A Human Approach to Assessments and Outcomes
Grounding Teaching Practices in Educational Research and Philosophy
Building Capacity, Exploring the Edges of Knowledge, and Finding Ways Forward
This page is the first of three resources that focus on contemporary research and philosophy for developing more human (and humane) forms of education. For greater context, first review the project summary page. See the bottom of this page for links to the other educational resources in this set.
Acquiring knowledge is hard. It takes time and effort. It’s frustrating. Sometimes it seems pointless. Do you really need to know how to change a flat tire? (Probably.) And yet, the most interesting things about life involve knowledge acquisition: knowledge about people, knowledge about the world, knowledge about ourselves. A good deal is known about how to build knowledge. It’s a skill like any other. And the development of that skill entails several considerations and stages. We’ve outlined these below, along with definitions and characteristics for various aspects of knowledge development. We’ve also included the research from which this material is derived.
The process of developing knowledge is complex and, ultimately, not subject to any particular model or structure. But we can see trends, and perhaps we can point to some stages. One ideal, perhaps, of an engaged and developing learner is that they proactively and critically seek, analyze, construct, and create knowledge through a variety of modalities, while also accommodating the limits, ambiguities, uncertainties, and unknowns inherent in the pursuit of knowledge. Let’s use this as our definition. What might the stages look like?
Initial: Learners may passively accept knowledge as right or wrong and rely on authority figures as their source for knowledge and judgment.
Emerging: Learners demonstrate that they have begun to realize the uncertainty of knowledge.
Developing: Learners acknowledge multiple perspectives, but are not yet able to effectively discriminate among them.
Proficient: Learners actively construct knowledge, weighing and interpreting judgments and committing to stances in the face of uncertainty.
The last stage is obviously more developed and desirable than the first. The growth inherent in that shift from initial to proficient reflects how learners deal with assumptions about the nature, limits, and certainty of knowledge (Kitchener, 1983; Perry, 1970). More proficient learners come to understand that all knowledge is uncertain and must be judged in light of evidence relevant to the context. They actively construct, evaluate, and interpret judgments to develop their internal belief systems (Baxter Magolda, 2001; Kegan, 1994). Thus the cognitive maturity called for in integrating disparate information to make decisions requires a self-authored belief system (Baxter Magolda, 2004c),1 which we might assign to its own set of stages:
In turn, this perspective can be applied to aspirational goals for university education:
Ideally, graduates of university will have a scholarly attitude to knowledge and understanding. As scholars, the university’s graduates will be leaders in the production of new knowledge and understanding through inquiry, critique and synthesis. They will be able to apply their knowledge to solve consequential problems and communicate their knowledge confidently and effectively.4 They will be able to create new knowledge through the process of research and inquiry.5 They will be able to help solve complex problems, as follows.
All important problems are complex (or ‘wicked’) problems. A learner who develops meaningful knowledge in any domain must be able to adapt to the challenges of new and novel problems that require innovation and risk. Again, we could identify a continuum of how these skills develop:
Initial: Learners demonstrate the capacity to solve familiar problems and find routine ways of solving them.
Emerging: Learners are more at ease with unfamiliar problems and create their own ways of solving them.
Developing: Learners identify novel, real-world problems.
Proficient: Learners seek opportunities to challenge themselves by working with real-world problems, and they may even prefer new and novel problems.
Getting to proficient in problem-solving means that learners must learn to work in (and develop) environments in which they can build the confidence to try things and to make mistakes. Such environments typically involve creativity, risk-taking, and real-world problem-solving.
Those learners who score highly on this dimension are able to look at things in different ways. They like playing with ideas and taking different perspectives, even when they don’t quite know where their trains of thought are leading. They are receptive to hunches and inklings that bubble up into their minds, and they make use of imagination, visual imagery and pictures and diagrams in their learning. They understand that learning often needs playfulness as well as purposeful, systematic thinking. The opposite pole is literalness or rule boundness. These learners tend to be less imaginative. They prefer clear-cut information and tried-and-tested ways of looking at things, and they feel safer when they know how they are meant to proceed. They function well in routine problem-solving situations but are more at sea when greater creativity is required.6
Risks for learners might include personal risk (fear of embarrassment or rejection), the risk of failure to complete an assignment, the risk of going beyond the original parameters of an assignment, introducing new materials and forms, tackling controversial topics, advocating unpopular ideas or solutions, and many other possibilities. We can construct some levels of proficiency here, followed by further levels that speak to the relationship between risk-taking and problem-solving:
Any complex problem requires multiple points of view that overlap, conjoin, and often diverge. How might we describe a learner who embodies this cognitive and emotional flexibility? Here’s one way: such a learner is able to proactively appreciate and integrate knowledge from a variety of modes of knowing and from multiple, diverse, and interdisciplinary values and perspectives. What would the stages of this type of development look like? Here’s our take:
Initial: Learners may privilege their own and their own culture’s, discipline’s, and theoretical orientation’s values and perspectives. They may be unaware of or devalue the contributions of non-dominant ways of knowing and transmitting knowledge.
