Isn’t it really just learning by another name?
We hear a lot about knowledge building in education circles these days!
What is it anyway? Why don’t we just call it learning? Where did this term knowledge building come from?
When I first started speaking of knowledge building (KB), people looked at me as if I had two heads! People thought the term to be officious and puffed-up. But, now—now it’s ever-so-cool. Everyone is using it—but, perhaps without any deep understanding of its roots, its meaning—beyond that of learning. In fairness, this is actually a fairly common phenomenon as new concepts and words come into our everyday lexicon. It is known as lexical or semantic drift. Meanings change from the original intent.
So it is with knowledge building.
The purpose of this article is to briefly familiarize readers with the origins and intended meaning. Links to other sites and articles will help to broaden and deepen your understanding of the complexity of knowledge building, of creating knowledge building communities and of KB technological environments. It certainly won’t all be explained here! ;-)
Learning vs Knowledge Building
This graphic (courtesy of IKIT) delineates the conceptual differences between learning and knowledge building.
A Little History
The origins of knowledge building in education arise out of the work of Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter at OISE/UT. Their work in knowledge transforming and intentional learning—as it relates to the development of expertise—has been the foundation of their coining the term knowledge building. This work goes back to the mid 1970s and their development of CSILE—Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments in the mid 80s.
People often equate knowledge building theory with that of constructivist learning, but Scardamalia and Bereiter make these distinctions:
Intentionality. Most of learning is unconscious, and a constructivist view of learning does not alter this fact. However, people engaged in Knowledge Building know they are doing it and advances are purposeful.
Community & knowledge. Learning is a personal matter, but Knowledge Building is done for the benefit of the community.
In other words, students engaged in knowledge building are intentional about their learning—they treat knowledge as an entity that is discussable. It is something about which they reflect and build upon. Also, students can be said not just to be in charge of their own learning, but also have responsibility for the learning of the group.
1977-1983: Knowledge-Telling versus Knowledge-Transforming
As described in detail in A Brief History of Knowledge Building (pdf), between 1977-1983 the research focus was on examining the differences between knowledge-telling and knowledge-transforming. So when you are using wikis with students for collaboration and knowledge-building, ask yourself, “When students post information on their various wiki pages, are they simply telling knowledge or are they transforming that knowledge by thinking about it, questioning it, reworking it, combining it with other pieces of information to make new understandings and revelations?”
I describe here a situation where true collaboration occurred between two students (visible to all students) in which the questioning by one student (Heather) led the other (Larissa) to rethink and to rework her driving question for her project on potato production in Prince Edward Island. She needed to do more than knowledge telling. She was required to build new schema by a deeper transformation of the information at hand.
1983-1989: Intentional Learning
Between 1983-1989 the research focus switched to intentional learning and cognition. “Intentional cognition is something more than ‘self-regulated learning’, more like the active pursuit of a mental life.” Intentional learning had several characteristics which pointed towards knowledge building. These included:
- Higher levels of agency. Students take responsibility not only for meeting learning objectives set by the teacher but for managing the long term acquisition of knowledge and competencies.
- Existing classroom communication patterns and practices as obstacles to intentional cognition. Even though teachers may try to encourage inquiry and independent learning and thinking, common characteristics of the classroom environment militate against it and instead increase dependence on the teacher (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996).
It was during this time that CSILE was developed. Originally, it was a text-based system and I, personally, was challenged by a text only environment—as I was a recent HyperCard enthusiast and enjoyed, and saw cognitive benefits for, graphical interfaces and hypermedia. As part of the CSILE team, I made a case for multiple representations of knowledge—beyond text only.
This was a time rich in studying expertise, the differences between expert and novice behaviour and, indeed, how one encourages and supports the development of expert learners—both face to face and in online spaces. Protocols and procedural facilitations were developed to scaffold the execution of higher level strategies by students.
It was recognized, as we hear so much now, that teachers may indeed be a bottleneck in the advancement of knowledge creation by students. However, it’s not merely about student agency—that is necessary, but not sufficient. Students must learn the skills, develop the attitudes and build/participate in the community.
