Why epistemology matters for parents

“Much of what passes for educational theory is philosophically illiterate. Epistemology has profound practical implications, which we should do well to consider.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


Reposted on 3rd February 1996

“Call me a pragmatist but I’m sick of all the philosophical navel gazing here. I thought this List was for Radical Unschoolers? Time to throw out philosophy and concentrate on practical things that will help us unschool our kids!”

Is the mind like a bucket passively receiving stuff from outside, or is it active, like a searchlight? Is knowledge a fluid like water, that can be poured into a passively-receiving mind from outside, like water into a bucket? Is knowledge just ‘facts’? ‘Information’? Can it be tattooed on a brain? Or is the mind creative? How does knowledge grow? Does it grow one way in science but a completely different way in children learning to speak or learning how to express themselves more effectively? What is the relationship between epistemological theories of how knowledge grows in an individual child, and how human knowledge advances more generally? Or is the progress that appears to have been made (lots of innovations improving our lives) an illusion?

Some parents are surprised when I suggest that epistemology is relevant to family life and education. It is as though people somehow imagine that it is possible to have an educational theory without epistemology, or a world view without philosophy. But even if you consider yourself to be “a pragmatist”, that still implies a philosophical position. And like it or not, conventional parenting and education (including unschooling!) assume certain ideas about how people learn, so that raises the question of what are those ideas and are they true?

Educational theory is applied epistemology. Educational theory is not just about formal education like school or alternative forms of education like unschooling, it also includes ideas about how to interact with children more generally, such as when parents try to teach their children how to behave and express themselves. Parents often talk in terms of having a duty to teach their children to be responsible adults, etc. That is all educational theory broadly construed, and it all implies epistemological ideas.

If the educational theory and associated epistemological theory being enacted are false, then at best it is not helping the children the parents and teachers are trying to raise and educate. 

When parents force children to go to school against their will, and teachers teach the unwilling, that assumes that coercion helps or at least doesn’t interfere with people’s learning. What if they are mistaken? That raises a moral question: if the epistemology assumed is false, and the educational methods being used by parents and teachers are mistaken, shouldn’t they change their methods to morally unobjectionable ones?

How you think knowledge grows informs all your interactions with your children, and there is no getting away from that. If you believe human beings learn through divine revelation, that will inform your interactions in a different way from if you think that they learn though what Karl Popper called ‘conjectures and refutations’. If you believe that your divine revelations are superior to those of your child, you may feel duty-bound to override the child’s ideas. Whereas if you view learning as a creative act in a critical-rational process, you are more likely to value the idea of consent in decision-making.

If you believe that children’s minds are like cabbages—they just grow naturally like plants grow—you might err on the side of doing little or nothing to support your children’s learning except providing ‘soil nutrients’ like books, because you view the human mind as mindless. Whilst some children at some times want to be left to their own devices educationally, for most children much of the time that would not be enough.

If you believe that knowledge grows through repetitious rote learning (maths facts??) then you may try to ‘encourage’ children to keep attending to repeated exposures to whatever information you deem worthwhile (no doubt in most cases by extreme coercion, since that is what it usually takes to make someone do something so totally boring and mindless), and in so doing, you may be destroying the children’s ability to think in those areas.

If you believe that reality is a purely personal thing, or that there is no such thing as truth, or that there is no such thing even in principle of a better or a worse way to raise and educate children, you will interact differently with children from how you interact with them if you think there is such a thing as truth, and that it is worth trying to identify unhelpful ideas and find better ones about how to raise children.

If you think knowledge grows though induction, or that people learn passively, knowledge being poured into them like water into a bucket, you will be behaving in a completely different way towards your children from how you will be behaving if you think that people learn through a creative critical-rational process in which the individual is an active searcher and problem-solver, not a passive receiver of perceptions or whatever. And you might regard the child’s inferior knowledge as evidence that his “ability to perceive reality” is not up to yours, and that thus he needs coercion, when in fact, he just disagrees with you.

If you believe that children are vulnerable to bad ideas just like bodies are vulnerable to poisons, then you will no doubt try to censor your child’s exposure to a wide range of things. If you are wrong, you are objectively harming your child. So whether you like it or not, your philosophical ideas are important and do affect what you do to your children and how you educate them.

If you think that the mind is a blank slate or a stimulus-response machine, and that learning happens through behaviourist conditioning, you may subject your children to unwanted ‘consequences’ (punishment) to compel them to comply, or ‘positive reinforcement’ to ‘encourage’ them to comply, and you are going to be failing to interact with them in ways that might actually support them in their learning. You will be ‘guiding them’ along educational paths you yourself have chosen for them, instead of providing support for them along their own chosen paths.

If you are a radical unschooler, you may be the kind of radical unschooler who believes in ‘non-coercive’ or ‘learner-led’ education yet sees no inconsistency with you being in charge of the child more generally. You may not see that that is an incoherent position unless you familiarise yourself with Popperian epistemology and realise that children are full people in the relevant sense.

Physicist David Deutsch points out that the prevailing assumptions in conventional parenting and education about the mechanics of human learning directly contradict the prevailing view of how knowledge grows in the philosophy of science, namely Popperian epistemology. In terms of its underlying logic, knowledge doesn’t grow one way in science and a completely different way in children. It grows through an active process of noticing a problem, making bold conjectures aimed at solving the problem, checking whether any of the conjectures do seem to solve the problem, and tentatively adopting the one that does. This brings us to a new problem situation, where a new and hopefully better problem will be noticed, and so on. Scientific theories can be refuted by experiment, but that is just a special case. Other theories can be refuted by argument instead.

Think about the implications. If Karl Popper’s epistemology is true, and learning is an actively creative process on the part of the learner, and the mind is not a bucket into which knowledge can be poured, and knowledge is not a fluid like water that can be poured in from outside, that has profound implications for how to interact with our children (and others). See my posts about freedom, consent, and how coercion throws a spanner in the works of learning for more on this.

If you reject Popperian epistemology and favour some other epistemological theory, that will have different implications for child-rearing and education. And not just for child-rearing and education but for interactions more generally. What are those implications? Do you see any problems in them?

If you consider yourself a pragmatist, and want to think only about ‘what works’, that raises all sorts of philosophical and moral problems, such as: in the event that you and your child disagree about what works, how, pragmatically, do you determine what actually works? If your position is that you know best what works because you are the parent, that implies epistemological ideas. Is it your position that your pragmatic knowledge is infallible? If not, then what is your justification for thinking it right to impose your view of things on your child? Epistemological ideas are involved, like it or not.

The fact is, epistemology is relevant to education and child-raising, and so this attitude of “throw out philosophy and concentrate on practical things” is a mistake. Much of what passes for educational theory is philosophically illiterate. Epistemology has profound practical implications, which we should do well to consider. (And that applies whether my particular ideas are right or dead wrong.)

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1996, ‘Why epistemology matters for parents’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/why-epistemology-matters-for-parents

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