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Building epistemic thinking through disciplinary inquiry: Contrasting lessons from history and biology

Author(s): 
Michael Johnston, Rosemary Hipkins, and Mark Sheehan

This article explores the effect of high-stakes assessment on the representation of epistemic knowledge in the enacted curriculum—that is, the curriculum experienced by students in the classroom. Epistemic knowledge concerns the processes for constructing and evaluating theories that explain phenomena in the natural and social worlds. Knowledge-building disciplines such as history and science each have their own epistemic processes. We explore the extent to which these processes are reflected in the standards used to assess history and biology for the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA). We show that these processes are not well represented in the externally assessed (examination-based) standards for either discipline, and that biological epistemology is not well represented by its internally assessed standards either. The internally assessed standards for history, however, do involve students in a simplified version of authentic historical enquiry. In a statistical component of the research, we show that internally assessed standards for history are a stronger predictor of subsequent achievement in history than the externally assessed standards for history, whereas the converse is the case for biology. We suggest that the epistemic focus of the internally assessed standards in history has resulted in the enacted curriculum for this subject being more epistemically based than is the case for biology.

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