Berry Billingsley Epistemic Insight Curriculum
May 1, 2023

Knowledge About Knowledge: Epistemic Insight in Action at Schools with Berry Billingsley (video)

A new approach in education aims to better equip students with the critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills needed to navigate the future.

By Templeton Staff with Berry Billingsley

Teachers and children explain how Epistemic Insight (EI) works and the transformative impact it has on children's learning in this video from TWCF grantee Professor Berry Billingsley. 

Epistemic insight helps students to think critically about how knowledge is communicated and how it can be applied in different contexts. In a world of fast-moving information from diverse sources, it's essential for young people to hone this skill as they engage with Big Questions about the universe and humanity's place in it.

Through the Epistemic Insight Initiative, Professor Berry Billingsley and colleagues at Canterbury Christ Church University's LASAR Research Centre design and test resources, structures, and activities that foster epistemic curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking about the nature, application, and communication of knowledge. Their work seeks to help students, parents or carers, educators, communicators, and the wider public examine Big Questions that bridge science, religion, and the humanities.

In this brief Q+A session, Prof. Billingsley speaks with us about her work.

Is the work featured in the above video a result of your TWCF grant or simply aligned to it?

Berry Billingsley: The Epistemic Insight Initiative has multiple parts. Templeton World Charity Foundation funds the umbrella project with this grant, which is the largest grant, and means we can work at scale.

Was the motivation for creating this video to connect people to a particular curriculum?

Berry Billingsley: The video illustrates the value of a Big Questions and epistemic insight approach for children who have the potential to be successful learners but who are not living in academic households. We wanted to show the transformative impact of the EI curriculum in schools. It's wonderful to go into a school and see that it's transforming students' experiences and giving teachers what they want — a way to teach where students love learning. Teachers work with our researchers to co-create the sessions and then they teach the sessions, so they are helping to make it work for their students.

Tell us about 'Big Questions Day.'

Berry Billingsley: Our previous TWCF project was focused on bringing school students onto campus for a one-off 'Big Questions Day' event. That's how we met Richard Sergay. Richard created a video on our previous project.

I love watching the previous video knowing where we are now because it sets the scene for why our current project exists. The opportunity to work with and really understand Big Questions can be lost in schools because students are only seeing knowledge through the fragmented spaces of individual subjects. Each classroom is focused on the questions that are 'right' for that classroom. Where and when do children see a Big Question unpacked into the disciplines and subjects they experience in the day? At that time, by coming to one of our 'Big Questions Day' events!

The Big Questions in Classrooms (BQiC) strategy — and working with TWCF advisor Bonnie Zahl on this priority — gave us an opening to build on that success with the Epistemic Insight Initiative which seeks to embed EI into schools. There's far more impact for children if it's happening where they are — in their school and led by their teachers — rather than if it's a quick dive in and out with people you never see again. There are other parts of the project too. We have a very large focus on teacher education, but this video is specifically about the schools' work.

Briefly lead us through the EI curriculum.

Berry Billingsley: The EI curriculum explains how the different areas of knowledge interact and it proposes a set of expectations about what students should know and be able to do at different points in their education. Epistemic insight combines the 'aha' moment of understanding with making connections within and across science and other ways of knowing. Suzanne Dillon, Chairperson of the OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 project links epistemic insight to agency – because of the freedom it engenders to question and explore how knowledge works. She says, 'In a classroom where student agency is encouraged, students feel they have a purpose in learning.  They can direct their attention to that purpose and they can be engaged and excited by it, and above all else they can learn that by asking questions and continuing to question their understanding of the world — and that's at the core of flourishing.'

The EI curriculum starts by asking: 'What does it mean to think like a scientist?' and 'What makes a question a good one for science?' 


The EI curriculum starts by asking: 'What does it mean to think like a scientist?' and 'What makes a question a good one for science?' There’s a scientist in all of us and students everywhere are enthralled by the way that water droplets join together when they touch. Or what happens to a paper spinner as it falls through the air! But we prompt them to wonder, 'How is thinking like a scientist the same or different to thinking like a historian?' To find out students work with a 'bridging question' which a teacher creates so that students can compare science and history and see them working together. The example in the video is, ‘Why did the Titanic sink?’.

