ways of knowing: part 1

In studying the psychology of learning, we look at a number of models of different “ways of knowing.” For example, Baxter Magolda’s Model of Epistemological Reflection divides ways of knowing into four stages: Absolute Knowing, Transitional Knowing, Independent Knowing and Contextual Knowing. We all start out in the first stage, and achievement of later stages depends on our life experience, education, etc.

I spent much of my young life being a more or less “absolute knower,” in that I believed that there were correct ways of looking at the world and that any contrary or contradictory views were not only wrong but threatening and dangerous both to me and to society at large.

When I left home and began my university education elsewhere, I was abruptly divorced from everything familiar that, for the first 18 years of my life, I had taken for granted as being “real” and “true.” This included my family context and the social and cultural norms of my hometown, as well as ways of thinking, categorizing and analyzing that were not always useful in my new environment.

I started to see that perhaps points of view different from my own were, if still incorrect, at least admissible – that is, people who didn’t agree with my opinions were wrong, but that didn’t mean they had no right to hold those views. I began teaching at the same time, in an elementary school, and had the chance to observe young children and the way that they formed their ideas about the world around them. It started to dawn on me that we are all trained to view the world in certain ways, that we all cling equally strongly to our way of seeing the world, and that none of our world views necessarily reflect a fixed “reality.”

When I first travelled overseas, I began to believe that everything I “knew” was wrong, that there was no such thing as “human nature,” for example, and that all of the “wisdom” we think we accumulate through experience is in fact created and shaped by the filters we are given from a young age. Living in Japan was completely disorienting, and dismantled many of my preconceptions about the way societies work. My experiences there also caused me to start questioning which of my “beliefs” I truly “believed,” and which had been simply created by my environment and upbringing. I still didn’t value others’ views as possibly being as valid or more than my own. I did, however, begin to recognize that the world, and “knowledge,” was much much bigger than I’d ever imagined. For the first time, I understood that having one’s own firmly held values doesn’t mean that one can’t listen carefully and receptively (not [always] begrudgingly) to the views and values of others, weigh them in one’s mind, and add them to one’s body of “knowledge.”

When I returned to Canada and started graduate school, I think I began my transition to becoming a “contextual knower,” and have continued that transition since. I began to be interested in other people’s opinions as possible real alternatives to my own. Everything I was learning in the academic setting became clearly relevant to my own life: there was no longer any separation between myself and the “knowledge” I thought I was accumulating. I also began studying critical theory, post-structuralism and deconstruction, and became interested in, and more or less convinced by, the idea that the human mind doesn’t really have the tools necessary to grasp and understand any objective “reality” that may exist, so the best we can do is examine and question the information we receive through our perceptions, and use that information to approach something close to understanding.

Since then, I’ve become further intrigued by Buddhist ideas of “not-knowing,” of seeing everything we consider to be “reality” as a sort of necessary illusion, a curtain that we can, occasionally and with hard work, part to see the “truth” behind it, a truth which is not like anything we expect, or anything we have until now learned to recognize.

Next post: What does all this mean for our students?

(This post was adapted from a personal response I wrote for an MEd course.)


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