1988-present: Knowledge Building
As the research into intentional learning developed, the researchers noticed something else happening in the CSILE classrooms that involved all the students. They noticed that the kids became really involved in contributing to the knowledge problems that arose. In fact, to be part of the classroom community, you really needed to contribute. So it seemed that a great motivator and sustainer of intentional learning behaviour was ‘the simple and virtually universal desire to belong’.
“This conceptual step yielded a definite separation between intentional learning and Knowledge Building. Intentional learning is the deliberate enhancement of skills and mental content. Knowledge Building is the creation and improvement of knowledge of value to one’s community. You can have intentional learning without Knowledge Building and, in principle at least, Knowledge Building without intentional learning; but the two together make a powerful combination.”
Twelve knowledge building principles have been articulated. I will mention them here, but I suggest you read the complete descriptions or watch these videos because the headings won’t tell you too much! I include them in this graphic to illustrate the depth and complexity of the term knowledge building.
Knowledge Forum evolved out of CSILE and is available to support you in developing knowledge building classrooms.
Here is a brief video from a classroom using Knowledge Forum. (Note: This is fairly old—the technologies have improved! But, great overview!)
So in summary…
One cannot equate learning with knowledge building.
The terms are not interchangeable and I believe we need to be careful when we appropriate language and use it casually. I have the same concern with other current, common constructs such as inquiry, collaboration, and project-based learning.
I am absolutely certain that I do the same thing with many expressions and terms where that domain is not my area of expertise!
Please be patient with me when I do so, but please also gently point me to resources that will deepen my understandings.
Call to Action
Given the topic of this post, I will now ask you to do a little reflection on the ideas presented here, on your previous and current thoughts about learning versus knowledge building, on your own practice, and on the dominant classroom and school culture in relation to these ideas.
- What have you learned?
- What might change for your practice?
- What steps might you take to move forward?
- What confusions/questions do you have?
I encourage you to do this publicly—here or in another online space where we might further our collective understandings.
Resources for Follow-Up
A Brief History of Knowledge Building: A Brief History of Knowledge Building is a great place to start reading about knowledge building.
Knowledge Building: Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2003). Knowledge Building. In Encyclopedia of Education. (2nd ed., pp. 1370-1373). New York: Macmillan Reference, USA.
Professional Development: Knowledge Building: The Professional Development: Knowledge Building site is a superb site developed by the OISE originators. Find out what a knowledge building classroom looks like, how to get started, assessment strategies, etc.
IKIT (Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology): “The Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology conducts research, develops technology and helps build communities aimed at advancing beyond “best practice” in education, knowledge work, and knowledge creation.”
Knowledge Forum: Knowledge Forum is available for purchase and implementation in your school or classroom.
Natural Curiosity: Natural Curiosity is a resource that has been developed for teachers. There are wonderful classroom videos online describing ideas about developing a knowledge building culture and knowledge building discourse among students. You can also download a Natural Curiosity handbook.
Learn Teach Lead: LearnTeachLead, of the Ontario Ministry’s Student Achievement Division, has produced and posted some excellent videos including interviews with Marlene Scardamalia.
Visible Thinking: I would also recommend the book, Visible Thinking, by Harvard’s Project Zero group. The Visible Thinking website also has some worthwhile resources.
ThinkingLand: In the mid 80s, as a graduate student in the CSILE group, I developed a networked version of HyperCard called ThinkingLand. It was based on the metaphor of a journal and so could be considered as an online, collaborative, and scaffolded journal writing environment. It was implemented in a sixth grade classroom for research purposes.
Journal Zone: In 2000, LCSI (of Logo fame!) contracted me to lead the design of Journal Zone—which was based on ThinkingLand. It was an awesome online environment, but was not commercially successfully as it launched just at the same time as blogging arrived on the scene. People went blogging—without all the scaffolding and procedural facilitations we had built into Journal Zone. (It is no longer available.) See Using Visible Thinking Strategies to Develop Expert Learners for a description of the practical elements of Journal Zone which you can build into your classroom practice.
