Microsoft word - moon merj summit strand.doc

Media Education Summit 2011
MERJ discussion strand
Pre-conference stimulus:
Jenny Moon, Bournemouth University ([email protected])


In this paper I introduce ideas about the development of the learner’s understanding of the
nature of knowledge and knowing (also termed epistemological development/
development of epistemological beliefs). There is more on this topic in my books,
particularly that on critical thinking (2008: ‘Critical Thinking, an exploration of theory
and practice’, London, Routledge
or – more briefly – but online at And you wil find references to it in many of my other
publications – see ( )
I run many workshops in the UK and abroad, and I consider that the ideas in this session
are the most important issues in teaching and learning that I cover, and they come into
many workshops.
Epistemological development has been the subject of a number of studies over the last
half century. The studies broadly indicate that there is a developmental sequence in
learners’ understanding of the nature of knowledge (epistemological beliefs) and that this
• the manner in which learners function intellectual y • their capacity for critical thinking, • their ability to understand knowledge • their ability to comprehend the nature of knowledge, • their ability to manage situations of uncertainty in knowledge • their understanding of the nature of scientific endeavour • and their developing idea of theory and its relationship to evidence. It also affects the manner in which learners understand their relationships as learners to the role of their teachers. Teachers’ understanding of this progression should influence the manner in which they teach, what they teach and the manner in which they assess their students. I consider that the progressive development of students’ understanding of the nature of knowledge underpins much of what we cal progression in higher education. In terms of media education, I think it could be possible to use the progressive stages of epistemological development as a guidance mechanism for student learning/expected achievement and as a means of ensuring that students are wel prepared for work situations that require them to be professional in their thinking and capable of making good independent judgements. Relevant to this is a recent observation in some work in Hong Kong, that dental students, in a problem-based learning regime, demonstrated a progression in their approaches to the problems presented that paral eled epistemological development as described below.

A review of the research on epistemological development
I mainly refer to four substantial studies that broadly coincide on the nature of the
continuum for epistemological development that they propose from their experimental
studies. The studies differ in the terminology that they use, in the populations that they
researched, in the research methods used, in their concern with gender issues and in the
number and names of stages in the continuum that they identified. They are Perry (1970),
Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule (1986), King and Kitchener (1994) and Baxter
Magolda (1992, 1994, 1996). These studies were conducted on American students, but
recently Ursula Lucas, has confirmed that a sample of accountancy students at an English
University showed similar progression (2009). With the exception of King and Kitchener,
the research method was semi-structured interviewing. King and Kitchener asked subjects
to work with il -structured problems (eg ethical issues with no actual solution) and then
discussed with them their experience of the process.
Broadly the studies al suggest that there is a qualitative and progressive change that
occurs in learners’ conceptions of knowledge and this is important for the processes of
learning at the higher education stage. To describe this, I use Baxter Magolda’s
terminology for descriptive purposes (1992), though I consider the description of stages to
be only a linguistical y convenient means of describing a continuum. She describes the
fol owing stages (see below) –
• absolute knowing, • transitional knowing, • independent knowing • and contextual knowing. In this continuum of development, learners general y progress from ‘absolute knowing’ in which they tend to see knowledge as ‘right or wrong’, black or white – or as a series of facts that they wil absorb from a teacher who has the ‘facts’. Knowledge tends to be viewed as a commodity. They see teaching as the process of the ‘passing over’ of knowledge’. The teacher is expert. They (hopeful y!) shift through two more phases in Baxter Magolda’s scheme towards the most sophisticated ‘contextual knowing’ phase in which they can (eventual y) come to appreciate that there may be a range of perspectives on any matter – these might be cal ed theories. At this stage they can also understand and assess, in a sophisticated manner, the relationships between the different perspectives and relate them to evidence – also recognizing that the quality of evidence requires to be assessed in relation to its context. They can work in situations of uncertainty, taking appropriate measures to manage the situation in relation to their current purposes. They see their ‘teachers’ much more as partners in the development of knowledge. It is important to note that only four of the undergraduates in Baxter Magolda’s original study actual y reached this stage, However I see this stage – of contextual knowing - as epitomising the stage at which we should expect learners on a Master’s programme to function and as epitomising what we might cal ’professionalism’ . In later work, Baxter Magolda suggested that learners progress from the independent knowing stage particularly when they are chal enged in higher education learning environments at post graduate level or in situations where they need to exercise independent judgements (such as in work placements or in professional situations). I do not see that students move through the stages of epistemological development ‘smoothly’, but by shifting forwards and sometimes backwards as they encounter different chal enges to their learning and are more or less responsible for making decisions in
different contexts. Most of the population largely functions with absolutist conceptions of
knowledge – and it is the language of the absolutist stage that largely is used for general
reference to education, knowledge and learning (eg references to ‘fil ing your head’,
‘putting ideas over’, ‘how much do you know?’ etc). I speculate that we could plot the
content and headlines of national newspapers on this framework!
Below, I give you an outline of the four stages of epistemological development described
by Baxter Magolda (1992). I have also given you an example of what a student at each
stage might say about her or his learning. In Baxter Magolda’s book there are many
quotations from the students whom she studied.

