Answers in the Data? LO6335
Sat, 30 Mar 1996 08:53:39 -0500

Replying to LO6208 --

[Host's Note: Joanne sent this to me directly, replying to my note below.
I'm distributing it to the LO list with her permission. ...Rick]

In a message dated 96-03-29 04:15:41 EST, you write:
>Here is the Deming quote from "The New Economics":
>"Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no
>questions to ask. Hense without theory there is no learning" Dr. W.
>Edwards Demings
>[Host's Note: Prodded by John Warfield here on the LO list, I've been
>reading Charles S. Peirce. I think Peirce's philosophy of knowledge
>creation through application of the scientific method supports this
>notion very strongly, unless I'm mis-reading Peirce. When I introduce
>this idea in management seminars, it's seen as radical; most people seem
>to believe that there are unambiguous answers in the data that don't
>depend on any theory. Or, that if there are to be answers upon which we
>can depend, they should be unambigious answers from data.
> -- Rick Karash,, host for LO...]
>Jim McKinley

Dear Rick,

Your observations of students in your management class are very much in
line with research on epistemological development of young adults,
particularly college students. I've done dissertation research on this
subject and observed the very common belief that facts are facts,
independent of theory, and the expectation that there are answers to just
about every question--or soon will be.

Although the idea of definite answers is most often documented among
college freshmen (and younger people), I think it is persistent in the

Rol Fessenden's comments suggest how pervasive this way of thinking is.
He wrote:

>Subj: LO & Big Layoffs LO6230
>Date: 96-03-29 02:44:19 EST
>From: (Rol Fessenden)>
>......(snip snip)
>People always talk as if THEIR values are self-evidently the correct ones.
>Unfortunately that is seldom the case. Since the issues are so cloudy, it
>is unclear what to expect someone to actually do when we ask them to
>implement policies or practices in our interests.

The idea that there are RIGHT answers and that they are the ones I assume
to be TRUTH is the first in what Wm. G. Perry, Jr. (a psychologist who
studied Harvard students in the 50's and early 60's) thinks of as 9
developmental "positions" or constructions about the nature of knowledge.
I think Perry was influenced by Charles Pierce and a number of other
philosophers whose work he cites in his book. A couple of later
variations exist, for example, Women's Ways of Knowing (WWK) elegantly
outlines 5 "perspectives" on knowledge that overlap with Perry's in
interesting ways, but are based on interviews with diverse women.

When college students discover subjects that don't have clear-cut
"answers," they find all sorts of explanations which are quite revealing
of their mental models! For example--the prof is too new, doesn't really
know the field; the prof is old, out of date; the subject is "soft"
(psychology, sociology, literature etc. are easy targets here).

Eventually they construct a new understanding, dividing the world into
areas where we do have definite answers, and those where we don't. In the
"don't" category, we have "opinions" (and maybe some facts too). A
consequence is the common belief that since we don't know the answers, all
opinions are equally valid. (Perry calls these two constructions of
knowledge --awk--"dualism" and "multiplicity"; WWK uses the terms
"received knowledge" and "subjective knowledge"). In 1988 I published a
monograph on teaching critical thinking. In it, I brashly suggested these
two "belief systems are so powerful and pervasive that they can rightly be
considered 'core misconceptions' comparable in strength to the
Aristotelian notions of science identified by cognitive psychologists
among college students..." (I try not to write sentences like that any

The idea of systematic inquiry guided by agreed-upon criteria and
conventions organised by theoretical frameworks, generating understandings
that are shaped by the questions suggested by the theories....comes quite
late in life, and may not come at all if people are not encouraged to look
at topics from many perspectives and challenged to justify their beliefs.
(OK so I lied about the sentences.) About half of graduate students in
some studies seem to have this construction, perhaps most fully developed
in areas they have studied in depth. Age is much less a factor in
progress than educational level and (probably) type of educational
experience--with more democratic, participative approaches prompting more
complex, contextual thinking. (My dissertation research suggested that
contextual thinking is accepted first in less abstract, more familiar
areas of experience, as a cognitive-developmental hypothesis would

No doubt these belief systems are observable in corporate life as well.
If you're interested, Perry's seminal work is Forms of Intellectual and
Ethical Development in the College Years (Holt, Rinehart, 1970). Women's
Ways of Knowing is by M. Belenky, B. Clinchy, N. Goldberger, and J. Tarule
(Basic Books, 1986). My book on critical thinking sorts out and
integrates several theoretical approaches to the topic and describes
research and practice attempting to strengthen students' critical thinking
skills. Also some new research looks at CT "dispositions," a very
interesting topic related, I suspect, to the query on "flexibility" posted
recently to the learning-org mail list. (J.G. Kurfiss, Critical Thinking:
Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. Washington, D.C.:
Association for the Study of Higher Education/ERIC, 1988).

Thank you for the great service you provide in hosting this list and for
letting me ramble on about what was once my favorite topic. (I've left
higher ed and faculty development to help corporations implement
computer-based 360-degree feedback programs.) I've been lurking for a
while and find the dialogue quite remarkable and refreshingly

Joanne Gainen
MTD & Associates
Santa Clara, CA


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