A Spiral of Brain-Hurty Questions

Last week our Specialised Learning Leader team had a Planning Day together, gathering momentum on how learning design will occur in 2016. A big focus of this day was how things will look/act/be different for the Qualifications years (Yr 11 & 12) as compared to our Foundation curriculum (Yr 9 & 10). The part that has really stuck with me over the next few days though was a discussion on what our Theories of Knowledge are at Hobsonville Point Secondary School.

Image courtesy of agsandrew

Image courtesy of agsandrew

As the main influence on our Learning Design at HPSS is the New Zealand Curriculum, my initial response was to start thinking what the theory of knowledge behind the NZC is. Quickly finding myself out of my depth to extract this information, I turned to some more learned colleagues asking them questions by various forms of messages.

The reason for my confusion became clear pretty quickly. There is a range of theories of knowledge present in the NZC. Any situation where a large group of people from different learning areas and different educational philosophies have produced a document, it will be based upon a range of theories. This is important as well, it could be quite dangerous for a national curriculum to state that one theory of knowledge is correct. As curriculum documents are a form of political statement, they do need to balance these competing views.

But this does leave schools in the position where we are balancing conflicting theories of knowledge. How do you simultaneously teach from theories of knowledge such as Empiricism and Knowledge as a Verb? This started to raise more questions for me:

  • Are different Learning Areas more naturally aligned with certain theories of knowledge or is internal conflict between theories regularly occurring within disciplines?
  • Is it useful/does it matter, for schools to understand what their theories of knowledge even are?
  • We already have a strong belief in how learners should construct their understanding – is this enough?

Even the (very learned) colleagues I approached had questions around this:

How deep do you need to get into your own understanding of theories of knowledge in order to be confident that you know what are you talking about and can confidently design (and iterate) from that understanding?


Which is more important for us: The extent to which “conceptual progression” occurs in specific areas or whether developing more generic intellectual capacities?

I see myself as a practitioner who enjoys academic provocations, yet this was quickly turning into a spiral of brain-hurty questions.

The next question set me off into another whirl:

Which matters more – the knowledge as a thing in itself, or the way learners construct their understanding of it?

Now this, this is really the crux of it for me at the moment.

Can we accept that different Learning Areas will have biases towards different theories of knowledge, and instead focus our energies on ensuring we are constructing our understanding in a manner that meets our School’s vision for learning? But does the way you say understanding is constructed not say something about the way you view knowledge as a thing itself?

Welcome to my spiral of brain hurt!

This is something that our team is going to investigate in depth over the rest of this year, so I would appreciate some thoughts from those of you who read this. Any and all thoughts and/or recommendations for further investigation would be much appreciated:

  • Do you know of any schools that have had in-depth staff discussions around their Theories of Knowledge?
  • How was it approached?
  • Can you recommend some readings/videos etc to provoke our thoughts around this?
  • Or, do you have some thoughts that show we could be wasting time/energy/brainpower/PD resources?


I really believe there is power in better understanding the philosophical/theoretical underpinnings of our pedagogical practices. But how to get there? For now I’m wallowing in my messy, spiral of thoughts, hoping a path becomes clearer. Hopefully someone or something prompts that move forward soon!


18 thoughts on “A Spiral of Brain-Hurty Questions

  1. Hi Steve, I think that it is time for an NZC review, every ten years doesn’t seem to soon does it?

    I also think that what you are considering here is that the NZC refers to knowledge only as a Noun and not a verb, do a search and you will see. Additionally the NZC does not offer a definition of knowledge. Perhaps that is what you are looking to start with when the NZC is reviewed?

    I can tell you that this was a question that I posed to my staff at a presentation I did at the start of the year, before I began the Mindlabs course which again raised it. Many of us agreed that knowledge is something you do.

    Not something worth wallowing in though, perhaps a better focus is what and how do we measure the different types of knowledge?

    • Perhaps my use of the word “wallow” was a bit off. I really do think it is worth having staff in a school discuss where their views of knowledge are coming from. Even if the main focus ends up on how we ‘best’ construct that knowledge.

      As a school we have tried to focus on the key concepts and skills of each Learning Area for Years 9 & 10. For many teachers this is a step away from the topics or methods they have used to base their units on previously. By understanding the Why of this better, it could influence how effective we are in implementing the How?

  2. Great post. Possibly one of the most exciting ones I have read this year. I think it shows that HPSS is actually genuinely thinking deeply about what they are hoping to achieve with their curriculum. In my opinion, It means that educators are genuinely grappling with what their ‘discipline’ contributes, rather than teaching google-able ale content. I think it is about high time that teachers really considers what their learning area really contributes to the education of our young people.

    PS: How many times do I have to tell you, read Too Big to Know! 😛 It’s the perfect book to supplement you brain-hurty questions.


