deciding what values each individual student will hold. Values can,and should be separated from facts. The most important values are rationality andprogress.
  11. 11. Post-Modernism and socialconstructivismAimed to recognise that knowledge and truth areconstructed subjectively and sociallyRejected universal truths and hierarchiesArgued that truth is purely subjective and therefore alltruths (and cultures) hold equal valueDescartes I think therefore I am - even went to the extremeof arguing that there is no objective reality, only humanconsciousnessInterested in honouring particularities and individualmeaning-making rather than finding and promotinguniversalitiesPostmodernism takes the relativistic position that there is no absolute truth orobjective reality, that what we experience as reality is a social construct (solelyconstructed by individual human minds), that it consists only of our interpretations ofwhat the world means to us individually, and that individual responses to a givencultural product comprise the whole reality of that product.
  12. 12. Post-Modernism and EducationInterested in promoting and protecting diversity and pluralityabove all elseInfluenced multicultural and inter-cultural educationPromoted equality of all peoples and belief systems(indigenous self-determination, value of different knowledgesystems)Influenced teaching and learning based on the exploration ofsubjective experience and the social (group) construction ofknowledge, rather than on rote memorisation of factsIdeas that there is no one truth and no fixed definition ofright or wrong could also be detrimental to social justice, asinjustice could be protected in the name of pluralityRather than an authority over objective, value-free knowledge, the teacher isunderstood to be biased facilitators and co-constructors of knowledgeIt is believed that the modernist goal of unifying society results in domination andexploitation, because unity is always based on dominant culture. All cultures are notonly of equal value, but also constitute equally important realities. Minority studentsmust be "empowered" to fight against Eurocentric enculturation.Education should help students construct diverse and personally useful values in thecontext of their cultures. Values are considered useful for a given culture, not true orright in any universal sense. Since teachers cannot avoid teaching their own values,its okay for teachers to openly promote their values and social agendas in theclassroom. Important values to teach include striving for diversity, tolerance,freedom, creativity, emotions and intuition.
  13. 13. Multidimensional, Mediated KnowledgeMore recently, due to the failings of post-modernism, somehave begun to promote a different epistemologyPhenomena are seen as multidimensionalSubjectivity is also seen as multidimensionalKnowledge is seen as multidimensional and mediated –constructed in mediation between subject and phenomenon(neither purely subjective nor purely objective)Argues that we can never absolutely know something, butwe can determine the multidimensional properties ofphenomena, which could changeKnowledge is seen to be constructed through constand re-orientation towardsconscious experience.Experience is understood to be comprised of the multiple dimensions of individualsubjectivity (bodily, emotional, intellectual, personal history and values etc), as wellas the multiple dimensions of the phenomena experienced by the individual (colour,texture, shape, sound, movement, patterns, temperature etc).Reality is not understood to be purely subjective, nor is is seen to be purely objective,but rather truth is multidimensional and knowledge is created through the mediationof human experience with phenomena, both of which have multiple, integrateddimensions.
  14. 14. Multidimensional, Mediated Epistemologyand EducationIn line with holistic education and experiential education, andsome types of critical pedagogyAims to educate the whole person (body, mind, emotions,etc.) in an integrated mannerPromotes development of understanding of the multipledimensions of phenomena, and also their changing natureKnowledge is constructed through cycles of interaction withphenomena and reflection upon experience (praxis)Does not prioritise the rational over the other dimensions ofself and knowledgeThe teacher is not an authority, but a guide and facilitator who is also learning.Culture is seen as less important than the process of individual and group explorationof the multiple dimensions of phenomena and self.
  15. 15. Ideology and EducationWhat is ideology?Two different definitions:1. Any set of values and ideals (Dictionary definition)2. An absolutist view of the world that makes other waysunimaginable (Duncker, 2006)Dictionary definitions, and some academic uses, define ideology as a neutral term inthe analysis of differing political opinions and views of social groups. For example,the Oxford dictionary defines ideology as : a system of ideas and ideals, especiallyone which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.However, according to the German Philosopher Christian Duncker (2006), the termideology is better defined in terms of a system of presentations that explicitly orimplicitly claim to absolute truth.
  16. 16. Critiquing ideologyOne of the problems of ideology, understood according toDunckers definition, is that it can become an absoluteorientation, in which one or two dimensions of life are heldabove all othersImagining other ways can become difficultThe fixed nature of an ideology can be incongruous with thefluid, multidimensional, dynamic nature of phenomenaWhen human actions move in the service of ideology,dimensions of life that do not fit can become neglected, orworse, eradicated.In education this can mean, for example, if schooling is oriented to an academicrationalist ideology, then aspects such as emotional development and well-being canbe neglected.A prime example of this is how children are required to sit still for long periods oftime working on intellectual tasks, when studies show that many children need to beable to move their bodies freely in order to explore the world effectively andaccording to their developmental and emotional needs.Another example could be how, as we discussed in week 3, the ideology of social andeconomic efficiency (capitalism), can result in the neglect of non-economicdimensions of life and learning.Or how, if cognitive pluralism is promoted to the extreme in education, damagingviewpoints (such as the gender roles that we saw in the Maori educationalphilosophy) can go unchallenged in the interest of promoting and preservingdiversity.
  17. 17. Concluding commentsAs teachers, it is important to recognise our own epistemologyand ideology, and how these impact on our curricula andpedagogyAs students, it is important to question how the way weunderstand what knowledge is and how it is constructed canimpact on the approach we take to learningAs researchers examining education systems and practicesaround the world, it is important to be able to recognise thedifferent epistemologies and ideologies that shapeeducational practices and policies – especially in order toassess their implications for social justice