The Key to Post-Truth Teaching: Epistemology and Knowledge

How students learn to know and understand knowledge is essential to teachers’ work in the “post-truth” era.

Editor’s note: This post is part four of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, here. Find part two, a classroom example of teaching about confirmation bias, here. Find part three, a window into a classroom discussion on trust and knowledge, hereFind part five, a discussion of skepticism and bias, here. Find part six, an argument for teaching about diverse ideologies and perspectives, here.

Philosopher Michael P. Lynch writes in his famous book In Praise of Reason: Why Rationality Matters for Democracy, “When you can’t agree on your principles of evidence and rationality, you can’t agree on the facts. And if you can’t agree on the facts, you can hardly agree on what to do in the face of the facts.” This observation holds importance for teachers because understanding how students learn to think and know is an essential part of teaching. This understanding is especially urgent in what many are calling the post-truth era (or the post-trust era), in which shared assumptions about truth, rationality and knowledge have been eroded. 

That’s where epistemology comes into play. This field of philosophy and cognitive science examines how we know and what underlies principles of evidence and rationality. Epistemological questions are about what makes something fact and the conditions under which something could be held as true knowledge. For example, epistemological inquiry involves questions like “How do we know what we know?” and “What is the difference between fact and speculation?” Epistemological development, a small field within cognitive science, refers to how we come to build, define and evaluate knowledge. 

For teachers, understanding epistemological development—and designing curricula to advance it—is a crucial part of preparing students for the complexities of the world.

The research of Deanna Kuhn, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, shows that students’ epistemologies develop predictably. In her book Education for Thinking and in her research, she describes the progressive stages of epistemological growth. The youngest children are “absolutists/realists” who believe that facts arise directly from the world through observation. For them, knowledge is certain, not meant to be questioned and originates in an external source.

As children become adolescents, they come to see “knowledge, once entirely objective … as entirely subjective.” They become “relativists” who see all views as inherently equal and reducible to perspective or opinion. And they also easily conflate facts with opinions.

The most-refined epistemological level, what Kuhn calls the “evaluativist stance,” is not so easily reached. Evaluativist knowers can distinguish between fact and opinion, can synthetize multiple causes when dealing with complex events, and can articulate coherent arguments based on knowledge and logic. They aspire not toward neutrality, in which all perspectives are tolerated, but toward objectivity, in which common standards of logic and rationality are applied to ideas and viewpoints. To me, that sounds a lot like the kind of civic participants we need in today’s world. 

An understanding of this epistemological progression can help teachers better support their students’ development of robust thinking and knowing skills. Kuhn’s research has led her to argue that a curriculum based on inquiry and building rhetorical argumentative skills are two strategies for promoting advanced epistemological development.

As students are exposed to others’ ideas and ways of thinking, they come to see that much of what they’d previously experienced as factual is based on subjective assumptions. (The Stanford History Education Group’s “Lunchroom Fight” is a good example of curriculum designed to accelerate this growth.) More difficult is to push students past relativism and toward a more evaluativist approach that applies consistent criteria and evidence-based, coherent viewpoints. Like most cognitive habits, this is a disposition that requires practice and refinement. Students can be evaluativists in one domain but lapse into non-evaluativist ways of knowing in others.

Epistemological development is also well supported by a metacognitive approach that allows students, in learning about their own thinking, to better learn how to know. As Kuhn puts it, “To be competent and motivated to ‘know how you know’ puts one in charge of one's own knowing, of deciding what to believe and why and of updating and revising those beliefs as one deems warranted.” This means asking students to reflect on what and how they’re learning, to study themselves as thinkers, and to scrutinize their assumptions and viewpoints.

In a time when intense polarization, fake news and echo chambers make it harder to learn to know well, we need to empower students to develop robust epistemologies built on a shared reliance on logic, evidence and rationality. Doing so will help them resist oversimplification, counteract motivated reasoning and seek to make connections between ideas and among people.

In today’s world, to be informed means more than just having information; it also means having a well-developed understanding of the nature of knowledge and how we think. The charge for teachers, then, is difficult but clear. 

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.

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