    • Understanding our discipline deeply, is absolutely central to being able to teach the discipline effectively. When we add cross-curricular into the mix, it becomes even more critical for us to understand what our various disciplines are really about.

  3. Thank you steve for this post. It comes at a time where I m thinking about what the area of our curriculum means and stands for. Many believe the knowledge should be skills focussed and few go beyond the depth of looking at the achievement objectives and look straight at the achievement standard. Heaven forbid that they start to look at the key ideas and key concepts of what the achievement objectives might look like. Or even look at the indicators of progression.

    Having our curriculum area go through the RAMP review has shown that the resources and ideas have changed vastly since the 2007 curriculum was developed. Many of the names of the different subjects have changed with time and we are left with a rather dated view of a growth area.

    Sitting in the curious minds review of digital technologies, we were informed that there is a refresh of the curriculum coming (2017?), maybe the RAMP reviews and curious minds project are the start of the conversations that are needed. We need to move away from content, through to developing 21st century knowledge and skills rather than the current emphasis. How are schools looking at developing these, how do we develop our future learners, problem solvers, creative thinkers.

    • Your area isn’t the only one struggling with this! We recently had a national series of workshops on effective assessment in junior Social Studies. This really showed up how many are struggling to move past the same old topics into a more conceptual approach – this is despite our Learning Area in the NZC being entirely concept-based!

  4. Hey Steve. Your post got me thinking. Initially i had no idea what you were writing about and i had to google “theories of knowledge”. What i think i now know is that it is a philosophical debate that is as yet unresolved (and probably always will be). So from my naive perspective and only really knowing (hang on, do we really know anything???) the social sciences learning area, i take comfort that the key competency of THINKING is there. This i value above all else so i can get on with teacing the application of thinking in a content rich environment what ever that may be. I do this based on what i think i know of learning. Note this is my current position (as at 6.30 am) and i am happy to change it as new information comes to hand. Ps. I am coming to visit your school next Thursday so hope to bump in to you if you are around.

    • Thanks for the comment Craig. It has prompted a few thoughts for me. The Key Competencies are great and apply so well across all areas but I really believe that they work better when applied purposefully in conjunction with disciplinary knowledge. This is what I also think Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd and McDowall were aiming at in Key Competencies for the Future http://www.nzcer.org.nz/nzcerpress/key-competencies-future. I also have a strong belief in using concepts as the framework for knowledge to be built upon (see https://stevemouldey.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/why-are-concepts-important/ for a detailed why) and this has helped me to move past just our Social Sciences AOs into more of a core understanding of our discipline.

      So, I think I have a good handle on what is informing my pedagogical approach but still wonder how to best prompt discussions on this with staff. To me, there still seems to be real power in having staff reflect on what their theories of knowledge are and how this is impacting their comfort with shifting/innovating their practices.

    • I also run a professional learning circle for other secondary subject teachers who are interested in knowing more. We are working on embedding links to Theory of Knowledge throughout the secondary school. We’re doing it by sparking interest, then building understanding through professional development. With something as complex as TOK it has to be elective professional development for it to work.

  5. Reblogged this on tonycairns and commented:
    Firstly your queries ARE the the big hairy questions that all have exhorted us to address and its AWESOME that HPSS is grappling with these ideas in a personal professional and public way as it makes us all think on this crystal clear spring morning with nature popping and fizzing at our doors like a new beginning – when we I should be Ulearning and filming teh local gibbons and apes for tomorrows bio lessons. We are in the midst of such debate and dialogue using HPSS as exemplar, model and talking point at our school every Tuesday in our CFG (curriculum focus group) We argue and discuss from 3.30 – 5.00 and then leave agreeing to disagree but more or less the wiser for it. these are optional staff wide meetings round a giant square table of equality with all contributing equally with the passing of a virtual conch or baton to reinforce speakers rights.

    We approach these discussions from our own, silos, experience, education and theories of knowledge as you do too though you are probably more collaborative and integrated judging from your newness, buzz and levels of critique. The issue is the role of the observer or theorist in the observation of themselves and the construction of their knowledge from inside alongside or outside their minds. From a scientific viewpoint the role of subject object and observer, observed is integrated and meshed in a set of onion shell like skins of increasing density and fineness depending on which way you are travelling. Solutions are to have others observe, critique and theorize your practice – we have a team of 3 from York and VUW universities observing us over the last 18 months, as well as another VUW and Melbourne surveying team, and CoreEd and NZCER and Waikato and Unitec etc and you have Noeline Wright form Waikato i think amongst others and I assume and imagine there will be many many many wanting to and actually observing you. http://www.waikato.ac.nz/wmier/about-us/people/noeline-wright From this observation, hopefully videoed and recorded so you can examine it and the interviews with colleagues staff and students the essential practice, principles and paradigm could and should emerge – though it would be useful to have someone else do this process as we are all pretty wilfully blind to what we believe, see and do.

