Metacognition, epistemological beliefs and the division of cognitive labor (EARLI09 Keynote, Rainer Bromme)

Yesterday’s EARLI09 keynote by Rainer Bromme was very interesting, in my view the best one of all of this year’s EARLI keynotes that I had a chance to attend. I have captured some of the ideas and research findings he shared, what follows below is the abstract of his talk and the summary of my notes.

Abstract: “Due to the division of labor in modern societies, knowledge is distributed and used unevenly. Most of the knowledge we acquire through lifetime has been produced by specialized experts, is provided by specialized experts, and it is organized into disciplines, reflecting such specialization. This  division of cognitive labor has implications for our understanding of learning, epistemological beliefs and metacognition. Recent approaches on learning (especially those inspired by constructivist ideas) and research on epistemological beliefs undervalue the division of cognitive labor. Instead, they are in favor of personal knowledge construction, of first hand experiences as the main ways of learning. The implicit assumption ‘own knowledge is better than knowledge attained from others’ is underlying many approaches in educational research. In contrast to this normative assumption, we all remain laypersons with regard to the most domains of knowledge in modern societies. Therefore we will have to cope with experts and with specialized expert knowledge for the whole lifetime. It is necessary to learn how to evaluate knowledge which we do attain from experts. Such judgments are necessary even when they are based on a fragmentary understanding of the knowledge claims. At first I will review such positions held within research on epistemological beliefs and on learning. Secondly I will sketch a research program on students’ capacities to understand how specialized knowledge is distributed (who knows what?) and to evaluate expert sources (whom to believe?). Such capacities entail epistemological beliefs about expert knowledge and metacognitive awareness about ones’ own knowledge. I will then resume some empirical evidence from developmental psychology about children’s intuitive understanding of the division of cognitive labor and I will ask how schooling fosters and impedes such understanding. Finally, some of our own studies about the cognitive division of labor will be sketched. This research focuses on laypersons’ capacities for the evaluation of health related expert knowledge found in the Internet. Based on our research the relationship between metacognition and such capacities will be discussed.”

He started off by defining the notion of division of cognitive labour – “the reliance on the deeper understanding of knowledge held by others when using this knowledge for communication, for categorising our environment, cooperation and decision making”.  Argues this notion is linked with division of labour which has developed in human societies froom prehistoric times, but has increased dramatically after the industrial revolution and expecially recently in the context of knowledge economy and advancements in ICT.  Everincreasing specialisation of knowledge means people need skills in continuous assessment of knowledge claims made by experts.

Argues there is a conceptual distinction between first-hand and second-hand knowledge claims.  The former refers to assessment of “what is true?” and the latter to “whom to believe?”  Criteria of assessment of first hand knowledge claims are well known and well researched (critical thinking, evidence, cohesiveness and logic of argument) and a lot of instructional and research efforts have been focused on dealing with this type of knowledge claims.  In contrast, there hasn’t been enough focus on the second-hand knowledge claims (whom to believe) in learning theory or development of instruction.   [An exception that comes to mind is Harry Collins’s research programme on expertise and his recent book co-authored with Robert Evans].  In addition, traditional approaches to first-hand knowledge claims have been influenced by Piagetian focus on personal, first-hand authentic experience, disregarding the social nature of our knowledge, ie that it does not derive only from indidvidual experience but we have to rely on what others know.

Goes on to argue that laypersons are not novices who want to become experts-above and beyond basic literacy and focus on specific areas, most laypeople become “acclimatised” to broader knowledge but not proficient in it.

Research on metacognition has focused on person’s own cognition, but studying metacognition about others’ metacognition is necessary (who knows what, who has the knowledge to corraborate knowledge claims). This area is currently underresearched. Some people argue that research on theory of mind (TOM) is focusing on this, but that’s not correct – the focus of TOM is on comparing others’ minds to one’s own, ie the focus is still on individual.

Then shares early findings of a range of empirical studies conducted by his group testing students’ abilities to evaluate knowledge claims, in particular identify who to ask when presented with tasks they don’t have sufficient knowledge to complete. Found that majority of  students identified the right experts to ask for further information above chance  [note to self to follow up on these studies, some are not published yet]. Concludes that humans have capabilities not to rely on knowledge by experts and to make accurate judgements on how the necessary knowledge can be accessed even if they are not faimilar with the domain.

Question and answer session focused on discussion of the implications of this research for democratisation of knowledge through web 2.0 phenomenon (how people can assess knowledge that is not created by experts and that has not been vetted by gatekeepers) and implications of this research for educational system (“should there be a subject in schools teaching children how to judge expert knowledge”).


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