Epistemology and teaching approach

My MA Ed. supervisor Annie Savard, in a recent conversation about developing teachers:

The way you teach depends on how you think learning works.
That’s why it’s so hard to get teachers to change.
Anything you to try to get them to do will conflict with their epistemology.

Is that really true? When teachers reject (or fail to fully adopt) new teaching methods, is it due to the fact that those teaching methods conflict with their epistemic beliefs? Is there such a link between my belief-about-learning and the strategy-I-choose-to-teach-with?

Another way to put Annie’s thought might be: practices are downstream from beliefs. And a corollary: if you can get a teacher to have good epistemic beliefs, then good practices will follow. I’m not convinced that epistemology and pedagogy are linked causally in this way, or at least this strongly.

I think teachers aspire to practice in accordance with what they believe—but I don’t think in real life many of us live up to that. There are all kinds of confounding factors that get in the way of adopting methods that we recognize to be aligned with our theories. There’s cognitive dissonance, yes, but also laziness, lack of practice, lack of focus, nervousness, sheer inertia.

I’ll confess, I’m guilty of this. I know I don’t teach in a way that fully reflects my epistemology.

When it comes to learning I’m a firm constructivist. I am convinced that my students construct their own mental models as they learn. And I think all learning necessarily happens this way. I can’t reach inside my students’ skulls and place a fully-formed, ready-to-use concept in there for them. Every bit of personal experience I’ve had, and every Cognitive Science, Psychology, and Education course I’ve ever taken, have reinforced that.

And yet I continue teaching under the “banking model,” explaining and conveying my own understanding of things to my students.

I hear myself doing it sometimes, and it’s jarring. I should change my teaching approach to take advantage of those construction engines sitting there inside my students’ heads. I should give students’ own ideas more air time than my own. I should be more judicious about telling new information (NCTM). But I’m lazy. I don’t practice my technique often enough or deliberately enough. I sometimes let my focus slip and let myself do what comes naturally. That means I end up doing a lot of explain-explain-explain… zzzzz….

My students would be better served if I spent more mental energy paring down my words and instructional interventions. I’m a better teacher (and—ahem—writer) when I pose an artful question, and let my students think themselves toward an idea that’s laying there just beyond their grasp, an answer that they can’t see yet but I can.

I’m even better, I’ve learned, when I ask students a bare, simple question that is not artful in any way, but simply invites focus and reflection. (There are many good lists of “talk moves” (Conceptua) like this.) Then they are the ones feeling their way from idea to idea, and, while I may see the whole terrain, I let them find the path by way of their own reasoning. It’s their mental construction all the way.


So… can there be a truly epistemically-grounded teaching technique? A methodically developed teacher practice that embodies their beliefs about learning? Sure, it’s possible. Maybe practices are downstream from beliefs—or at least, epistemic beliefs can prime a teacher to conscientiously develop well-grounded practices.

I think I’ve got my beliefs down pat. But my practices? Eesh. Those remain a work in progress.

2 thoughts on “Epistemology and teaching approach”

  1. “I’m a better teacher […] when I pose an artful question, and let my students think themselves toward an idea that’s laying there just beyond their grasp, an answer that they can’t see yet but I can.”

    This is, to me, the Socratic essence of pedagogy. Perhaps the question needs not be artful but rather skillful. Also, epistemology is, of necessity, a driver on the part of educators. The latter need to have a theory of knowledge before they they can impart said knowledge to their students.

    1. Ok, I really like that.
      I’m a better teacher when I pose a _skillful_ question.

      That’s a much better way to think of it. Those questions I ask when I’m teaching are a skill I build, guided by theory and experience.

      And I agree that epistemology is a “driver” for educators. Unfortunately my sense (from experience and papers I’ve read) is that educators often bring their amateur, lived-life, epistemic models to their teaching rather than their trained ones.

      Further, my assertion in this post is that even if you have an epistemic model — amateur or informed, held implicitly or explicitly — there’s still a gap to cross before you are _teaching according to your model_. I can tell you, that’s frustrating to feel in yourself and to see in others. 🙂

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