Knowing about knowing

how do people know?

We want children to become competent thinkers and learners because we believe that these skills will equip them for productive adult lives. But it is not enough that we believe it. If children are to invest the sustained effort that is required to develop and practice intellectual skills, they too must believe that learning and knowing are worthwhile. Valuing knowing, not surprisingly, rests on an understanding of what it is (KNOWING diagram). Such understanding, research shows, evolves in a predictable sequence, but varies significantly even among adults, with many adults not reaching the final level in the sequence.

People are defined by what they know and by what they believe they know. Awareness of knowing is a distinguishing characteristic of the human species. What, then, do people believe about their own knowing? And how are these beliefs reflected in criteria for knowing? When you claim that something is the case, how do you know? What justification do you take as sufficient to warrant your claim and sufficient to demonstrate its correctness if you're asked to do so?

Beliefs about knowing -- also called epistemological understanding -- influence not only how one knows but also the extent to which one values knowing (see III). As shown on the right side of the KNOWING diagram, epistemological understanding takes varying forms that shape intellectual values (III), which in turn govern the disposition (as opposed to the competence) to engage in knowing activities.

Following are thumbnail descriptions of a sequence of four very different forms of epistemological understanding. The first form is common only in early childhood, but each of the remaining three can be found among average adults. Each of the four is characterized here by what the products of knowing are understood to be.

What propels the transition from the realist to the absolutist, then multiplist, and finally evaluativist, level of epistemological understanding? The underlying cognitive task is the coordination of subjective and objective dimensions of knowing. The multiplist's discovery of subjectivity initially assumes such proportions that it overpowers and obliterates any objective standard that could serve as a basis for comparison and evaluation of conflicting claims. The evaluativist reintegrates the objective dimension of knowing, by acknowledging uncertainty without forsaking evaluation.

Why is the development of epistemological understanding critical to education for thinking? It is only upon attaining the evaluativist level that justification of claims -- the foundation of critical thinking according to many educational theorists -- becomes a meaningful enterprise. If facts can be ascertained with certainty and are readily available to anyone who seeks them, as the absolutist understands, or, alternatively, if any claim is as valid as any other, as the multiplist understands, there is no point in expending the intellectual effort that the justification and debate of claims entails.

What fosters the development of epistemological understanding? Direct teaching of the higher levels in abstract, encapsulated form is unlikely to be effective. Students must learn what knowing is by engaging in it over time and experiencing for themselves its dimensions. Exactly what kinds of educational and life experience best support this process remains a topic worthy of further research.

How can epistemological understanding be assessed?
Does epistemological understanding predict real-world cognitive performance? The sample case of juror reasoning.

Sources for further reading:

Kuhn, D. (2001). How do people know? Psychological Science, 12 (1).

Kuhn, D., Cheney, R., & Weinstock, M. (2000). The development of epistemological understanding. Cognitive Development, 15, 309-328.

Felton, M., & Kuhn, D. (2007). How do I know? The epistemological roots of critical thinking. Journal of Museum Education, 32, 101-123.