Epistemic Adventure: Are you sure that you know?

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Area: History and Social Studies, Other Areas
Grade Level: High School & Beyond
Topics: certainty, doubt, Epistemology, Evidence, knowledge
Estimated Time Necessary: 50-60 Minutes

Lesson Plan

Raise questions about knowledge
To raise questions about the nature of knowledge.
Foster discussion around certainty and doubt
To foster a discussion around the nature and impact of certainty and doubt in both historical and everyday contexts.

Materials needed:

  • Epistemic scavenger hunt document (at least 2 per group, one for before the discussion and the other for after)
  • Orienting quotes
  • Visual prompts


1. Before presenting participants with one or more of the prompts outlined above, have them gather into pairs or small groups to think about, discuss, and fill out a copy of the “epistemic scavenger hunt” document. Allot 5-10 minutes for this task and ask participants not to edit their documents once this period has ended.

2. Bring the group back together and distribute one or more visual prompts and orienting quotes. Give participants a few minutes for them to think about the prompts and quotes in silence before opening up space for group discussion. Encourage them to write down their thoughts during this silent period. You can also have participants turn and talk with a partner for a few minutes and then share out aspects of their conversation. Alternatively, you could collect their scavenger hunt documents and use their answers as a bridge into the conversation. Allot about 25 minutes for this part of the activity.

3. As the conversation closes, ask participants to independently complete the epistemic scavenger hunt on a new unmarked sheet. Allot 5-10 minutes for this.

4. Once they have filled out a new epistemic scavenger hunt, spend the last 10-15 minutes engaging in a discussion around how their answers have changed since the first time they did the scavenger hunt. If their answers did change, inquire into their thought processes. If their answers did not change, ask them to consider what evidence might sway their beliefs.


Epistemic Scavenger Hunt Document

Write down at least 1 thing that fits into each category as well as a short explanation of the evidence that justified this decision.

  • What is something that you know for certain? How do you know about it?
  • What is something you are sure no one could never know? Why can’t we know about it?
  • What is something that you were certain about in the past that you now have doubts about? Why are you no longer certain?
  • What historical knowledge is no longer considered knowledge? Why was this once believed and why is it no longer accepted?

Orienting Quotes
Quote 1“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves while wiser people so full of doubts.” – Bertrand Russell

This quote is intended to provoke a discussion around the roles of doubt and certainty that might stimulate thinking around what the impact of brash certainty is within the problems we face as a society. This quote also brings forth a Socratic view of wisdom, defined by awareness of one’s own ignorance, potentially facilitating dialogue around the balance between wondering, humility and doubt, and decisive action in the world

Quote 2“Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false.” – Bertrand Russell

This quote invites an historical look at knowledge production and contemplation of the ills that have been produced (or reproduced) through knowledge claims that were later revised or discarded completely (e.g. craniometry, polygenism, drapetomania, miscegenation, racial typologies, etc.).

Visual Prompts
Visual 1:
This visual, from a popular and endearing comic strip, addresses a common theme in popular culture around the relationship of knowledge, doubt, certainty, and decision making. A core theme harkens back to Socratic views of wisdom where one becomes increasingly aware of what they do not know and a kind of “analysis paralysis” that might lead one to consider the possibility that “ignorance is bliss.”

Visual 2:
This visual brings recent psychological findings to bear on the issues introduced above. Consider introducing student to this image with use of the following description.
Dunning and Kruger’s overarching hypotheses is “that people, at all performance levels, are equally poor at estimating their relative performance.”
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is. This illusory superiority derives from the inability of low-ability persons to recognize their own ineptitude. Without this metacognitive self-awareness, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.
This cognitive bias applies inversely to those of expert experience, thus persons of high ability tend to underestimate their relative competence and mistakenly presume that tasks that are easy for them to perform are also easy for other people to perform. As Dunning and Kruger articulate: “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”


Discussion Questions

  • Do we only make decisions once we are certain of something?
  • What is the nature of the balance between action and contemplation?
  • Is it wise to contemplate at the expense of action? How might contextual differences impact this?
  • What are potential impacts of “fools and fanatics” taking quick action while other “wiser people” are still contemplating which decision to make?
This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Jordan Sherry-Wagner.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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