Epistemology: the Heart of a Good Curriculum

by Rick on February 9, 2017

What if “epistemology” were written on the whiteboard on the first day of school, and referred to every day after that? What if “To know how you know what you think you know” were universally understood as the point of a curriculum? What if every test required not just knowing, but articulating how you know? What if discussing your epistemology with others were built into the conversation all day long? Is anything more important these days?


Epistemology (how you know what you know) should be at the heart of any curriculum. That it isn’t is the weak heart of a bad educational system—a system that tells you not to be an inquisitive, critical thinker, but to learn what teachers and texts tells you is true. Schools are often environments where questioning truths could put you at risk.

This failure of epistemology is, in turn, at the core of how American government has come to such a sorry pass. Apparently, we are not very good at discerning truth. “Alternative facts,” often seem to have the same standing as actual facts. Politics isn’t based on truth, but rather what you can get people to believe. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” is the deception that all epistemologies are equal valid.


Democracy can’t work if the people don’t know when they are being lied to. If “truth, justice and the American way” is what America stands for, then making America greater rests on everyone knowing the meaning of epistemology and committing to the never-ending pursuit of truth.

The American democratic experiment grew out of the enlightenment, that “Age of Reason” when the human race made great leaps forward in how to distinguish truth from falsehood—rapid improvements in our reality-testing mechanism. How do we know the earth revolves around the sun? How can we tell if the king is telling the truth? The process must continue, or we’re doomed.


Children are more devoted to the truth than adults. The job of disclosing that the Emperor wasn’t “wearing anything at all” fell to a child, because adults tend to be more embroiled in the busy-ness of pursuing agendas and defending actions. Those in power are more interested in accomplishing their goals than telling the truth. But human progress is built on the foundation of a childish commitment to uncovering the truth, and the bedrock of democracy is a people who can see when the Emperor has no clothes.

My children have always been working to improve their epistemology. For instance, when Lizzie was in first grade, she came to me with a stack of invitations to her birthday party and asked, “Dad is this how you spell Liza?” (The envelope on top was addressed to “LISA.”)

“Sure,” I said.

Lizzie gave me suspicious look that said: “Dad, don’t lie to me.”

Cut to the quick by that look, I corrected myself, “No. Liza is spelt LIZA.”

Forty-some years of working with children has taught me that all kids are working on their epistemology all the time. Alison Gopnik and her colleagues at U.C. Berkeley have learned the same thing. They have discovered that the young human brain is the brain of a scientist: collecting data, forming hypotheses, testing hypotheses, and revising them based on new data, to construct an accurate causal map of the world.

No class period should go by without someone in the class asking something like:

  1. It is true?
  2. How do you know that?
  3. What’s your evidence?
  4. Is that a fact or an alternative fact?
  5. Did you look that up, or just hear it on TV?

And all children should enter second grade able to define epistemology and use it in a sentence.

Besides, what six-year-old wouldn’t love to come home and impress her parents that she knows something they don’t know, like the meaning of “epistemology?”


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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin Dutcher February 11, 2017 at 2:43 pm

Excellent!! You are right on track with how we got to where we are: Obstruct and/or punish those with whom you disagree rather than find common ground and work together. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is widely known (knowledge), but it’s impact is hardly noticed (use). Twelve or so years in a school environment that teaches right answers (and punishes both different ideas and wrong answers while obstructing the personal search for more workable answers and ideas) causes an automatic and unnoticed habit of continuing the same “survival” strategy after schooling, even defending it against truth and workability (introjection). And the inadvertent adoption of school-like teaching and disciplinary strategies by parents, without realizing it, makes the wiring even stronger. Were it not for the plasticity of the brain and the yearning for connection (heart!), I would feel hopeless.