The stages of thinking described by Baxter Magolda (1992)

Stage of Absolute Knowing
In this stage knowledge is seen as absolute – right or wrong. It is the least developed
stage in Baxter Magolda’s scheme. Learners believe that absolute answers exist in al
areas of knowledge. When there is uncertainty it is because there is not access to the
‘right’ answers. Learners at this stage may recognise that opinions can differ between
experts but this is, they would say, in differences of detail, opinion or because of
misinformation. Formal learning is seen as a matter of absorption of the knowledge of the
experts (eg teachers). Learning methods are based on absorbing and remembering.
Most new undergraduates think in this way and assume that a degree is a matter of
learning ‘a lot of knowledge’.
- Eg Julia: I like clear lectures where the lecturer does not mess around giving us lots
of different theories for everything, but just tel s us what we need to know and we can get on and learn it.

Transitional stage
There is partial certainty and partial uncertainty. Learners start to have some doubts about
certainty and consider that authorities may differ in view because there is uncertainty – but
maybe it is only because the research has not yet been done. Learners see themselves
as needing to understand rather than just acquire knowledge so that they may make
judgements as to how best to apply it. Teachers are seen as facilitating the understanding
and the application of knowledge. The shift from absolute knowing top this transitional
stage can be a difficult one for some students.
- Eg Ivan: I thought I came to col ege to stuff my head with what is known. Now I feel
confused because there are lots of things that are not certain. I have to think about what I do with those ideas. Col ege learning is different from what I thought. Independent knowing
Learners understand that there is uncertainty but they consider that to manage this,
everyone should develop her/his own beliefs or opinions. Baxcter Magolda describes this
as an embryonic form of the more sophisticated stage of contextual knowing. Learners
now expect to have an opinion and can begin to think through issues and to express
themselves. They also regard their peers as having useful contributions to make to the
development of their opinions. They wil expect teachers to support the development of
independent views, providing a context for exploration. However ‘In the excitement over
independent thinking, the idea of judging some perspectives as better or worse is
overlooked’ (Baxter Magolda 1992:55).
- Eg Ella: I used to think that everything was so certain – like there was a right answer
for everything and what was not right was wrong. Now I have become more aware of people arguing over issues, debating. I suppose it is a matter of coming to your own conclusions and sticking to those.
Contextual knowing
This stage is one in which knowledge is appreciated to be constructed, and the way in
which knowledge is constructed is understood in relation to the consideration of the quality
of knowledge claims and the context in which they are made is taken into account.
Opinions are now supported by evidence. The view of the teacher is of a partner in the
development of appropriate knowledge or ways of thinking.
- Eg Krishna: The tutor I have got now would have driven me mad last year. He just
sits there and says ‘OK, what do you think about this theory of coastal erosion?’ He goes quiet and we discuss it. Then he wil make the odd remark that usual y sets us off again. I jot down some notes so that I take everything into consideration when I have to write it al up and when I write it up, I think of what everyone else has said’.
Exercises on epistemological development (see notes – try out the first exercise,
but leave the next one to the Summit – I want to do it as a group exercise).

1. Epistemological development in perceptions of teaching, learning and the
relationships between learners and teachers. If you want to you can do this
exercise before you come to the Summit

This is an exercise that is based on the Baxter Magolda stages of epistemological
development (above) and it is designed for teachers or for advanced students. The
exercise can be used to introduce a discussion about the processes of teaching for new
teachers, or to help learners to understand epistemological development. In the exercise
there are statements from twelve fictitious students directly about their experiences of
learning and four statements from teachers about their teaching. Three student
statements and one teacher statement belongs to each of the four Baxter Magolda stages
(above) – but they are mixed up at present. The task is to put the statements of teachers
and students into the appropriate stages. The ‘answers’ are at the end of the handout,
though it is perfectly legitimate to disagree with them!! Here, of course, I am implying that
teachers tend to teach in a manner that can accord with the stages…. There is research
and personal experience to suggest that some teachers are not at the level of contextual
knowing when they start to teach.

