Running head: knowledge domains and domain learning

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Knowledge Domains


Knowledge Domains and Domain Learning

Liliana Maggioni and Patricia A. Alexander

University of Maryland

In press

Keywords: discipline, domain, learning, history, knowledge, mathematics, reading, science, writing.


The roots of current disciplines and domains of study reach well back in history. An exploration of their development shows that these areas of knowledge have not only reflected cultural changes but have also influenced societies, especially through formal educational systems. Besides being characterized by their focus on a particular part of the world, disciplines are also distinguished by a specific way of thinking about their respective domains of study. Psychological research has identified several features of these pathways to knowledge (e.g., reading, writing, history, mathematics, and science) that generally define the landscape of academic practice.

Although educational psychologists’ interest in how knowledge develops within specific domains has fluctuated across time, formal education throughout the world is organized around particular fields of studies and students soon come to characterize their experience of school in terms of subject matters. Thus, in education, domains seem to make a difference. The term knowledge domain refers to the part of the world investigated by a specific discipline. In other words, the domain can be characterized as the object (e.g., plants, numbers, or the past) of a specific body of knowledge (e.g., botany, mathematics, or history).

Herein, we offer a survey of the development of increasingly specialized disciplines and of the corresponding identification of ever narrower knowledge domains. In particular, we consider the cultural trends that accompanied these changes and the major influences on the structure of formal education. Then, we turn to consider the characteristics of learning and generating knowledge within specific domains. Specifically, we consider the findings of educational research in understanding the processes of learning and teaching in history, mathematics, and science. We also include contributions regarding the processes of reading and writing, given their relevance in the school curriculum and the tendency in educational research to conceptualize these activities as domains of learning in their own right.

The Development of Disciplines

Besides being characterized by its systematic knowledge of a particular domain, each discipline is also distinguished by a specific way of thinking about associated phenomena. Thus, disciplinary knowledge includes a specific taxonomy, vocabulary, concepts, theories, research methods, and standards of justification. Histories of science, such as those offered by Noah Edward Fehl (1966), A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall (1988), and Walter Libby (1917) illustrate that disciplines developed over the centuries as privileged pathways toward understanding of almost any topic. The reciprocal influences between the prevalent cultural climate, disciplinary developments, and formal education are well exemplified by cultural histories of Western education, such as the one composed by Freeman Butt (1955).

These studies concur in affirming that organized bodies of knowledge arose in conjunction with the human needs of gaining understanding of the world, establishing some control on the physical environment, and organizing social life. In ancient Egypt, for example, efforts at controlling and predicting the floods of the Nile fostered remarkable advances in geometry and astronomy. However, it was in the Greek cities of Asia Minor and later in Athens that the investigation of philosophers into the nature and origin of the universe introduced the method of rational inquiry that so deeply influenced the development of knowledge in Western civilization.

In fact, Western thought owes much of its systematization of knowledge to the Greeks and to their reliance on critical reason in speculating about the origin and nature of the universe. The Greeks came to regard rationality as the human faculty allowing the acquisition of knowledge and truth; hence, the intellectual formation afforded by mathematics and philosophy was considered a privileged road to knowledge and learning and acquired centrality in education.

In time, increased complexity in the knowledge and skills characterizing competence in specific areas fostered the development of formal instruction and the establishment of schools as separate institutions. The process of organization of knowledge was greatly favored by reliance on the written form, a practice relatively soon adopted by the liberal arts, but not by the practical arts. In the practical arts, informal apprenticeship remained the prevalent way of passing technical skills from one generation to the next. On the other hand, formal education tended to focus on those bodies of knowledge that were systematically organized in written form.

The importance of accurate definitions in furthering thoughts and the power accorded in Athenian life to those who could speak effectively prompted the development of grammar and rhetoric. The need to think clearly encouraged the development of logic or dialectics. In addition, Greek philosophy began to organize into bodies of knowledge studies regarding the ultimate reality of things (metaphysics), the theory of knowledge (epistemology), human nature and human conduct (ethics, political science, economics, sociology, and psychology), the physical world (astronomy, geography, physics, mechanics, hydraulics, mineralogy, botany), and the living world (zoology, physiology, anatomy). The search for intellectual discipline and the problems investigated by the developing sciences favored the progress in the field of mathematics and the refinement and systematization of theories and concepts in arithmetic, geometry, and trigonometry. In addition, Greek inquiry extended to the human past, investigating the causes of historical events and thus laying the foundation of history. Finally, although the fine arts were not organized into systematic bodies of knowledge, the Greeks cultivated several forms of literary criticism, thus giving systematic organization to the theory of art and aesthetics.