Rick February 12, 2017 at 12:18 am

This from Larry Arnstein: “This one was terrific! I’m going to listen to the Alison Gropnik link you sent, but maybe tomorrow. Today, I just want to tell you that what you’ve written is really important. It reminded me of a riff from the late, great Lenny Bruce, who we could really use right now. He was talking about (more or less) information, where it comes from and if and when it is permitted to flow freely or not. He talked about Hitler, imagining a conference with his generals in which he was proposing to attack Russia in the middle of World War Two, where his armies, navies and air force were already engaged with the allies on the western front. The decision to open an eastern front was the catastrophe that ended the Third Reich, and his generals surely knew that. But imagining a dissenting opinion from one of Hitler’s generals, Bruce imagined Hitler saying, “Kill him, who said that!” So if you’re the dictator, and you intimidate your closest advisors, you’re not going to get the information you need to help you make good decisions. And by “good” I don’t mean responsible. I’m only talking about what was good for the German military forces at the time. Hitler would not accept dissent, in fact punished it with torture and death. So he didn’t get any dissenting opinions form his generals, which could have prevented him from doing the only thing that guaranteed Germany would quickly lose the war. Trump is doing something similar. He is trying to intimidate his advisors so that he never hears dissenting opinions. This will surely undo him, the only question is: when? How long will it be before he is impeached? Current speculation is that in the 2018 elections Republicans will lose the House and Senate, and it will take about one minute for a Democratic House to Impeach him, and another minute for a Democratic Senate to convict him. Pie in the sky? Probably not. But it all comes back to the subject of your essay, which is where do you get your information? If you don’t get it freely from a lot of different sources, you are more and more divorced from reality, and that will get you, sooner or later.”

Susan Porter February 12, 2017 at 12:04 pm

I love this essay, Rick. I tried to get kids to ask those questions every day. It’s hard to do because although they will nail you every once in a while, a lot of the time they are little ducklings. It’s why it should be front and center of everyone’s mind every day. From time to time, I would stop mid-sentence when I noticed a waining of enthusiasm and ask the class, “Why are you learning this?” and demand that they give me an answer that did not defer the benefit to “When we grow up . . .” I’d end the mini-discussion with you need to challenge all you teachers from here on in with this question. You have a right to know if you don’t.” I found it kept me honest to do this periodically.

bill espinosa February 12, 2017 at 12:28 pm

In his provocative book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari says that the scientific revolution is really the revolution of ignorance– that it was fueled by the willingness to admit that we don’t know the answers or that even what we think we know could be proven wrong. That’s a lot easier to do when we’re very young before we get stuck on identity defense. Half of the US is struggling with identity defense and not surprisingly is not real fond of science. How do we encourage everyone to understand that identity is much deeper and richer than what we think we know and believe?

Marshall Crutcher February 12, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Thanks for this important reminder and the summary of classical and American thinking. Optimal democracy is achieved with optimal verity.

The Age of Unenlightenment seems to be upon us. Isolated in front of web browsers that monetize every click, the volume of lonely clicks now Trumps (alas, with a capital T) the volume and value of epistemology. We are rabble, longing to become roused.

Pat Slattery February 12, 2017 at 11:08 pm

In WiseOnes lessons we always use what we call 6WH. All the question words. Why do you say that? How do you know? What if? Who said so? When did that happen? Where did it happen? Which one do you consider the best option? It deepens the teaching and learning a great deal. Teachers of the program, who are all gifted people, are trained in that before they start.

Gary Gruber February 14, 2017 at 6:33 am

I usually agree, and most often wholeheartedly, with your observations, analyses, hypotheses and conclusions. However, I am going to make an exception with one here which is that all children entering second grade should be able to use “epistemology” in a sentence. And further, what six year old wouldn’t like to impress parents with something that she knows that they don’t know? Most six year olds can do that today without knowing the meaning of epistemology even if its something less erudite than the definition of a big word. While that may not be your main point of this article and it is more important to understand the importance and value of asking good questions, maybe the answer to the question is another question rather than a quick answer. That could take us farther and deeper into a more meaningful discussion of what’s really important in addition to the meaning of words. Just my two cents worth early on a Tuesday morning, from the road.

Gary Gruber February 14, 2017 at 6:36 am

PS – Do you know where the name Valentine originated? Happy Valentine’s Day? From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. … Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. So how did we get from there to where we are now with hearts and flowers? Another story for another day…..

Rick February 15, 2017 at 9:36 am

Gary, I agree that the questions are more important than the big word. And you’ve got a good question, there. But what’s your problem with 1st graders knowing the meaning of epistemology?

Jon Madian March 3, 2017 at 12:54 pm

Another great piece.
Thanks, Rick!!

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