Emerging: Learners demonstrate that they have become open to considering other ways of knowing.
Developing: Learners become curious about and come to appreciate other ways of knowing.
Proficient: Learners integrate new perspectives into their personal epistemologies.
Self-development is centered on one’s knowledge and understanding of what is true and important to know. It includes viewing knowledge and knowing with greater complexity and taking into account multiple perspectives.9 This epistemological dimension of development refers to how people use assumptions about the nature, limits, and certainty of knowledge to decide what to believe (Kitchener, 1983; Perry, 1970). Self-authored persons assume knowledge is uncertain and judged in light of evidence relevant to the context; they actively construct, evaluate, and interpret judgments to develop their internal belief systems (Baxter Magolda, 2001; Kegan, 1994). Thus the cognitive maturity called for in integrating disparate information to make decisions requires a self-authored belief system (Baxter Magolda, 2004c).10
A learner who is capable of multiple perspectives is able to identify and articulate them. Such a learner:
If the contemporary world has taught us one thing, it is that all disciplines are connected, all margins and boundaries are illusory, and all domains are provisional. A contemporary learner, therefore, must have the ability to create coherence by integrating new learning with previous learning, as well as to integrate what is learned across disciplines. A continuum of how these stages develop might look like this:
Initial: Learners approach knowledge from an atomistic perspective. They may not yet draw ties between what they are learning and their personal experience, or among different pieces of knowledge.
Emerging: When prompted to do so, learners make basic connections between learning and their personal experience and among different pieces of knowledge.
Developing: Learners begin to draw ties among pieces of knowledge not only within their disciplines, but across disciplines.
Proficient: Learners proactively seek coherence through integrating their new learning with their past experiences and integrating what is learned across knowledge domains.
Some learners are on the lookout for links between what they are learning and what they already know. They get pleasure from seeing how things ‘fit together’. They like it when they can make sense of new things in terms of their own experience, and when they can see how learning relates to their own concerns. Their questions reflect this orientation towards coherence. They are interested in the big picture and how the new learning fits within it. They like to learn about what really matters to them. The opposite pole is fragmentation. Some learners are more likely to approach learning situations piecemeal, and to respond to them on their own individual merits. They may be more interested in knowing the criteria for successful performance than in looking for joined-up meanings and associations.12
Accordingly, learners who embrace a view that connects learning experiences with wider meanings tend to connect relevant experiences with academic knowledge. Naturally, there are different stages of that process, ranging from basic to advanced:
Similarly, contemporary learners must be able to make connections between academic disciplines and the wider world. They must see and make connections across disciplines and perspectives. How this plays out varies, as we would expect, from basic to more advanced capabilities:
All of the considerations in the epistemological realm play themselves out in the context of complex, real-world issues. Therefore, a well-developed contemporary learner is able to apply knowledge from diverse disciplines and ways of knowing to generate, evaluate, and improve upon solutions that address real-world problems. The stages of this process might resemble the following:
Initial: Learners successfully engage with knowledge within the bounds of disciplines and practice applying this knowledge to course assignments.
Emerging: Learners are aware of and curious about the contributions of other disciplines. They may attempt to address real-world problems, but they produce overly simple solutions.
Developing: Learners begin to create connections among disciplines and ways of knowing. They produce solutions that take complexity into account, but they may still overlook aspects of the problem.
Proficient: Learners employ their knowledge to address complex real-world problems that are not confined to one disciplinary approach.
Similarly, learners exploring complexity must be able to transfer, adapt, and apply skills, abilities, theories, or methodologies gained in one situation to new situations. The spectrum of skill might look like this:
So much of the contemporary world relies on a vast array of interconnected technologies. Traditional education has, it’s fair to say, been somewhat slow in adapting to new technologies. Consequently, this domain can be very challenging for educational cultures and learners who must be able to understand, choose, and apply appropriate technological tools to work more efficiently, gather and analyze information, and communicate with others. Let’s look at how the stages for this might be described:
Initial: Learners may use only basic technological tools and feel uncertain when asked to expand their technical know-how.
Emerging: Learners achieve a degree of mastery over familiar tools and platforms.
Developing: Learners demonstrate that they are willing to try new technological tools and risk making mistakes.
Proficient: Learners use a variety of technological tools with ease and efficiency, choose appropriate tools for the task, and may even modify or create their own tools.
As Eric Raymond says of becoming a hacker:
You… have to develop a kind of faith in your own learning capacity — a belief that even though you may not know all of what you need to solve a problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learn from that, you’ll learn enough to solve the next piece — and so on, until you’re done.16