What do you know? An Exercise about What Knowledge Is

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Area: History and Social Studies, Other Areas, Science
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School
Topics: Epistemology, knowledge
Estimated Time Necessary: 30-60 Minutes, or longer if desired

Lesson Plan

Thinking about knowledge claims.
This lesson will help students think about what it means to claim that we know something, and to develop a more sophisticated sense of how complicated and varied that claim is.

The full lesson plan is available as a PDF in the Lesson Attachment area above.

Our whole education is organized around “buckets” of knowledge: “2+2 = 4” (math bucket); “Hydrogen is an element but water isn’t” (chemistry bucket); “Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809” (history bucket). But philosophy (and especially epistemology, the study of knowledge) isn’t another bucket… it’s about the buckets. Which ones are reliable? Why? How do they relate? How do we put new things into them or throw things out of them?

Our task in this exercise is to create a sketch map of all knowledge, starting with a wide array of statements that can begin “I know that…” and then discussing how they relate to one another. I include below a list of possible examples, but I encourage you to pick a few of these most suitable to the interests and age range of your students and then get students to generate more — perhaps one example per student of an “I know that…” statement they definitely agree with, and one that they definitely disagree with.


Discussion Questions

  • Is there a consensus on claims we should move to a different part of the wall? Why?
  • Is knowledge the same as being certain?
  • Are facts more important than theories, or the other way around?
  • Is scientific knowledge different from, say, historical knowledge, or mathematical knowledge?
  • What’s similar (and different) about “I know that iron is a metal,” “I know that bullying is wrong,” “I know that chocolate ice cream is better than eggplant casserole,” and “I know that ghosts can walk through walls.”)
  • At the end of the lesson, you can discuss: Can we now define knowledge?
This lesson plan was contributed by: Richard Farr, richardfarr.net.