Belief, Knowledge and Understanding

How to Deal with the Relations Between Different Cultural Perspectives in Classrooms

Abstract

This article discusses how to deal with the relations between different cultural perspectives in classrooms, based on a proposal for considering understanding and knowledge as goals of science education, inspired by Dewey’s naturalistic humanism. It thus combines educational and philosophical interests. In educational terms, our concerns relate to how science teachers position themselves in multicultural classrooms. In philosophical terms, we are interested in discussing the relations between belief, understanding, and knowledge under the light of Dewey’s philosophy. We present a synthesis of Dewey’s theory of inquiry through his naturalistic humanism and discuss its implications for the concepts of belief, understanding, and knowledge, as well as for the goals of science teaching. In particular, we highlight problems arising in the context of possible conflicts between scientific and religious claims in the school environment that result from totalitarian positions. We characterize an individual’s position as totalitarian if he or she takes some way of thinking as the only one capable of expressing the truth about all that exists in the world, lacks open-mindedness to understand different interpretative perspectives, and attempts to impose her or his interpretation about the facts to others by violent means or not. From this stance, any other perspective is taken to be false a priori and, accordingly, as a putative target to be suppressed or adapted to the privileged way of thinking. We argue, instead, for a more fallibilist evaluation of our own beliefs and a more respectful appraisal of the diversity of students’ beliefs by both students and teachers.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    These positions amount to a perspective on knowledge and reality that suppresses or ignores other epistemic, ethical, and metaphysical traditions that are in disagreement with them. People who sustain this position are not tolerant with diversity of positions, and they want to convert every people to their own absolutist position. As a way of connecting the epistemic and political aspects of the issue, we conceptualize these positions as totalitarian, as explained in more detail below. When a given way of thinking and seeing the world is promoted with the goal of suppressing other forms of knowledge, we also regard this attitude as an epistemic absolutism. Even though we focus on religious movements in this argument, it is clear that totalitarian positions can be assumed from other perspectives, including scientific ones, as we will also discuss in the article.

  2. 2.

    Inspired by Dewey, we use the term “Nature”, with capitalized initial letter, to refer to the totality of our experiences and phenomena. In turn, we use the term “nature” to refer to the meaning or key properties of an object or studied phenomenon.

  3. 3.

    It is important to keep in mind that it is not a major goal of this article to defend or propose some specific multicultural science education approach. We are primarily interested in discussing how to proceed with science teaching in multicultural classroom environments, with multiple voices represented, without engaging in unnecessary conflict and, thus, becoming able to focus on the discussions around scientific ideas that do matter for a given teaching endeavor.

  4. 4.

    This is not a definition explicitly used by Dewey, but we consider that it does not bring any conflict with Dewey’s works we are dealing with. In this article, “whole” and “totality” are crucial terms to understand how we define totalitarian thinking.

  5. 5.

    It is worth remarking that, although Dewey’s writings are our main philosophical reference here, we evoke some concepts and perspectives besides Dewey’s. This happens mainly when we talk about theological and political issues.

  6. 6.

    Knowledge and belief are “hypostatized” when they are taken as absolute or atemporal whereas they are, in fact, relative and contextual. Dewey says: “In morals, it is a common assumption that the fairness of particular actions cannot be determined unless there is some absolute standard with which they may be compared. The true and the beautiful are similarly hypostatized. […] The superiority of one conception of justice to another is of the same order as the superiority of the metric system to the more or less haphazard set of weights and measures it has replaced in scientific practice, although not of the same quality” (1938, p. 216).

  7. 7.

    We derived the term “totalitarianism” from Arendt’s (1951) political philosophy, but we are not assuming by calling these positions “totalitarian” that their advocates necessarily have the goal of fully controlling a national state, as it happened with Fascism or Nazism. We are also not claiming that anyone who assumes absolutist or totalizing scientism (see below) or, for that matter, some religious form of totalitarian thinking is necessarily totalitarian in political terms. Our argument is weaker, to the effect that individuals who assume his or her way of thinking is the only one capable of expressing the truth about all that exists in the world are more likely, all else being equal, to assume politically totalitarian positions grounded on his or her way of thinking than individuals who evaluate their beliefs in more fallibilist terms.

  8. 8.

    See https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fundamentalism.

  9. 9.

    This interpretation of Dewey’s account of inquiry and naturalism is also found in Myers and Pappas (2004, p. 692-694).

  10. 10.

    This makes it explicit how, at this level, observer and environment are inseparably entangled. The process of distinguishing between observer and environment, which we often call “objectification process,” is part of the final outcome of inquiry.

  11. 11.

    Our own view on the concept of understanding is close to the pragmatic perspective developed by Jan Faye (2014) in his interesting book The Nature of Scientific Thinking: On Interpretation, Explanation, and Understanding.

  12. 12.

    In Logic (1938, p. 143) Dewey wrote: “I can understand what the word and the idea of centaur, sea-serpent, transmutation of chemical elements, mean, without thereby knowing them in the sense of having grounds for asserting their existence. No intelligent search for a new invention, no controlled inquiry to discover whether a certain conception of, say, the nature of atoms is or is not borne out by the facts, can be conducted without a direct grasp or understanding of the meaning-content of some idea.”

  13. 13.