Using technologies for deep, student-driven inquiry isn’t new.
Good job Papert picked the turtle. Kind of ironic. (Tip of the hat to @brendasherry for pointing that out.)
Oh my goodness…
It’s so challenging to observe the ‘new’ focus on inquiry and the role of technology.
I very much appreciate this focus — don’t get me wrong — and enjoy the renewed energy from educators whose familiarity with the past informs their present wealth of knowledge.
Papert, Logo and Constructionism
Early on (early 1970’s) Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) threatened to steal the student’s locus of control. We call it ‘student agency’ these days. Luckily, Seymour Papert, Logo and Mindstorms pioneered a different view for us.
This awesome video about inquiry, student agency and kids being mathematicians, artists and programmers even pre-dates my start! :-)
A little later (1985), Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter began to develop their CSILE project. This movie about Knowledge Forum illuminates their innovative and visionary use of information and communications technologies for collaborative inquiry and knowledge building within a community of learners.
True knowledge building necessitates that we learn from the past and build it forward. It is inefficient, and negligent, for us to start fresh with wide eyes and empty of that rich experience.
Please share these with your colleagues.
Learning has many faces. Many models. Our educational models can serve us – but we need to keep our minds open. The science of learning, in fact any science, is not ‘truth’. It is about models – models that are tested over time and circumstance – each approximating the truth.
Well, I spend a lot of time thinking about how people learn. Good thing – considering I’m a teacher! ;-)
(I am sure you do too!)
I would have easily answered that at different times in my career. In recent times, I could have quickly answered from a social constructionist perspective.
It’s not so clear to me these days – as I read more and as I think more.
‘How do you define learning’ is a question that reminds me of Seymour Sarason’s book “And What do You Mean by Learning”. It took a whole book! :-)
Sometimes for this kind of question, I really fall back to Piaget’s description of assimilation and accommodation.
I fall less to Skinner’s operant conditioning theories — although, I must admit, as I read more through a certain lens these days, I am intrigued by the impact such a perspective may have for us. Some of these readings are listed here:
Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan
You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney
Who’s in Charge? Free Will & the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann
Throughout these 40 or so years, I have traveled the path of behaviorism, constructivism, cognitivism, social constructivism, contructionism, social constructionism, intentional learning theory, connectivism — now I am a ‘pot pourri of ponderings’. ;-)
Models and theories, to me, are not the truth – as I have indicated in Limited, and Fooled by, Our Senses and in The Trickery of Temporary Truths. However, they serve us well in helping us think about possibilities.
Intentional Learning theory, proposed by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter, has resonated with me for a long time. It, for me, accommodates this pot pourri. Carl, you may not know, was a leading behaviorist back in the day. He, along with Engelmann, developed Distar in the sixties. He followed this with SRA and, more recently, Open Court. Marlene and he then developed CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments) which is now Knowledge Forum. They are premier pioneers and prophets in ‘knowledge building’. See their Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology.
What I am appreciating is the rich, textured fabric of ‘what learning is’ – that it is illuminated by many of these theories – and more.
It seems to me that Judith V. Boettcher’s 10 Core Learning Principles speak to my ‘pot pourri’ in saying, “Research findings into how our brains work* are stimulating a re-examination of traditional principles of designing teaching and learning experiences. Insights from this research are not only helping to deepen our understanding of traditional core learning principles, but they are also providing practical guidance on how to design learning experiences for our new high technology environments.”
(Bolding is mine.)
I am constantly redefining learning and all the practices related to it.
How do you define learning?
* Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000; Damasio 1999; Pinker 1997
- The Power of ‘Knowledge Sharing’: Tools to Do So (theconstructionzone.wordpress.com)
I have, once again, been thinking hard about knowledge building and knowledge construction. (I am teaching a class about it on #plpnetwork so I had to get up to speed!)