    I think what the discussions will reveal is the degree of acculturation of each teacher, staff and student into their own whanau, community and background. The discussions will revel the socio psychological profiles of the members of the discussions and some interesting observations on the closeness of fit between team members on a more Miles and Briggs matrix and the current hierarchies or positions of power in the organization. The discussion will reveal more about the politics and personalities in play than the philosophies or Theories of Knowledge but this will determine the future direction cohesion and educational paradigm of.the school so will prove useful anyway.

    The Theories of Knowledge questions can also be addressed from at least 7 different perspectives including sociology, anthropology, psychology, biological group analysis, communication theory, Maori tikanga and matauranga concepts, information theory but the approach you adopt will shape the observations and theory so you will end up with multiple theories of knowledge.

    I quite like taking a range of approaches to any one problem, developing the knowledge and expertise in that area the addressing the issues and problems from that approach. but depending on your genes, environment, education, socialization, education, contacts and philosophy such an approach could drive you insane.

    Carry on – we ook with great interest at whatt you are doinga nd how you are doing and keep blogging so we can see your prgress
    best wishes


    and now to see the gibbons running free in the wilds of New town zoo

    Theories of knowledge are constructed and accepted by myself and others on the basis of the closeness of fit between observations and beliefs. the more i believe something the more i will see that theory in practice and the more my theory will become congruent with my personality, philosophy and practice. We see what we observe through the mind, we theorize what we think is happening through a haze of chemicals at the prompting of our genes based on our own our ancestors and our whanau’s experiences. From a group think perspective the less cognitive differences between us and the past, future, others and groups we affiliate with the better. The numbers of paradigms, cultures, mindsets and theories that i am exposed to growing up and in my everyday life determines the number of options in ways of seeing or lenses or theories i can see and usefully operate. its like having a palette of theories we can pick and mix and flow form one to another depending on the needs of the situation and what has the highest probability of success in maximizing our individual and group resources at the least possible risk and costs to ourselves.In short we see and theorize what we wish for to optimize our options. The value in the exercise is challenging our theories and observations to see their reliability validity and degree of bias and minimizing the cognitive dissonance of opposing or less personal, political and professional paradigms.

    Here is some learning theories to play with


  6. I think we do this iin Science through the Nature of Science which is more than a strand woven through the whole and less than a whaariki – a mat upon which all sit lay and lie. it is the foundation, bedrock and infinite pile of turtles swimming in the cosmos that our science is based upon and in truth though not truly what we should all teach, know and aspire too. the fact it seems left out, tacked on and valiantly rearguard action defended should not reduce its importance and the hope wish and dream of many is that it is better integrated, ‘taught’ and ‘eve, creatively assessed’ through by and in all the plethora of other standards we offer in thos credit crazed gibbous world

  7. To pick up from tonycairns – Nature of Science (NOS) is Science’s TOK unpacked. I agree that it is largely ignored or tagged on through an extremely controlled investigative approach. NOS is worth using as the foundation for the science though as it allows students to develop those key skills of collaboration, creative and critical thinking, problem solving, communication, metacognition and so on. There are lots of opportunities through NOS for students to use their thinking to solve their problems and create their knowing.

  8. Hi Steve. For me the old but good ideas that students connect to new knowledge better when it is introduced in the light of what they already know (or assume) and that students learn best when in the zone of proximal development hold true, whatever the subject area. I think it is easy to forget the old but good ideas. In answer to your question:
    Which matters more – the knowledge as a thing in itself, or the way learners construct their understanding of it?
    I would say the later since there is no such “thing” as knowledge. Though I once came across a teacher who literally banged her fist on the table demanding the benefits of “actual physical knowledge”. Maybe if you cracked a kid’s head open you would find some?! I love the assumption that knowledge, or knowing, takes place first and foremost in an individual’s brain.
    I’m not completely sure what you mean when you ask: How deep do you need to get into your own understanding of theories of knowledge in order to be confident that you know what are you talking about and can confidently design (and iterate) from that understanding? When you say theories of knowledge, are you referring to the stuff in Davis, Sumara and Kapler when they talk about correspondence, coherence and complexity theories?
    Which is more important for us: The extent to which “conceptual progression” occurs in specific areas or whether developing more generic intellectual capacities? I think this is an old debate about whether or not critical thinking can exist independent of the disciplines. I suspect there is a middle ground somewhere.
    This might be an interesting read for you:
    Common misconceptions of critical thinking

    Are you following the Powerful Knowledge debate? This could also be relevant to some of your questions:
    “I really believe there is power in better understanding the philosophical/theoretical underpinnings of our pedagogical practices. But how to get there?” – I still reckon the Davis, Sumara and Kapler is the best place for teachers to start. Or more locally, this still blows my mind and would make for a great PD reading (and socratic seminar):

    Click to access GN_Trust_talk.pdf

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