Your theory of knowledge refers to your beliefs about what knowledge is and how you get it.
You may think you don’t have a theory of knowledge. But, even if you don’t regularly philosophize about the nature of knowledge you still have more or less implicit ideas about it.
Think about the following statement: “the only thing that is certain is uncertainty itself.”
That might sound perfectly reasonable to you. Most things are relative, right?
Or, you might very well disagree with that statement. Maybe you think plenty of things in life are certain. Like death and taxes, for example.
Either way, when you think about your answer to that question you’re applying your theory of knowledge.
It turns out people have different ideas about knowledge. And, there is a great deal of research showing that your theory of knowledge influences how you go about learning. Not only that, some theories of knowledge are better than others in the sense that they lead to more effective learning.
What’s in a Good Theory of Knowledge?
Barbara Hofer and Paul Pintrich from the University of Michigan have reviewed the vast literature on Beliefs about Knowledge and Knowing and their Relation to Learning. They published their work in Review of Educational Research.
Hofer and Pintrich review many studies that investigate slightly different aspects of the theory of knowledge idea. But, all the studies in one way or another confirm that the following beliefs are part of a sophisticated theory of knowledge:
- Knowledge is complex: People who believe that knowledge is complex think of it as highly interrelated concepts. In contrast, one might instead think of knowledge as isolated, unambiguous bits or facts.
- Knowledge is uncertain: People who believe knowledge is uncertain think of it as tentative and evolving. Others might think of knowledge as absolute—it is right or wrong, true or false.
- Knowledge can be created: People who believe knowledge can be created think that it is derived from reason. The contrasting belief is that knowledge is handed down from authority.
So, how do the beliefs in your theory of knowledge influence the ways you learn?
Good Theory of Knowledge = Good Learning
Hofer and Pintrich cite several studies that reveal relationships between beliefs about knowledge and the ways people study.
Simple Knowledge, Simple Learning Strategies
In one study researchers measured whether participants believed knowledge was always inherently right or wrong (simple) or multifaceted (complex).
They then examined the participants’ criteria for assessing when they knew something. The researchers found that the participants who believed knowledge was simple tended to think they knew something when they could remember it. The participants who believed knowledge was complex instead believed they knew something when they understood it, meaning they could organize, interpret or apply it to solve problems.
This suggests that if your theory of knowledge is that knowledge is simple, you might be more likely to stop studying when you have simply memorized the information. If you think it’s complex, you use more sophisticated learning strategies. You are more likely to keep studying until you understand.
Certain Knowledge, Sweeping Generalizations
Another study reviewed by Hofer and Pintrich had participants fill out a questionnaire about their theory of knowledge. A while later the participants were presented with a study challenge. They had to read a paragraph of text and write a concluding statement.
The participants whom the questionnaire had pinpointed as believing that knowledge is certain were more likely to draw conclusions from the paragraph that were inappropriately absolute. Conclusions are absolute if they make sweeping generalizations, using words like never and always.
Authoritarian Knowledge, No Critical Thinking
Hofer and Pintrich also describe a study that looked at what happens when people believe that knowledge is something experts have, not something they create themselves.
In this study, researchers asked participants to think critically and generate explanations for three real-world questions. An example question was “what causes prisoners to return to crime after they’ve released?” The participants were asked to describe their view on the issue, justify their position, generate an opposing view, provide a response to that position and finally offer a remedy to the problem.
The researchers found that participants who believed that while experts do have special knowledge, they aren’t always right about everything were also more likely to use good argument skills.
Good argumentation skills meant they were able to generate counterarguments and alternative theories more readily. These participants were also more likely to present sound evidence for their claims.
Exercise Your Theory of Knowledge
On one hand, all this research suggests that adopting a good theory of knowledge will help you learn more effectively. On the other, it also suggests that a theory of knowledge isn’t just something you have, it’s something you exercise.
What really helps you learn is being critical of knowledge, the experts’ knowledge and your own.
So, the next time you’re studying up on a topic, as you study pause every now and then to reflect on what you know, how you know it, and whether you know enough.
Image Credit: Mira Hartfort