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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.

Being an editor

I keep telling myself that editor is a role I want to play. I don’t want to be the writer — I’ll leave that to you — but I am happy to help shape, re-focus, make your writing better.

And I think I’m good at that. I know I’ve had a real impact helping classmates and colleagues improve their writing and presentations.

But why does editing feel so draining?

It feels, often, like I’m doing the thinking for them.

I hand back the text with small edits here & there, but the greater impact comes (in my own head, anyway) from the long comments I leave where I am questioning their aim, or pointing out lack of cohesion, or other large issues like that.

I do think I’m good at it — at least, this is the kind of feedback I know I value when others edit me — but it’s so energy-consuming.

Does editing just feel like this?

The (misguided) Case for Fully Guided Instruction

This journal article has great ambitions. ± “Our goal is to put to an end to the debate” on whether instruction should be guided, unguided, or somewhere in between in order for people to best learn.

But it has a foundational flaw, and if you’re a reader that understands constructivism at all, that flaw prevents it from doing anything of the sort.

Like a number of other “debunking” type articles that purport to shoot down parts of the constructivist model, it misunderstands what constructivism is. Specifically, it misunderstands which “level of the stack” constructivism describes. This is crucial. If you get this wrong, then you start to come up with all kinds of misinformed applications of the model.

Constructivism is about hardware, not software.

It’s about the brains (minds) of people when they learn something from the world around them.

It is not about the something

It is a model of how our hardware works when we learn.

It is not a model of what


Constructivism does not suggest that school work should be composed of “constructing” or “building” things. It does not directly suggest project-based work. It does not suggest curriculum or materials of any specific kind. And constructivism does not

Constructivism is a model of what happens inside the learner’s head.



I’ve started reading articles like this when I see them, to understand the misconceptions that are out there and maybe find small ways in which I can bolster my own teaching. By talking explicitly about constructivism and embedding it in my other materials I hope I’ll be able to inoculate the people I teach against this misunderstanding.

Some of these articles are well-argued and thoroughly researched, so it’s important to consider them thoughtfully and pick spots where they can be corrected.


Source: Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction, by Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner, and John Sweller; American Educator Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring 2012; AFT – Clark.pdf

Yup, that is NOT how to teach math

This TEDx talk about maths teaching is pretty bad


I’ve been combing through this educator’s site–Greg Ashman. I found him through his critique of Dan Meyer’s well-known TEDx talk. He has some pretty sharp criticisms of Meyer and others, and the “inquiry” school of instruction generally. I can’t say I find his arguments convincing–he’s wayyy on the far opposite pole from the inquiry crowd–but I’ve learned a lot from reading him and reading the papers he cites.

Then there’s this other TEDx talk. It’s horrible from a math education standpoint. The speaker goes on and on about wonder and discovery and inquiry, but as his centerpiece uses a horrendous, contrived problem that serves only to get students to guess the hidden pattern that was placed by the teacher. “Authentic” problems these are not.

The trouble with creating teaching

I’m finding myself struggling to relate to certain education writers that rely heavily on cognitive or learning research.

I have two such writers in mind recently, whose material I’ve been reading with great interest but who I think are misinterpreting something important about learning and education.

First: Greg Wilson, whom I know through his work in computer programming education. He works mostly with adults in the academic & scientific communities. I’ve read lots of his thoughts on how to teach programming. Beyond that, he’s a fascinating speaker.

Second: Greg Ashman, a veteran UK high school math teacher. His special focus, to boil down a range of very detailed and interesting posts from his blog, is


Both Greg Wilson & Greg Ashman occasionally lean too much on scientifically-established principles of learning to engineer methods of teaching.

I think there’s a gap between teaching (what a teacher, book, or other material presents to a student) and learning (how the student interprets and learns inside their mind).

I’m trying to put my finger on it.

Wilson example: from his Teaching Tech Together, (maybe something about structuring a problem so it aligns with 5 ±2 ?

Ashman example: from his blog. Four Ways Cognitive Load Theory has changed his teaching.

Fighting bias in algorithms – Incoding

Why do we need to think about social issues in technology? Why is it important for technologists (programmers, entrepreneurs, etc.) to go through the inconvenience of inclusion?

Because anywhere that tech meets people, it matters. Tech is almost never purely tech — the only place this may be the case is the code artifact itself. But even that code bears the fingerprints of the person who conceived it and put it there.

At 6:30, a great passage!

  • WHO codes matters
  • HOW we code matters (processes and platforms we build, to be built upon)
  • WHY we code matters

The INCODING movement.