Black holes, companion robots and an introduction to epistemic insight.

Author: Prof Berry Billingsley, Professor of Science Education, Canterbury Christ church University

What are the similarities and differences between a black hole and a companion robot?” – before you begin to assemble a response, I should add that it’s a rhetorical question that I ask to enable me to share some thoughts on the nature of knowledge and what it might be important to emphasise when teaching young people about knowledge.

So to respond to my own question, in my schooldays, black holes and companion robots were the stuff of science fiction but recently both have become a lot more ‘real’ – we have images of a black hole now which is a considerable leap from equations and artistic impressions. And a plethora of machines that are marketed as companion robots can now be found in homes for the elderly, daycare centres, and some people’s homes.

Secondly what’s similar about them is that both are a bit mysterious – maybe even spooky. Look at the face of a humanoid robot – look again – look again. Do those eyes hide a soul or an intelligence, or nothing other than components and code. As for the black hole – according to astrophysicists it swallows up light and has an infinite amount of gravity. What does that even mean?

And now let’s turn to some differences. Begin with the black hole. Which school subject (or scholarly discipline) would you go to if you want to know more about the black hole? You could visit any, but let’s say ‘physics’. In other words – when the media recently reported the first image of a black hole, physics teachers expected and hopefully had a surge of interest in their subject.

Ok – what about the companion robot – who is your scholarly guide and/or expert teacher for that one? I’m hoping that you have more than one discipline in mind and that you agree with me that it’s a question that should not be addressed by any one discipline alone.

This leads me to another difference that I perceive to exist between the black hole and the companion robot: I think secondary schools are generally better placed to teach students to ask and explore questions about black holes than to ask and explore questions about companion robots.

In the research and curriculum innovation work we do in the Epistemic Insight Initiative this is something we hope to address. We define epistemic insight as ‘knowledge about knowledge and in particular, knowledge about disciplines and how they interact’. It’s a construct intended for education and is associated with a learning progression. Tools and workshops to develop learners’ epistemic insight are being co-created and investigated by researchers, teachers, student-teachers and tutors in a wide range of educational settings.

These tools include the Discipline Wheel (DW) – two examples follow (see image above). A workshop facilitator can put a question into the DW and invite students to explore it through different disciplinary lenses. Some questions work well as ‘Bridging Questions’ – where the idea is to compare and contrast how two different disciplines help us to address the same question. Some other questions are Big Questions, like ‘What is a companion robot?’ which warrant investigation through many different disciplines.

At this point if your thoughts are – but an image of a black hole can also be investigated and discussed through the lenses of many disciplines – then I agree! Many questions are open to a wider exploration – beyond the discipline where arguably we first find them. Epistemologically I find it interesting to consider whether there are different preferred questions to ask about this image – as we move round the discipline wheel and engage with each discipline in turn. Big questions about personhood and the nature of reality are intertwined with real-world problems that affect individuals, societies and global communities- such as artificial intelligence, mental and physical health the environment and space travel.

Equipping students in school, further and higher education with the insight and skills they need to ask and explore Big Questions is a recognised curriculum priority nationally and internationally. Working out where and how to embed opportunities to ask and explore Big Questions within existing or revised curriculum frameworks is driving considerable debate. So too is the challenge of how to define the learning objectives and assessment. This is the theme of our Epistemic Insight Conference 2022 (23-24 June 2022) Transforming Interdisciplinary Learning through Epistemically Insightful Curricula – all welcome!

We are also keen to find and/or recruit researchers and educators to work with us. Please visit if you would like to see more about our work or email us at


Prof Berry Billingsley
Faculty of Arts, Humanities, & Education, Canterbury Christ Church University, North Holmes Road, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 1QU.
Professor of Science Education
The Epistemic Insight Initiative
LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion)

Further information:

Epistemic Insight: Engaging with Big Questions (TED talk)

 The launch of the Epistemic Insight Initiative, ‘Big Questions Day’ was filmed by BBC Breakfast –


Billingsley, B., Heyes, J.M. & Nassaji, M. Covid-19 as an opportunity to teach epistemic insight: findings from exploratory workshops on Covid-19 and science with students aged 15–17 in England. SN Soc Sci 1, 260 (2021).

Billingsley, B., Nassaji, M. Secondary School Students’ Reasoning About Science and Personhood. Sci & Educ (2021).

Billingsley, B., Abedin, M., & Nassaji, M. (2020). Primary school students’ perspectives on questions that bridge science and religion: Findings from a survey study in England. British Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 177-204.

Billingsley B and Nassaji M. (2019) Exploring Secondary School Students’ Stances on the Predictive and Explanatory Power of Science. Science and Education, 28 (1), 87–107.

Billingsley, B., Nassaji, M., Fraser, S., & Lawson, F. (2018). A Framework for Teaching Epistemic Insight in schools. Research in Science Education. 48(6), 1115-1131.

Billingsley, B. (2017). Teaching and learning about epistemic insight. School science review, 98(365), 59-64.

Billingsley, B., Brock, R., Taber, K. S., & Riga, F. (2016). How Students View the Boundaries Between Their Science and Religious Education Concerning the Origins of Life and the Universe. Science Education, 100(3), 459-482 doi:10.1002/sce.21213

books: Science and Religion in Education, Springer

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