    Here, we have to offer some remarks regarding approximations and differences between Dewey’s arguments and ours. For Dewey, knowledge is the outcome of a competent inquiry process, and, thus, inquiry process as Dewey explains it is not to be interpreted as any form of cognitive activity or any mode of thinking. Moreover, for him to attain knowledge, an objective, experimental process of inquiry is required, by definition. On the one hand, we are arguing that competent inquiry takes place in fields other than science, as, evidently, in philosophy, but also in fields that some may argue that do not fulfill the criterion of competent inquiry, such as theology (this is not our view. We think theology can be engaged in non-naturalistic forms of competent inquiry, as, for instance, Aquinas’ studies show). On the other hand, we do not follow Dewey in defining knowledge as necessarily the outcome of objective, experimental inquiry. In our view, competent inquiry can produce knowledge when it is not experimental, or even objective (which is, after all, an epistemic criterion produced within science, see, e.g. Daston and Galison 2010), although in this case, it will be non-scientific inquiry. Otherwise, we will confine knowledge to the domain of science, and this does not seem tenable to us. Surely, one might dispute what Dewey meant by “objective” and “experimental” inquiry, but this issue falls outside the scope of this article.

  14. 14.

    We are claiming that religious beliefs can be an outcome of theological inquiry because religious beliefs and their relations to scientific assertions are often discussed and debated on theological grounds. We are using Deweyan arguments as an inspiration to discuss naturalism, and the concepts of understanding, belief, and knowledge. However, it is very important to remark that Dewey’s philosophical position is always on the side of naturalistic perspectives. He is very critical about and refuse all kinds of non-naturalistic ways of inquiry or beliefs. Despite Dewey’s own positions, we consider non-naturalistic forms of inquiry here due to our interest on how one can deal with different cultural perspectives in classrooms. This is certainly different from Dewey’s position and we should note this dissent, even though our discussion is inspired by Dewey’s approach to inquiry. For Dewey, “the demand for a reform of logic is a demand for a unified theory of inquiry through which the authentic pattern of experimental and operational inquiry of science shall become available for regulation of the habitual methods by which inquiries in the field of common sense are carried on, by which conclusions are reached and beliefs are formed and tested” (Dewey 1938, p. 98). Differently from Dewey, we leave room for inquiry to be developed in ways that are fundamentally different from science, for instance, non-naturalistic inquiry, which is arguably able to lead to warranted assertions from the perspective of that different way of knowing, despite the fact that they are non-scientific assertions.

  15. 15.

    Notice that this suggests that it would be unproblematic to identify successful inquiries, or, alternatively, that standards or criteria of success would be already available, making the establishment of logic, as an inquiry into inquiry, a sort of circular endeavor. To our understanding, this is addressed, within Dewey’s thinking, by taking logic as self-correcting and changing over time: if there were problems in the initial identification of inquiries as successful, this would be eventually shown by the historical development of logic itself, and, once logic has already developed as an inquiry, its previous development would make available the standards or criteria to decide whether some inquiry was successful or not.

  16. 16.

    See Faye (2014, pp.1-23) for a discussion about different forms of understanding.

  17. 17.

    By defending “coexistence” as an ethical stance towards cultural differences, one is not necessarily entitled to a relativist position according to which every form of knowledge is equally valid. One can read, as El-Hani and Mortimer (2007) do, coexistence from a pragmatic pluralist perspective. From this perspective, one assumes that, given a specific problematic situation to be tackled with, one can choose one form of knowledge as more effective than another in the face of that situation. Coexistence means the recognition that the range of problematic situations faced by humans is such that there is no single form of knowledge that can successfully deal with all of them, and thus totalitarian position should be avoided. If one intends to address problems related to the aesthetic value of art, for instance, it is quite likely that a scientific perspective will not do as the best possible approach (cf. Poole 1996). Conversely, if a child is afflicted with type 1 diabetes, it will certainly benefit from modern medical care, as a product of scientific inquiry, and, if their parents, acting on their strong religious belief that God would heal him, deny that care, they are not justified in their decision by an ethics of coexistence. The reason why this is not so is that, in that problematic situation, scientifically based medical care is more successful.

  18. 18.

    Free translation by the authors. In the original, “A ciência pode classificar e nomear os órgãos de um sabiá, mas não pode medir seus encantos”.

  19. 19.

    We distinguished above between three levels of scientism. The first level, Enlightened scientism, is in our view welcome, but absolutist and totalizing scientism are quite problematic in the science classroom.

  20. 20.

    In this respect, Sinatra et al. (2003) point to studies criticizing views about conceptual change that depict learners as overly rational, assuming that they are logical and rational in their analysis of information and approach to learning tasks, as well as views of changes taking place in learning as largely cognitive rather than affective.

  21. 21.

    This paper is an excellent example of the sort of didactic strategy we consider appropriate to deal with the relations between cultural perspectives in the classroom, taking the debates between science and religion as example.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Philip Kitcher, José Crisóstomo de Souza, Claudia Sepulveda, Waldomiro José da Silva-Filho, Flávia Rezende, Fernanda Ostermann, and David Wong, who made valuable criticisms and comments on a previous version of this paper, which greatly contributed to its improvement. The paper also benefited a lot from the thoughtful comments of three anonymous reviewers from Science & Education. We are thankful to the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) for the support to the research that led to this paper, through Grant no. 301259/2010-0 (CNEH), and to the Brazilian Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) for PhD Fellowship (FMS).

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Correspondence to Charbel N. El-Hani.

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Moreira-dos-Santos, F., El-Hani, C.N. Belief, Knowledge and Understanding. Sci & Educ 26, 215–245 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-017-9891-5

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Keywords

  • Science Education
  • Science Teacher
  • Science Classroom
  • Scientific Idea
  • Religious People