Saturday, October 5, 2013

Epistemology: How learning works

Epistemology is about how learning works, how knowledge is created, how problems get solved. These all mean the same thing.

Most people don't pay much attention to the way they learn. This is partly due to going to school and accepting their model of learning without questioning it. Students are given material to learn, and they are given tests, and the kids are left to figure out on their own about how to learn the material. Some kids figure out a simple way which is to memorize the facts and regurgitate them on the test. And this "works" for many years until at some point in school things become more difficult and memorizing doesn't "work" well anymore. The amount of stuff to learn becomes overwhelming and the kid starts to get mixed up. They also start putting problems on the tests that were not covered in class or in homework, and the student is left not knowing how to create solutions to the new problems.

To explain why this memorizing method doesn't work, consider what it means to memorize facts. A fact is a solution to a problem. On the test, the teacher will give the student a problem, and to solve it, the student plans to recall the solution that he memorized that goes with this problem. Now there are a few major flaws with this memorizing method. One, if you are only memorizing a few sets of problems and solutions, then when you are presented with new problems, you won't know how to create a solution, since that's not how you were doing it before. Two, how do you know you solved the problem correctly? In other words, how do you know that the solution you recalled is in fact the solution to the problem you've encountered? How will you check that you got it right? If you are only memorizing facts, then you won't know what to do. Three, how do you know you understood the problem correctly? In other words, how do you know that your interpretation of the problem is the correct one? If you are only memorizing facts, then you won't know how to interpret the problem explicitly, and instead you'll be doing it by first impression.

The right way to learn is by reason, which is a creative and critical process. When you are thinking of learning something, ask why it matters, how it could be used, what is it's purpose. Ask yourself: Why should I learn this? Ask yourself: What problem does this idea solve? Then get answers, from other people, from internet searches, and make guesses yourself. Then criticize those answers -- in other words, try to find out if these answers are wrong and why. Do your own criticism, and ask others for criticism too. None of this involves memorizing. All of it is a creative process.

To explain why this reasoning method works better than the memorizing method, consider what it means to reason. It's a creative process -- you create (new) solutions to (new) problems. And it's a critical process -- you try to find out if your solution is wrong. So, if you're taking a test that gives you a problem that you didn't encounter in class or in the homework, you're ok because you know how to create a solution since that's what you were doing in class and in the homework.

To be clear, you not only use criticism on your solution, but you also do it on your interpretation of the problem. By that I mean that when you read a problem, you shouldn't assume that you understood it. People are fallible, which means that anything we do can be mistaken, so we should make sure to check for mistakes at every step, including the step of interpreting the meaning of the problem. And this interpretation step is a creative and critical process, just like the process of creating a solution to a problem. Actually, interpreting a problem is creating a solution to a problem, which is the problem of what is the correct interpretation of this problem?

Now let's take it a step further. The problem itself could be wrong. A person created it, and since people are fallible, anything they create could be wrong. So it's important to check if the problem is wrong. Now this gets tricky when you are criticizing a problem and criticizing your interpretation of the problem, so it takes some getting used to in order to keep from conflating the two. This gets even more tricky when you are discussing this with another person since you have the problem, your interpretation of the problem, and his interpretation of the problem, and you both are criticizing all three, so it's important to keep track of what you're criticizing.


Here are some essays that explain epistemology from different angles. These are by the philosopher Elliot Temple. Note, I've carefully put these essays in order so I suggest reading them in this order.

Here are some of my essays on epistemology:

 Here are some related essays:

No comments:

Post a Comment