S.6 – Ways of Knowing


Session 6: Conceptualizing Ways of Knowing (Web Review)

Session Overview

While knowledge and learning are not synonymous, it is reasonable to argue that an individual’s conceptualization of knowledge and its origin relates to his or her approach to teaching and learning.  While there are many different ways of knowing, one easy (if overly simplistic) method for classifying concepts around “how we know” is to consider one question:  Does knowledge come from within or outside of us?  The answer to this question surfaces the fundamental difference between positivism and constructivism.  Positivist-rooted theories objectify knowledge, expressing it as a series of logical causal relationships that become more valid and generalizable as they are subjected to repeated theory testing.  Positivists feel that knowledge revealed by this process is superior to that produced from values, intuition, or untested experience because, it their minds, positivist knowledge lacks subjective personal bias. In contrast, constructivist-rooted theories focus on the perspectival nature of knowledge and truth, embracing the inevitability of bias since the individual cannot be separated from the knowledge created.  The opposite of generalizable, constructivist theories are organically embedded in their culture as defined by a specific space and time.  They are individualized and emic, intuitive and value-driven.

A person’s natural affinity for positivism or constructivism affects their approach to teaching and learning in many ways.  Whether we are willing to embrace alternative epistemologies or not, acknowledging our personal epistemologies is important because it allows us to recognize personal biases that we might not even know we have.  It also deepens our understanding of why we like certain teaching and learning practices and dislike others.  Finally, it gives us some insight into the practices of others who might otherwise be incomprehensible to us.  This session is intended to explore your perspectives about teaching, and to discuss those with your peers.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this session you should be able to:

  • Understand the basic differences between positivist and constructivist conceptions of knowledge
  • Begin to explore your preferences for positivism, constructivism, or both.
  • Connect your personal epistemology to your assumptions about teaching and learning

Key Questions

  • How do you define knowledge?  Where does it come from?
  • How does your personal epistemology relate to your assumptions about teaching and learning?
  • Is there value in understanding other ways of knowing?   How can you use it to advance your practice?


1)    Review the selected readings

2)    Listen to Laura’s screencast on positivism and constructivism


1)    Continued reading of selected book

2)    Share some reflective thinking in your Learning Journal

Suggested Readings

Bennett, W. D., & Park, S. (2011). Epistemological syncretism in a biology classroom: A case study. Journal of Science Education and Technology,20(1), 74-86. (Link to article)


Brown, G. (2009). The ontological turn in education. Journal of Critical Realism,8(1), 5. (Link to article)