Roman culture widely drew from Greek thought, furthering the systematization of knowledge and its organization in forms suitable for teaching. By the end of the fourth century, the liberal arts had been circumscribed to the study of compendia (written in Latin) of those Greek works deemed suitable to the spiritual and intellectual development of the pupils. Specifically, the Trivium, that is, the elementary liberal art curriculum included grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The higher liberal arts, or Quadrivium, incorporated mainly mathematical studies and comprehended arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The boundaries of these disciplines did not necessarily include the same content that they comprise in modern times. For example, grammar also involved the study of poetry and literature. In addition, the content reflected changes in the Roman intellectual climate. For instance, the purpose of rhetoric changed from preparation to active participation in the debates over public policies to the study of elegant language to be employed in public celebrations. At the same time, the Romans did not tend to value the sciences for their own sake, but applied the theoretical knowledge gained from the Greeks in geometry, astronomy, and natural philosophy to the solution of practical problems.

The disciplines included in the Trivium and the Quadrivium continued to constitute the backbone of knowledge during the Middle Ages. However, many changes were made in each of the seven disciplines in response to the varying needs and interests of the time. Latin increasingly became the language of educated people; hence, grammar gained preponderance among the elementary liberal arts during the Early Middle Ages when the non-Latin people began to take part in the intellectual life of Europe. Nonetheless, Medieval Latin became increasingly different from classical Latin, reflecting the influence of the various languages spoken by the European peoples. Rhetoric lost most of its celebratory purpose and focused on the use of the written language for drawing up legal and feudal documents. Logic was increasingly identified with the rules of deductive thinking and, as such, became distinguished from philosophy.

Arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy saw important developments during the Middle Ages. The cultural exchanges with the Arab world and the translation into Latin of the most important Greek, Arabs, and Hindus works laid the foundations for the scientific and mathematical investigations of later centuries. Within the Quadrivium, music retained its theoretical nature, even if its performance gained importance in medieval life. Although knowledge of the Greek tradition was praised by Christian philosophers for the contribution it gave to truth, and thus as an aid to the understanding of God and the soul, the intellectualism of pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake was rejected. In the Benedictine tradition, where the monastery became the home of practical agriculturalists, as well as of religious, artists, and scholars, the alliance between learning and concrete reality foreshadowed the importance of factual knowledge and the relation between science and technology that came to characterize modern science.

Beginning in the twelfth century, teachers and students began to organize themselves into guilds for protections against the king, the bishop, or anyone else who tried to control them. In time, the term universitas began to refer specifically to guilds of teachers (faculties) and students. Reflecting the articulation of knowledge of the time, the typical guilds of teachers were the faculties of liberal arts, law, medicine, and theology. Specific universities became famous for one specific faculty, thus deeply influencing the development of a particular discipline. In addition, the university system fostered an expansion of the liberal arts curriculum, adding the works of Aristotle on the physical sciences, ethics, politics, and metaphysics. The system also promoted the institutionalization of the educational curriculum (with its degrees, licenses to teach, exams, and titles) and thus the grouping of studies into separate faculties.

The Renaissance celebrated the return to the classics (Latin, Greeks, and Hebrew) and highly regarded rhetoric as a way to cultivate polite letters and expression. Logic fell in disrepute due to the humanist opposition to scholasticism. However, these changes had a deeper effect on the content of the Trivium and Quadrivium than on the disciplines taught in the universities, where medieval philosophy conserved its predominance. In the sciences, humanists turned away from the deductive methods of argumentation and advocated the use of the inductive method (observations of facts and generalization).

