Understanding Knowledge Construction

There are multiple lines of research, largely disjointed, that are relevant to K-8 students’ understanding of knowledge construction. This research encompasses both a continuation of the developmental research literature and the “epistemic cognition” literature investigating stages in older students’ stances toward knowledge and knowing.

One line of research in the developmental literature involves a continuation of the theory of mind frame into the elementary school years. There is evidence that 6-year-olds (in limited contexts) are beginning to develop a view of mind as an “active interpreter.” That is, they become more aware that people actively construct their own understanding of the world and are aware of the role of prior knowledge in seeing. At the same time, the literature suggests, children continue to elaborate on their understanding of mind (and different mental states) throughout elementary school.

Young children’s understanding of the constructive nature of knowledge itself has not been studied extensively, but the limited research suggests that upper elementary school students tend to fall short of viewing knowledge as rooted in a theoretical world view. Kuhn and Leadbeater (1988), for example, fictionalized two conflicting historical accounts of the “Livian Wars.” They asked students to interpret the accounts in response to a variety of probe questions that they were asked after reading the two accounts. Students were asked to articulate differences between the accounts, consider reasons for the differences, and discuss whether both accounts could be correct. They were scored in terms of epistemological level, from treating the two pieces as factual accounts that might differ only in specific facts reported, to understanding that they reflect contrasting interpretations, filtered through world views. They found that no sixth graders responded in terms of the higher levels.

The work of Perry (1970/1999), consisting of longitudinal studies of Harvard male undergraduates, constitutes an early and influential line of research on stages in understanding knowledge construction. Researchers have made substantial methodological and conceptual advances since Perry’s time (see the discussion of instructional intervention studies in the next section). However, work that continues in the tradition of Perry maintains his general findings that, over the early to late adolescent years, individuals display shifts in their general stance toward knowledge and knowing. Specifically, many young people enter early adolescence embracing an “absolutist” or dualist view of knowledge and truth, one that assumes that there is one right answer to every question and differences of opinion are explainable by misinformation or faulty reasoning. At some point, usually during adolescence, youngsters become aware that others may disagree with them on matters about which they hold strong beliefs.

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