In the following scenario, how would you describe Leslie’s and Roy’s view in relation to knowledge?
Setting: Two Form 6 students in a chemistry laboratory are discussing the experiment and lab report they are working on.
Leslie: How about we run through the steps from the instruction manual, and record down the figures? It’s just a routine that we need to go through.
Roy: It can be more than a routine. How about we vary different parameters and see what the differences are? It is possible that we come up with different results and we can challenge the theory! How exciting!!
Leslie: Why do we need to do that? We are not scientists, and at the end our teacher will give us the correct answer and that will be what we need to know about this topic.
Roy: But I think both teacher and textbook can be wrong sometimes. Don’t you think? They need to give me good reason to explain the different set of results.
Leslie: Don’t be silly, Roy, how can teacher and textbook be wrong…
Students have different beliefs about learning, and they also have different beliefs about the 'object' to be learnt -- knowledge.
Epistemic beliefs are students' beliefs in relation to the nature of knowledge (what is knowledge and does it evolve?) and the nature of knowing (where does knowledge come from?).
For instance, according to Leslie knowledge comes from teacher and textbook and they cannot be wrong, whereas Roy believes that one has an active participatory role in constructing knowledge, and what is deemed right requires good justification and reasoning. These two contrasting examples illustrate a naive and a sophisticated set of epistemic beliefs respectively.
With the advancement of this strand of research, different scholars have proposed slightly different models to encapsulate the meaning of epistemic beliefs and their development.
Some researchers believe that epistemic beliefs develop in independent dimensions instead of a uniform stage.
The four distinctive aspects of epistemic beliefs of Hofer’s are represented in the figure below:
When students think that knowledge is fixed, certain and can be neatly handed down by authority, it is logical to them to be passive and wait for the teacher to transfer knowledge to them. There is no point for them to challenge and inquire further, for that knowledge to be learnt is definite and does not require further justification, just as demonstrated by Leslie in the hypothetical scenario.
When students think that knowledge is evolving, that it can be actively constructed by oneself and requires proper justification, it is likely that the learner will make an effort to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and its understanding, as demonstrated in Roy’s enthusiasm in the situation.
Empirical research has therefore found that students’ epistemic beliefs are associated with higher-ordering thinking, reasoning skills, approaches to studying, and the quality of learning outcomes.
Epistemic beliefs among Chinese learners:
With the influence of Confucian teaching, Chinese learners are thought to be less likely to question or challenge authority and seek justification for beliefs (absolute respect to authority figure is a virtue); and more likely to consider knowledge is fixed than their Westerner counterparts.
However, research findings do not fully support this assertion, and show that many students do not consider knowledge as certain, and many do not think that knowledge should be handed down by authority.
As the cross-cultural understanding in this area is still developing, it is unclear whether Hong Kong’s Chinese learners are equally influenced by Confucian traditions and Western liberal ideologies. In recent years, Hong Kong’s students have had considerable exposure to constructivism, and this may be changing their epistemic beliefs.