The belief that the method of induction is the proper method to gain scientific knowledge is at the root of the classification of human knowledge provided by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. Here the disciplines came to be characterized mainly as “histories” of nature, collections of descriptions regarding a vast array of natural phenomena. At the same time, a method common to all sciences began to take shape. The scientist should observe nature, collect facts, identify their common qualities, and express these similarities in general formulas. Empiricism highlighted the patient work of scientists in acquiring facts. However, empiricism dismissed the guiding role of theory in deciding observations and experiments. Although the almost exclusive reliance on induction disappeared in later work on method by Descartes, the uniqueness of the scientific method to gain knowledge was not challenged. Actually, the certitude granted by mathematics was upheld as the goal of scientific knowledge, and the scientific method was considered applicable and appropriate to all fields of human thought.

Whereas in the physical sciences this new method of gaining knowledge proved compatible with the emergence of a unitary principle of explanation, i.e., the mechanism, a close relation between abstract thought and scientific investigation failed to surface in the biological sciences. The complexities involved in studying living things and the philosophical impossibility of reconciling the existence of human soul with a completely mechanistic physiology supported the specificity of different bodies of knowledge.

The search for natural laws was extended to the study of society and political economy during the era of Enlightenment. The rules for scientific data gathering began to be applied also in the field of the social sciences and historians began to identify progress as the fundamental law of history. This process was furthered by the role played by Darwinism in the biological science, where the process of change assumed a central explanatory role. From biology, the idea that change is an inherent part of natural and human development influenced the social sciences and their methodological approach, which increasingly tried to emulate the scientific approach of the natural sciences. In the nineteenth century, the rise of positivism in philosophy further promoted the assumption that reality obeys general and universal laws. The purpose of the disciplines became to discover by observation and experimentation relationships able to explain nature, the universe, human nature, and social institutions. Psychology, anthropology, and scientific medicine were all deeply influenced by this way of thinking.

In the nineteenth century, the effect on education of the increasingly important role attributed to the sciences in the overall knowledge landscape was delayed by the lingering humanist belief that a truly liberal education has to be strongly based on a deep acquaintance with the classics. Secondary instruction was particularly successful in protecting this view; in contrast, in the universities, and especially in Germany where professors and students were recognized a remarkable degree of independence and freedom, mathematics and science became the dominant studies during the second half of the nineteenth century.

In the American colleges and universities, the attempt to extend to all fields of knowledge the application of the scientific method and the rise of professional organizations of scholars and specialists in various fields encouraged the subdivision of traditional bodies of knowledge into specialized “subjects.” What at the beginning of the century was studied under the label of “natural history” was by the end of the century subdivided into the various biological and natural sciences, thus including botany, zoology, physiology, psychology, paleontology, ornithology, entomology, and anthropology. Natural philosophy was articulated into specialized physical sciences (astronomy, physics, chemistry, mineralogy, geology, meteorology, and physical geography); similarly, history, economics, political sciences, sociology, and anthropology acquired their own specificity within the field of moral philosophy.

The scientific discoveries of the twentieth centuries in astronomy and physics challenged the positivistic assumptions of a rigid and indestructible matter, obedient to rigid laws. More generally, these new insights questioned the close correspondence between what the universe is really like and the picture rendered by science at a certain point in time and brought the debate about the epistemic status of scientific knowledge to the forefront. At the same time, and almost paradoxically, the process of disciplinary subdivision went even further as scholars tended to specialize in ever narrower aspects of one discipline. However, as noted by David Easton and Corinne S. Schelling (1991), real world problems are rarely confined to a specific knowledge domain and the parceled understandings afforded by the increasing specialization do not easily reassemble into a unitary view of the issue at hand. Proposed solutions include interdisciplinary training and teamwork within specific research topics, although the point of departure for these attempts at integration tends to remain the specialized knowledge granted by the various disciplines.

On one hand, the overview of the development of disciplinary knowledge showed that a certain partition of the world in different domains reflects broad cultural and institutional trends. On the other hand, the nature of the object investigated makes specific methodological choices more effective and fruitful than others, thus characterizing each discipline as a specific way of knowing. In the next section, we turn to consider the influence that these differences in thinking have on learning and teaching.
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