Now we are ready to work with a Big Question such as, ‘What makes me, me?’ Students and teachers can use the Discipline Wheel to explore a Big Question through the lenses of different disciplines. They try on different hats — 'thinking like a scientist', 'thinking like a historian', 'thinking like a theologian.' Working with a Big Question can be a wonderful way to appreciate how different disciplines work.

EI becomes really exciting when it's in primary and then continues into secondary schools — and right up to university! Big Questions fascinate students of all ages – including adults too. But some people wonder whether exploring them is a good use of students’ time – especially for older students. After all, Big Questions seldom have simple agreed-upon answers. The EI curriculum links the epistemic insight that students gain by working with Big Questions to the skills and insights students need to tackle complex and exciting Real-World Opportunities and Problems.  Once again we are unlikely to arrive at simple agreed-upon answers, but we can create wiser and more compassionate approaches by getting the benefits of many different disciplinary perspectives. Our website has the example of an engineering student asking the Big Question ‘Can a robot be a friend?’ while working on a design brief to invent something that can help students who are lonely. There’s an animation and more information here.

What is the first action you'd want someone to take as a response to watching this video?

Berry Billingsley: We’d be very pleased to hear from teachers, tutors and educators who would like to run an EI curriculum – anywhere in the world! We’d like our next initiative to co-create approaches and resources that can support schools, clubs and universities globally.

Tell us more about those resources, and about some of your proposed future projects.

Berry Billingsley: Our proposals for future projects are on our website, For example, there’s a proposal to take Discovery Bags into schools internationally – starting in Zambia. The first aim of the project is to help young scientists to work together to understand and observe what happens to water droplets while doing hands-on investigations with a pipette. And once we have begun by thinking like scientists, we turn next to ‘thinking like geographers’ and study and compare how water interacts with our distinctive and different landscapes. And then there will be resources to support those who want to explore some more contentious interdisciplinary questions such as where to build a bridge or a dam and whether water and life exist by chance or whether their existence is intended; and whether access to clean water should cost money and if so, who should pay.

But we wouldn’t want to stop there without coming back to the role and value of science to inspire our curiosity and reward our interest in Big Questions about the universe, the nature of reality and human personhood. These Big Questions cannot be resolved through one discipline alone and science communication has a vital role to communicate the amazing role, contribution and epistemic humility of science. I have a favorite quote by physicist, Richard Feynman which illustrates this thought. Feynman explains he once conversed with an artist about the beauty of a flower. Feynman acknowledges that he may not be as refined aesthetically as the artist – but makes his case that even so, he can appreciate that a flower is beautiful. Furthermore, he adds, he can see a deeper beauty that perhaps the artist cannot see. As a scientist he can, 'imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty.' Beyond this, the scientific lens reveals deeper layers of mystery that also may not be as readily visible to those in other disciplines, i.e. 'the fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate is interesting – it means that insects can see the color.' It adds a question: 'Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are... why is it aesthetic?' Feynman concludes by saying that there are 'all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.'

The changes we want to see in science classrooms (where the need applies) are to encourage these kinds of questions and discussion. So we are hoping to motivate a transition away from classrooms that lead students to suppose that questions which push the boundaries of the discipline are ‘off-topic’ or too sensitive to be voiced.

Visitors to our website will also see a project that is bringing astronomers, oceanographers, and experts in artificial intelligence together to exchange ideas about how best to process and visualize information

Another proposed project already has a prototype. It’s an interactive search engine that enables teachers to prepare and select the pages that students see when they search. Its most innovative feature is that it has a Discipline Wheel as the graphical interface that the user uses to create a search.

We’re excited to explore these and other ideas with our advisors, collaborators, and readers of this blog! We are proud to have the support of UNESCO's International Bureau of Education (IBE-UNESCO) Senior Expert, Renato Opertti. Renato states that: 'The EI strategy for transforming the curriculum, pedagogy, teaching, and learning helps us to see what is needed to achieve the UNESCO vision of educating new generations for sustainable, fair, inclusive, and peaceful futures.'

Berry Billingsley specializes in Science Education and leads the Epistemic Insight Initiative. She is Director of the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University. Berry’s first career was with the BBC, where she produced and presented television and radio programs including BBC World Service’s ‘Science in Action,’ BBC TV’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and BBC Education’s ‘Search out Science.’