Learning How to Know

Lately I have been coming across the word epistemology a lot; talk about a difficult word to ascribe meaning to.  I suppose that is how it goes with most philosophical studies, no?  However, the study of knowledge and how one learns has become a central theme as I start my doctoral program.  In particular, when reading an article by Wenger (2000), the idea that we, as individuals, “…each experience learning in our own ways” (p.3) held significant importance as I thought about this in terms of my own field.

In my blog post from last week, I remarked that I recently had a light-bulb moment when I realized that the students I was preparing to send abroad could not hope to fully negotiate differences with other cultures without possessing a firm understanding and awareness of their own culture and identity.  Only now it seems obvious to me that we all would experience learning in our own ways, shaped by our own identities and experiences.  Nevertheless, I felt a similar sensation of discovery when I read Wenger’s words and reflected on some of the following points raised by other authors.

Though it was quite foreign to me, I found Cajete’s (2008) chapter on the different orientations of indigenous science education to be a fascinating way to contextualize this theme.  Since I have grown up in a Westernized society, what I think about knowledge acquisition and creation, and namely the scientific process, seem almost second nature to me.  However, I was not just born with the inherent knowledge of these processes, rather, like indigenous populations mentioned in Cajete’s chapter, my understanding of the world and how to learn and create knowledge are products of my environment and those who have taught me our society’s norms and traditions. Though it is difficult for me to imagine incorporating dreams into our scientific processes as it seems Garfield (1974) suggests some American Indian societies do as part of their knowledge-gathering traditions, I do agree that as educators, we need to be more flexible to adapting our own rigid means of conveying knowledge in order to better connect with those students that come from exceptionally different backgrounds than our own.

However, one point of disagreement for me that stemmed from an issue raised by a few of these articles was the idea that ‘White, Western’ society’s notion of objectivity in research and knowledge creation is unrealistic, and perhaps limiting.  Specifically, Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas “[rejected] the prevailing orthodoxy that scholarship could or should be “neutral” and “objective.”  These scholars believe that scholarship about race in America could never be written or distanced from or with an attitude of objectivity” (as cited in Cajete, 2008, p. 87).  Similarly, Cajete (2008) maintains that, “…focus on objectivity can block deeper insight into the metaphysics of the reality and process of the natural world.  Western science does not consider the affective, intuitive, and soulful nature of the world” (p. 491).  I find these claims truly vexing when I think about the implications of non-objectivity in scholarly work.  When I read reports and journal articles, read or watch the news, or am told something is a certain way by an authoritative figure, I find myself questioning to what degree individual biases have affected the information that is being transmitted to me; I tend to never take information at its face value.  Call me a cynic, but to me, knowledge creation that is not objective and devoid of emotional, spiritual, and personal notions cannot be truly counted to be knowledge.  At best, this would constitute someone’s educated opinion.  I respect that perhaps my opinion on this matter is colored by the years in which I have grown up with this Westernized doctrine, and I do agree that true objectivity is rare in most all fields and a very real threat to credible research, but to introduce these other aspects into research is to weaken its credibility.

That being said, there is truth to the general theme that we as individuals all learn how to know in our own way.  Just as other cultures perceive the world differently from one another, so to do individuals learn and create knowledge differently.  If we, as the new educational leaders, are to provide access and equity, and create positive impact in our field, we need to reflect on the reality that there is no one-size-fits-all method to learning acquisition, and that perhaps the solutions to some of our society’s most pressing issues will be solved by these new or different ways of thinking.


Cajete, G. (2008). Seven orientations for the development of indigenous science education. In N. K. Denzin, Y. Lincoln S. & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Critical and indigenous methodologies (pp. 487-496) SAGE.

Dunbar, C., Jr. (2008). Critical race theory and indigenous methdologies. In N. K. Denzin, Y. Lincoln S. & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies (pp. 85-99) SAGE.

Garfield, P. (1974). Creative dreaming. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246.