Student - Jan:
Good learning for me is when I listen real y wel in class and get down
exactly what the teacher says - she is there to tel us what we need to know, after al . I
don't like it when I have to work out what is the best way of explaining something when
only one way can be the right one.
Student - Mette: There are lots of things that are uncertain. To learn and make
knowledge is to put ideas together, to make sense of them and to be able to say they
make sense, knowing that they might make different sense to another person.
Student - Sam: We do not know everything and sometimes different people hold different
views about a theory or idea. We have to learn to judge which theory is right so we have
to learn to think. Being objective is a way of avoiding personal bias and finding the true
Student - Tony: I realise that learning is not just a matter of getting facts down. We need
to know about research and there are obviously things that have not been discovered yet.
We have to be able to apply knowledge and to cope with situations of uncertainty. That is
more than just learning facts
Student - Frederick: I like to make up my own mind about things and that is how it should
be. Sometimes the -ideas come from teachers, other times from other sources. When
things are uncertain or not clearly agreed, I have to be clear what I think.
Student - Joanne: We were given several theories in chemistry to explain a particular
phenomenon. Our tutor did not make it quite clear which was most right - I guess that he
wants us to think.
Student - Andres: We have to be objective - to know the facts about a matter. We put
them down and make sure that we do not colour them with our biases.
Student - Elke: There is lots of uncertainty. Knowing facts only takes us so far and we
have to learn to take a stand based on what we know and an understanding of objectivity.
Student – Mike: Knowledge is basical y subjective since we come to it by relating new
ideas to what we know already. We have to seek to be as objective as we can be in our
judgements by recognizing, and where possible taking account o,f subjective influences.
Student - Sue: In biology, we are given lecture notes on exactly what we have to know
for the test. That is what I cal good education - clear and to the point - and no more.
Student - Hugo: In theology we listened to interviews with prominent theologians arguing
for the existence of God. I was open to persuasion, almost willing them to give me an
understanding of how they hold their faiths. My mind was not changed, though now I want
to know more of what they al mean by 'faith'.
Student - Ed: In our politics seminar we argued about the position of Israel in the Middle
East Conflict. It felt good to be holding my own. Nothing that any of the others said made
me waver at al from what I think. I cannot start to see how the others got to how they

Teacher - Helen I cover the syl abus, but I try to get learners to think as they wil have to
cope on their own, applying ideas and sorting out right and wrong for themselves.
Teacher - Andrew: We are al in this game of learning and developing knowledge. I
facilitate the knowledge making process, but recognise that sometimes my understanding
is changed by contact with their ideas
Teacher - Leo I help the learners to engage in their own thinking. They need to read
around a topic so they can develop their own views. I keep chal enging them to nurture
their development and expect them to come back at me
Teacher - Tom As a teacher, my duty is to give them what I think that they need to learn.
We go through the syl abus systematical y and I make the material as easy as possible for learning. 2. An exercise on epistemological development Please do not do this exercise
before you come to the seminar – I want to do it as a group exercise so that
you can argue with each other about it!

