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Development of epistemic knowledge

In order to get a more holistic view on adult thinking and reasoning, we also need to have an understanding of the development of epistemic knowledge: how individuals develop conceptions of knowledge and knowing, and how these are utilized in understanding the reality. The research tradition on epistemological beliefs contributes to these issues and is interested in the definition of knowledge; how knowledge is constructed, how knowledge is evaluated, where it resides, and how knowledge occurs (Hofer, 2002).

Epistemological beliefs are commonly considered to be the lens through which individuals interpret information, set standards, and decide on an appropriate course of action (Hofer & Pintrich, 2002; see also Limón, 2006). Research references include a wide variety of terms, such as epistemic positions (Perry, 1968), epistemic cognition (King & Kitchener, 2002), epistemological reflection (Baxter Magolda, 1992), epistemological understanding (Kuhn, Cheney, & Weinstock, 2000), and epistemological thinking (Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002). Kaartinen-Koutaniemi and Lindblom-Ylanne (2008) and Seppálá (2013) distinguish two different directions for this tradition: 1) the study of epistemological notions, i.e., related to knowledge, beliefs, and 2) the study of epistemological and reflective thinking. There are numerous classifications in the field, and at least three different approaches for epistemological beliefs and how they are studied: developmental, systematic/structural, and resource point of view (Limón, 2006; see also Moshman, 2013, who distinguishes seven different areas for the study of epistemic cognition, cf. Greene, Tomey-Purta, & Azevedo, 2010).

In this chapter two approaches under the research tradition of epistemological beliefs are presented: the developmental approach and the epistemological resources approach.

Developmental approach

The developmental approach is widely adopted in epistemological research (Limón, 2006). It focuses on explaining developmental changes in epistemological beliefs and seeks to describe the developmental levels through which an individual progresses. From the historical point of view the most significant name in the field of epistemological development, as well as being a representative of developmental theorists, is William Perry (1968). He was the first to redefine the way cognition develops, by focusing on the development of epistemological assumptions. Perry (1970) examined college students’ paths from adolescence to adulthood by interviewing students over their four years at college. Perry was interested in how the students perceived the world around them. He aimed at “mapping development in the forms of seeing, knowing and caring” (Perry, 1970, p. ix).

Perry and his research group conducted interviews at the end of each study year “in as open-ended way as possible” (Perry, 1970, p. 7) to capture the students’ experiences. On the basts of the interview data, Perry' detected nine positions of development, which are explained in Table 3.2. These nine positions of development cover

TABLE 3.2 Perry’s (1970) Developmental Scheme. Printed with permission. Copyright The Finnish Educational Research Association





In Part I an absolutistic right-wrong outlook begins to make room to multiplicity, a simple form of pluralism.

1. Basic duality

The student sees the world in polar terms of “we-right-good vs. other-wrong-bad” (p. 9). There are right answers for everything, and these arc known to those in authority, whose role is to teach the right answers to the students. The students’ role is to learn the right answers.

2. Multiplicity pre-legitimate

The student perceives diversity of opinion and uncertainty, and, and considers them as unnecessary confusion in poorly qualified authorities. Multiplicity of opinion is experienced as annoying, but some complexity and uncertainty is allowed as long as it is temporary.

3. Multiplicity subordinate

The student accepts diversity and uncertainty as legitimate, but still considers them as temporary in areas where authority has not yet found the right answers. Trust in authority is not threatened.


The student accepts the diversity of opinions and transforms the simple pluralism into contextual relativism. The student needs to follow his or her inner voice, not authority.

4. Multiplicity correlate or relativism subordinate

This position consists of two alternative views, which are developmentally equivalent. In Multiplicity-Correlate path the student feels that anyone has a right to his or her own opinion, even if this view is opposite to that of the authority. The majority of the students follow the second Relativism-Subordinate path to relativism in which multiplicity is not put against authority. This path allows the discovery of relativism by comparing different approaches to a problem and starting to develop one’s own opinion.

5. Relativism correlate, competing, or diffuse

Both Relativism Correlate and Relativism Competing contain unresolved elements of transition. Relativism Diffuse describes the completed revolution: the student perceives all knowledge and values as contextual and relativistic. Seeing, thinking, knowing, and valuing take place in a context.

6. Commitment foreseen

The student understands the necessity of orienting him- or herself in a relativistic world through personal commitment. The student apprehends the implications


TABLE 3.2 (Cont.)



of personal choice in a world (s)he assumes to be relativistic. Commitment is foreseen as the resolution of the problems of relativism, but it has not yet been experienced.



Integration of knowledge from authority with own knowledge and experiences through analysis, comparing, and evaluation. The development in Part III is more qualitative than structural.

7. Initial commitment

The student makes an initial commitment in some major areas, such as disciplinary or professional choices.

8. Orientation in implications of commitment

The student experiences the implications of commitment and explores the subjective issues of responsibility.

9. Developing commitments

The student experiences the affirmation of identity among multiple responsibilities and sees commitment as an on-going activity through which (s)he expresses his or her life style.

students’ ethical and intellectual development. The development scheme is described in three parts, each comprising three positions.

In any of the nine positions the student may suspend or even reverse the process of development. Thus, also delay, deflection, and regression can occur. Perry (1970) differentiated between three forms of deflection. In temporizing the student may pause his or her development in a position, either by exploring the implications of the position in detail or by hesitating to take the next step. In Retreat the student entrenches him- or herself in the dualistic, absolutistic structures of positions 2 and 3. In Escape the student exploits the opportunity for detachment in positions 4 and 5 to avoid the personal responsibility.

Perry’s classification of thinking patterns from absolutism to relativism and to commitment has had a strong impact on the research of adult cognitive development and also, often implicitly, even in wisdom research (Barzilai & Eshet-Alkalai, 2015; Kallio, 2015; see Chapter 2). Examples of the later developmental approaches are Kuhn’s (Kuhn et al., 2000; Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002) theory on epistemological thinking, King’s and Kitchener’s (2002) theory of reflective thinking, and Baxter Magolda’s (1992, 2004) model of epistemological reflection. A common element for these developmental models is that the primary task of epistemic development is a progression towards the integration of objectivity and subjectivity. It involves learning to coordinate one’s own subjective perceptions and meaning making with the facts about “objective reality” and the knowledge of authorities (Hofer, 2006).

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