How are personal epistemologies related to metacognition and conceptual change learning?
Inagaki and Hatano (2013) suggest that conceptual change can occur faster in some adults, such as in scientists, than in children because they can be more sensitive to recognise discrepancies in their knowledge system because of fluent metacognition. Thus, metacognition may become more explicit, powerful, and effective during personal development (see Kuhn, 2000). Also, research results have shown that metacognitive skilfulness for a particular task increases with the acquisition of expertise and more advanced learners in a domain are metacogni-tively more skilled than novices (Veenman & Elshout, 1999). Thus, expertise is seen to involve metacognition, such as monitoring (Sternberg, 1998) and, if adults are advanced in some domain, they may be able to think metacognitively, which, in turn, supports their conceptual change processes in that domain (see Chapter 10). However, adult learners are not always experts in some domains; often they are novices and might not use so much metacognition in their thinking in these domains. Also, they are sometimes unable to transfer their expertise from one domain to another (see Hofer, 2004). Moreover, it is important to note that adult learners are not a homogenous age group from the metacognitive point of view. For example, awareness of and reflection on one’s own mental processes have been indicated to vary during adulthood and according to the learning contexts in question (Vukman, 2005). Hence, we cannot axiomatically assume that adults are always more skilful than young learners.
Adult learners are engaged in a dynamic interaction with their environment when learning, for example, biology or physics (Piaget, 1975). They do not only enrich their knowledge structures but also their framework theory, i.e., ontological and epistemological presuppositions behind these conceptual structures. As Kitchener (1983) suggests, adult learners may reflect on epistemic assumptions, such as the limits, certainty, and criteria of knowing, because these kinds of assumptions provide a framework for how they understand the nature of problems and approach them (see also Kuhn, 2000; Chapter 3 and 4). Based on these kinds of epistemic assumptions, adults define and choose different strategies or solutions when they encounter problems and handle conflicting ideas and systems, taking into consideration various issues of logic, ethical choice, and reality. Hence, it is crucial to understand divergence in assumptions in order to understand the different justifications adult learners use when they face unique human issues in everyday life. This requires that we have to go beyond the traditional concept of metacognition and also scrutinise in the epistemic sense how adults acquire knowledge about knowledge and approach ideas and problems (Kitchener, 1983).
Alternatively, knowledge of epistemic assumptions can also be seen as a part of metacognition (see Hofer, 2004; Inagaki & Hatano, 2013; King & Siddiqui,
2011). Either way (i.e., whether metacognition theory itself is seen to cover epistemology or not), it is important that metacognition focuses also on epistemological beliefs when we want a conceptual change process to occur. This means that the conceptual change process is highly metacognitive when prior knowledge is scrutinised in relation to new scientific thinking (Kuhn, 2000) and existing concepts are recognised, evaluated, reviewed, and restructured if needed (Gunstone & Mitchell, 2005; Kuhn, 2000).
The role of personal epistemologies may have an evaluative and even affective nature. A person may have a strong commitment to her/his epistemology, and this can be considered as an essential condition for metacognition and conceptual change. Mason (2002) illustrates how specific beliefs may act as resources or constrain conceptual change. Hence, epistemic cognition seems to be vital to high level conceptual changes. Epistemology seems to develop to some extent parallel to the development of knowledge but can have a different structure. Effective pedagogical interventions in appropriate learning environments and targeting at epistemological beliefs are suggested to be important at two levels: epistemological and conceptual.
Examples of adult learners' conceptual change processes
Next, we take some examples of adult learners in higher education who need to study biological phenomena such as the cardiovascular system or photosynthesis. Medical students and classroom teacher students have to pass an entrance examination (7%-10% acceptance rate) and hence represent highly selected study programmes in Finland. Medical doctors and school teachers are examples of professions that imply theoretical understanding and evidence-based expertise when dealing with patients or with pupils. Both medical and teacher education study programmes are multidisciplinary and aiming at expertise consisting of profound theoretical understanding, metacognition, procedural knowledge, and practical skills (see Chapter 10). Both medical doctors and teachers have to understand the theoretical underpinnings behind the practical problems to be solved in everyday work. Theoretical and practical understanding is important in both professions. Learning medicine requires, for example, an understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology, which is often called biomedical knowledge. Classroom teachers have educational sciences as their major and they study all the subjects to be taught in primary school. Classroom teachers have to be able to teach science contents for the six grades in primary education, which accounts for 60% of all science teaching in the nine-year comprehensive school.
In this context we can ask, for example: how do medical students understand the cardiovascular system? How do student teachers conceive photosynthesis, one of the most important theoretical phenomena in biology? Do adults have a conceptual understanding that differs from scientific notions?