I wil be asking you to decide to which of the four stages of epistemological development the fol owing quotations belong. These quotations are derived broadly from Baxter Magolda’s sample. There are five quotations for each of the four stages. The ‘answers’ are at the end of the handout. 1. I just like to listen – just sit and take notes from an overhead. The material is right there. And if you have a problem, you can ask the teacher and he can explain it to you. You hear it, you see it and then you can write it down 2. I’ve decided that the only person that you can real y depend on is yourself. Each individual has their own truth. No-one has the right to decide ‘this has to be your truth too’ 3. We’d start a class having read the material and then the lecturer would walk in and say something completely wrong. A shout would break out from the back of the class and we’d just start knocking at each other going back and forth at the same topic for the entire class period. Doing that just ingrains in your mind that no matter how right you think you are, you’ve got to hear somebody else out because they’re to some extent right too. 4. I have a tutor this semester who puts an outline on the board, of things he’s going to cover. That way, even if I don’t have the clearest notes – at least I know what he intended to cover. 5. I don’t set anything that I feel in cement, which is what I did before. I’ve found that my foundations completely crumbled out from under me when I went on that exchange programme. I had to rebuild them for myself, which is the best thing that ever happened to me. 6. In my opinion, the best way to learn is to listen in class and not be distracted 7. As you hear other people’s opinions, you piece together what you real y think. Who has the valid point? Whose point is not valid in your opinion? And (you) come to some other new understanding. Even if it’s the same basic belief, maybe (you wil be) able to look at it from a more (multi)dimensional perspective. 8. In some classes, particularly when you’re talking politics, you have people that are super-fired up on the left and on the right. Those people who are total y impassioned by their thoughts and feelings help to offset each other, so you can kind of arrive at something in the middle. You have then to take it in and let it process before you form a reaction 9. I had a different teacher in the sophomore level of the subject, and I learned to interpret things differently. When you have someone else give you a different interpretation of the same subject, you’re forced to go back and do comparisons. And I though, wel , why would this person teach this subject this way and be successful and at the same time there’s a person teaching it in a different way but stil being successful? It begins to change you a bit. 10. I want to be chal enged. I am in a gender theory course that has a lot of women’s studies students in it. There I feel chal enged. My own politics are closely like theirs, but I don’t have the background that they have. When I speak up, I have to real y concentrate on what I think, communicate it effectively, and then when there’s a discrepancy between what I think and what someone else thinks then I feel I can grow 11. It’s super-subjective. It is largely a matter of weighing other people’s opinions and their facts against what you, yourself, have previously processed 12. I like getting involved with the class – by answering questions and asking questions. Even if you think you know everything, there are stil questions you can ask. When the lecturer asks questions, you can try to answer them to your best ability. Don’t just let the lecturer talk to you, have him present questions to you 13. My French teacher is getting away from the book exercises because everyone fal s asleep. She’s started getting us into group discussions using our reading, but she corrects our tenses and sentence structure. It’s much more real, much more practical and I think that’s what we need. People are glad to be learning something that we can actual y use 14. You can look at an issue from both sides and it’s stil history and you’re stil getting those facts and those different opinions about things and that’s a kind of basis. But now you’re taking that and working with it to come up with some sort of conclusion, or maybe not a conclusion and that’s the conclusion in itself 15. When you’ve got fifty other people in the room chal enging your views every ten seconds, you learn to assimilate everything. You try to piece out what you think is the best of a conglomerate whole. That’s the best 16. I guess I take everything in and then I go home at night and kind of sort out what I want and what I don’t want. Some things, I guess – maybe because of my morals and values – wil sit better with me and wil seem like fact for me. And other things, I’m just like “I don’t real y think so”. And I throw them out. 17. I have to see what I’m learning, and I have to know why. I have a good memory and it’s very easy for me to memorise facts. The advantage is that it’s kind of cut and dried. The information is there – al you have to do is to soak it up in your brain. 18. It’s funny. You read the same thing yet people see three different stories or three different meanings or interpretations. It helps you to reaffirm your own opinion, modify it or whatever is necessary 19. I spent time getting a general feel for the topic as a whole before I made any generalisations. And then, after that, I started piecing together any general ideas that I believed in or general principles that I then tried to defend….And if it seemed like I was going against that principle too often or disagreeing with it too often, then I would sit down and reevaluate. Like maybe I’d learned something new that changed my way of thinking. So then I’d have to sit down and reevaluate that and then possibly change my mind
20. I like teachers who wil give you as much as you need and not just leave you with a
little smal idea and have you talk it out. I like it when they give you a lot of information.
Then you can discuss it
Epistemological development and media education
Some questions to stimulate thinking…
• Does epistemological development ring bel s for you either in how your own understanding of knowledge developed or in what you hear your students saying about their learning. Can you think of moments of enlightenment when suddenly you could see thing differently? • How does epistemological development relate to media education – what are the first thoughts that come to your mind? It might help to get in touch with this if you think about what your students might say to you about their learning and understanding of knowledge (media education) at different stages of their programmes. • I think that there are some important shifts in these stages. In my view one is the shift from absolutist knowing to recognizing uncertainty etc. The second is from independent knowing to contextual knowing. How can you help students to manage the shifts without undue agonizing and doubt – or do you think that the agonizing and doubt is an important part of their learning? There may be other shifts that you want to consider • Is there ‘mileage’ in using these ideas in developing descriptors of learning in media education. Such a set of descriptors should be very helpful in the development of appropriate wording in learning outcomes. I do not think that you can use these epistemological development materials directly with
younger students because it is difficult to tel someone that they wil think in a manner that
at present they are not able to understand. However we can help them to move on in their
thinking if we put them into situations where they have to make independent judgements –
eg in placements, get them to read clear material that chal enges their current states of
knowing and get them to write short responses to questions that chal enge their states (eg
half sheets of A4 – not essays that al ow them to wander around issues). I suggest that
anything that helps them to develop their critical thinking wil also help their
epistemological development. There is plenty of pedagogical material in my book on
critical thinking (see top of this paper).
‘Answers’ to Epistemological Development exercises (1, 2).
Exercise 1
Absolute views of knowledge: Jan, Sue, Andres and Tom, (teacher)
Transitional views of knowledge: Tony, Joanne, Sam and Helen (teacher)
Independent views of knowledge: Frederick, Elke, Ed and Leo (teacher)
Contextual views of knowledge: Mette, Hugo, Mike and Andrew (teacher)
Exercise 2
Absolutist – 1, 6, 12, 17, 20 Transitional – 3, 4, 9, 13, 15, Independent – 2, 5, 10, 16, 18, Contextual – 7, 8, 11, 14, 19 MERJ is published twice a year by Auteur. News, content, cal s for papers and submission guidance are at


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