Conceptual and Epistemological Undercurrents of Learning as a Process of Change
Montfort, Devlin Bradford
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In the preparation and education of civil engineers it is essential to both increase student knowledge of the world (conceptual understanding), but also to establish and develop new ways of thinking (epistemology). Both of these processes of change can be considered learning, but they are vastly different in the time, energy and resources they require to accomplish. The second type of learning (conceptual change) is more difficult, and is only rarely accomplished in traditional university education. The purpose of this research is to apply existing research approaches from cognitive science and educational psychology to explain why by investigating conceptual change in the contexts of student learning and faculty adoption of new pedagogies. In each context, the difficulty with conceptual change was associated with the ways in which people categorize fundamental phenomena in the world around them, and with epistemological expectations of how those categorizations should be applied in new contexts. While attempts to encourage change often focus on "educating" people by providing them with more knowledge, the change processes seem to be primarily limited by people's existing knowledge and how it is structured. Because civil engineers interact closely with societal goals and processes (such as human safety and environmental policies), they adopt epistemological stances that are as-yet unaccounted for in most research on the subject, which assumes a strong distinction between epistemological stances toward the physical world compared to the social world. These differences suggest that civil engineers' conceptual change could be enhanced by more directly addressing their particular epistemological stances - which incorporate high needs for certainty in guaranteeing human safety, as well as high flexibility when being applied to human systems.