What Do You Know?

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Area: Other Areas
Grade Level: Middle School
Topics: beliefs, dreams, Epistemology, Evidence, knowledge, reality
Estimated Time Necessary: 50 Minutes

Lesson Plan

Engaging students in epistemological questions
To raise questions about the nature of belief vs. knowledge, evidence, errors, and to provide some doubt for beliefs strongly held.

Materials needed: Piece of paper and writing utensil


Note: this session operates as a good follow-up to a lesson plan on beliefs and evidence more generally. Ask the students for some things that they know. Put a few examples on the board.

Tell the students the following story. It’s important that, for most of the story, the narrative seems to be about how Calvin will do on the test, not about whether he is dreaming or not.

“It’s evening time and Calvin is studying for his big test tomorrow. He’s pretty anxious, knowing that he if he doesn’t do well he’s going to be in big trouble. When he brought home his last test grade, his parents were really unhappy with him and told him he’d be grounded if he didn’t improve his score. Plus, he probably wouldn’t do very well in the class if he didn’t start making better grades. So he studied and studied until he fell asleep. The next day, he got up and went to school, worrying over his test the whole time. He sits down in his desk and thinks about all the things he knows, half-knows, and only sort-of knows. His teacher starts passing out the test and Calvin receives his copy. He looks it over and, what luck! He knows the answers to each question. He fills out quickly, turns it in, and his teacher looks over his responses and gives him a little nod of congratulations. Calvin has a great day, feeling proud of himself. School finally ends and he goes home. Opening his front door, he yells to his parents, “I did it! I passed the test!” He father comes in the living room, smiling, and holds out his hand for a high five. As their hands connect, though, Calvin wakes up. He’s in his bed. It’s still the night before. He hasn’t gone to school yet. He hasn’t taken his test.”

The students should be surprised, given this big turn of events. Ask them what did Calvin think he knew that he actually didn’t know.  Follow up by asking whether or not it’s possible that we are dreaming right now, just like Calvin.

Have the students turn and talk to the person next to them about the differences between dreams and waking life.

Come back as a group and ask for volunteers to share their ways of telling dreams from waking life. Allow the students to bounce ideas off of each other. Start a list on the board of possible ways to detect when you are dreaming. Items will likely include pinching yourself, the difficulty of using technology, the difficulty of performing physical acts, general weirdness concerning space and time, and the illogical narratives of dreams.

After you have a good list, go through each detection method one-by-one asking for possible objections, crossing them off as they become untenable. Likely, you will cross out each item on the list. Ask the students if this means that we cannot be sure we are not dreaming. Return to the list of beliefs put on the board at the beginning of class. Going through each item, ask the students if we know the belief in question, allowing them to explain why. Ask the students whether this lack of a conclusive test means we cannot know anything, since, at any given time, we could be dreaming.

End with the following quote by Zhuangzi: “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”



This lesson plan was contributed by: Dustyn Addington.