What is your epistemology (or TOK)?

What do you believe?

This is a big one.  Yes it sure is, for starters I bet you’re wondering what is epistemology right? Well if you’re a teacher in an IB (International Baccalaureate) Diploma world school then you would commonly know it as TOK (theory of knowledge).  It is a central part of the diploma programme for senior study and arguably one of the pillars of the diploma.  Students who study TOK have a greater appreciation for learning, the complexities of the world and the human condition… well in my humble opinion that is, but that is why I’m the one writing the blog!

So what is your epistemology in terms of learning, that is what learning theory do you subscribe to personally?
If you’ve never thought about it then may I be so rude as to ask – “why are you trying to teach a dog new tricks”?

Perhaps you’re a behaviourist and subscribe to Pavlov and his dogs?

Perhaps you’re a cognitivist and formally believe that Piaget has had it right all along?

Or perhaps you’re a constructivist and believe the best knowledge a learner can gain is the one they construct themselves?



Or.. I could go on.  This list is endless and you can read more about most of them here http://www.learning-theories.com/.

So what do I believe?

Personally I am a theoretical believer in constructivism.  However I also see a place and purpose for some of the pedagogical approaches that can be used and are often confused with the other two main epistemologies – behaviourism and cognitivism.

Yes I have inconsistencies, being a Mathematics teacher this may come as a surprise but don’t forget that Maths teachers are humans too even though we “impart perfect universal truths”..

No caption needed. 😉


And what do I do?

The first thing I do is that I don’t bag out “traditional” methods or approaches.  These approaches to teaching and learning where developed based on sound theories for their time.  Certainly many of them developed around similar times but philosophically didn’t take hold because the philosophical field of education is just awash with every person and their dog wanting to push a political agenda, a new product to revolutionise learning (and make them a millionaire) or just think that the way they were taught must work best because “hey I turned out okay didn’t I?”.

However I am not prepared to put up with teachers, myself included, who are not willing to change and try out new approaches.  The key to doing this is to reflect. Reflect reflect and reflect again.  In fact I think I’ve harped on about this before and it had to do with blogging – yes here.  But you don’t have to blog, you could just write a journal, or spend 15 minutes at the end of every day filling in a table of what worked, what didn’t or what was interesting about your lessons.

I am a behaviourist when it comes to a final examination like a yearly exam, there is no better practice (once summaries and other revision has been done by the learner) than to sit and write multiple past papers under exam conditions.  I often use the sporting analogy of training for a race.  You practice your take off, you log your progress and you review how you went, all for the purpose of beating your personal best (PB) time at the next event.

I am also very much a cognitivist when it comes to how I believe the knowledge in your brain is filed away and organised (your mind).  Ask any of my students and I’m sure they’d agree that I harp on and on about being able to “speak” their mathematics.  You have to have words and labels for the processes of Mathematics to enable your brain to make connections.  I explain them as labels within folders in a filing cabinet where your mind is the cabinet.  If I was to come to your house and ask you to find a file with your tax papers in it you would probably go to your filing cabinet and put your hand straight on it (okay perhaps not everybody could do this .. but stay with me here).  Your mind works the same way, according to Piaget’s schemata epistemology, where you accommodate new knowledge by assimilating it with the old, and IMHO that means having logical links and labels for your mind to find them quickly and link it to prior learning.

Lastly I try to allow students to construct.  By this I mean I continually try to allow them to self discover, to work through problems on their own or in small groups.  To discuss and bring to the table approaches from their prior learning and test them out in new examples.  To integrate topics and apply them to big interesting questions like – how many cars drive across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in a day? I like to focus on the method, the thinking, the problem solving and less on the final answer.  Why do I do this? Because this is what the world needs and it is what the world is like.  It is full of fascinating, unsolved problems with answers so vast that we can only ever hope to solve them by standing on the shoulders of the giants who went before us.

As Issaac Newton once wrote in 1676,

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

For further interest on constructivism you can read the paper I wrote for Edtech504 here: LearningTheoriespaper-DougVass


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