Epistemological Integrity

Yes, it is a weighty title, but I have searched for a term for years, and this is the best I’ve come up with.

Most of us design learning opportunities. They might span an hour in a boardroom, months in a university environment, or years with children. Almost all workplace training I have seen for such design is rigid.  There are frameworks, models and steps one follows to be effective. We see this same rigidity in efforts to define information, knowledge and learning. We superimpose value judgements. Wisdom is better than knowledge. Knowledge is better than information. It is better to think critically than to memorize, and so on.

These conclusions are devoid of context. Personally, if I ever need CPR, I hope the first aid attendant has memorized the steps. If I ask advice about a complex challenge, I hope to hear questions rooted in wisdom.

Some of my work several years ago as a program director at Royal Roads University may be an example of epistemological integrity. As part of an MA degree, we offered back-to-back distance courses. One (which a lawyer taught) was about intellectual property (IP) and intellectual capital. The other (which I taught) was about communities of practice.

The designs–within this single degree program–were intentionally different because much of the thinking in those fields is very different. There were common threads, such as group conversations, assessment by learning outcome, and application of learning to workplace challenges. However, the IP course had a lot of relatively black and white factual material about things such as copyright law and trademarks. Assignments were tied to specific topics. The instructor—Dawn Wattie—often communicated correct answers to things based on legal precedents. Learning in this course involved building one’s knowledge base in specific fields.  The communities of practice had more of a constructivist bias. There was specific learning theory content in the first two weeks, but then it opened up dramatically. Learners chose their own learning outcomes, designed their own projects, chose individuals or groups with whom to work (or not) and worked in different platforms and venues. They spent a large part of the course experiencing a community of practice-like environment and making sense of the sorts of learning opportunities they could find or create there.

Formal learning institutions are under pressure to be efficient, accountable and to recruit and retain students for tuition revenue. And students are sometimes anxious about a lack of firm structure, especially if they came through highly structured educational processes in the past, or if they pay tuition by the term or year for however long it takes to graduate. Yes, the CPR course should be efficient. But don’t we need more people who can think in different ways and respect the value of different ways of knowing to tackle the complex challenges of our world?


4 Responses to “Epistemological Integrity”

  1. Dr. Nellie Deutsch (@nelliemuller)June 3, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    Thank you for sharing, Alice. I love diversity and try to be open to every idea I encounter. It isn’t always easy because I need to have a common thread or I may not understand. Structure and no structure have their places in my school. I try to focus on structure but find that life may have other plans that are beyond my comprehension.

  2. Kathleen ThalerAugust 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    Alice, I was particularly drawn to two issues that you mention – The first was the practical application of learners choosing their own learning outcomes, and how you might have framed that to RRU at the time and integrated that into a very set course design process that normally includes defined LOs.
    The second thought was about memorization of CPR steps. In hindsight, we know that innovation (and change) in that area came because researchers and practitioners discovered a better way of doing it after asking powerful questions. Given this, perhaps even in the areas where we think knowledge is just black and white, there is room to colour outside the lines?

    • Alice MacGillivrayAugust 25, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

      Hello Kathleen. You have touched on topics that interest me very much as well.
      First, the CPR question. One way of thinking about this is “temporary black and white.” CPR technique is based on scientific-model research where a good practice is likely to result in a good outcome (other variables aside) time after time. Because of a lot of analysis and consensus-building, standard operating procedures are developed…until something is dis-proven. The new research may relate to something physiological, such as blood oxygen levels, or it may relate to something more complex, such as the confidence of people remembering and using steps from training. I’m not sharing anything new here, but this is an expert-based learning and delivery model, developed for standardization and a high degree of success whether the person needing CPR is in China or Iceland or in a bed or on a sidewalk, and so on. That is a different model than more complex and contextual learning, such as whether and how to implement a needle exchange site in a city or bring peace to the middle east, support GMO-free organic farming, or deal with a depressed teenager. Do you think of that as colouring outside the lines or changing the lines or polishing what’s in the lines or ? Metaphors can be helpful.

      You also asked about learners choosing their own outcomes. I will respond to that in a separate response.

    • Alice MacGillivrayAugust 25, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

      You also asked about learners choosing their own outcomes. I think there are many ways in which this can be done. You asked about how I did it at the time. We had the set family of “institutional abilities” (everyone at the university will demonstrate skills with critical thinking, and so on) and the flexibility to write distinctive criteria for each program and course. There was enough flexibility that people could customize individual assignments to fit with their interests, expertise, goals, and so on. At that time, I proposed that learners (in 2nd year) choose from that existing framework. I can’t share actual specifics, but a composite story might be two people coming to me saying their practical project would be to research approaches to an ongoing federal-provincial group to improve the quality of X, and they hoped to do this by researching innovative approaches worldwide (including conversations in the international workshop the visited on the virtual 7-week field trip) and by hosting a 2-day pilot community of practice gathering through their respective workplaces to explore benefits and approaches. They would like to be assessed on two learning outcomes. The first would be the teamwork and collaboration outcome, especially in relation to their work with people from other countries and cultures in the field trip (there would be more detail about what they wanted to focus on) and the other…I simply used the things they wanted to focus on for learning as the basic for feedback and assessment. At the time, this aspect of the design–choosing and refining outcomes from within a framework–wasn’t considered too controversial and I don’t know that it would be now, except in the one or more programs where criteria cannot be edited.

      Another approach has been used at Fielding Graduate University. Their curriculum is changing so this is slightly out of date, but illustrates the point. They had competencies or outcomes similar to Royal Roads’ list, but kept them at a high level. Each learner could totally customize as long as they a) worked with the theme (leadership and management would be one example), demonstrated broad knowledge, deep knowledge of some aspect, and the ability to apply that knowledge in the real world. “Assignments” could look radically different.

      Most of my experience with learning outcome frameworks has been positive: there is the potential for them to make learning much more flexible for faculty (to bring in their distinctive experience, stories, expertise, etc.) and for learners to adapt what they do to fit with their goals and interests. Of course it is all in the implementation. of course there have been experiments with learning based solely on learner/student interests, but those come with their own risks and challenges.

      I made a couple of videos for the CNIE conference this year (I was double-booked and colleagues stepped in with their own stories and my videos) related to this conversation. If you search for “Intellectual Estuaries” in youtube, they should be easy to find.

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