A couple of the pioneers of ‘knowledge building’, Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter suggest that what kids frequently do in school is ‘knowledge telling’ – not ‘knowledge building’. In other words, kids research something and then paraphrase it back to us in some form of report – written, Powerpoint, etc. They basically repeat that which they have read without doing a great deal of synthesis or application of that information.
I would agree that this is often the case.
My colleague, @brendasherry, and I were chatting and she told me the story of a teacher who mentioned that she wanted her students to do more ‘knowledge sharing’. At first blush, both Brenda and I equated that with ‘knowledge telling’.
But, as I was driving today (where lots of great thinking goes on!), I recalled a story of a young developmentally challenged student and his teacher.
I realized the power of ‘knowledge sharing’ and the need for the right tools to do so!
People can’t share their knowledge if they don’t have the right tools…
I was in the classroom with the young teacher and a young man about 12 years old. I had just shown him the basics of single keystroke Logo.
If you press F it moves the turtle forward some distance. Press R and it turns right 30 degrees.
The student had played around a bit with the commands and he easily made a square when he was asked.
I asked him to make a triangle.
The teacher rapidly pulled me aside and gasped to me, “Don’t ask him to do that. He doesn’t understand and he’ll be frustrated.”
As we turned back to the student and the screen, the teacher was shocked. The young man had done it. With ease.
He had shared his knowledge. The tools had afforded him the ability to demonstrate understandings he had locked up inside. Logo had acted like a ’cognitive partner’ enabling him to share with us his knowledge.
It comes down to differentiation…
We learned a lesson that day. The teacher had a perception of the student’s abilities that was off base because the young man typically hadn’t the tools to express himself. The tool of ‘language’ escaped him because of his challenges.
It speaks to the need for encouraging and supporting differentiated displays of learning.
I’ll work to always remember that – with all people – the young and the elderly – the firm and the infirm. That is my challenge.
My ‘think aloud’ about writing this post:
It started out as a piece comparing ‘knowledge telling’ and ‘knowledge sharing’ and ended up being really about the importance of one aspect of differentiated instruction – that of ‘encouraging and supporting differentiated displays of learning’.
Writing is a learning experience. Thanks for traveling with me on my learning adventures.
PART 1 – Intentional serendipity ≠ engineered serendipity :-)
I am giggling at the interest in the term Intentional Serendipity. I even tried to get it included in my job title – Manager of Intentional Serendipity. I have used it for several conferences as the tagline on my nametag! That sure started many a conversation.
However, as with any term tossed out there without due diligence of explanation and context as in a previous post, the meaning will be constructed by the perspectives of the reader! “The reader writes the story,” as they say.
Dean Shareski, in “Pursuing Intentional Serendipity,” gives some insightful examples that are relatively consistent with my perspectives on this seemingly conflicted construct. Alan Levine, in “There is No Such Thing As Serendipity,” takes a close look at ‘serendipity’ and provides some excellent thoughts and references about its nature.
Alan suggests that “It can’t be serendipity and intentional, because serendipity is accidental… serendipity is not intentional, nor is it a thing we can pursue– it is a force generated as a secondary (or many-ary) results of our actions of sharing, helping, contributing. It is when we create a potential opportunity for the unexpected to happen…”
…Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner…
Strangely enough, I never considered ‘intentional serendipity’ to be the same as ‘engineered serendipity.’ So I am glad this discussion has erupted because it affords some unpacking of the term! For me, it is not about the ‘intention’ to create serendipity. I am not speaking of constructing ‘chance’ events or encounters. I have been thinking more of a learner’s stance – one with an ‘intention’ to learn. If you hold an attuned intention to learn, then you will have sentinels at the watch for all that goes by. You will be ‘at the ready’ to opportunistically grasp anything that is useful to your learning. So you are not constructing events. Rather you are vigilant so that you do not miss events relevant to your intention. Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner within the learning space. The intentional learner may set the conditions of that learning space to optimize opportunities – opportunities conducive to the task at hand. It may be by turning on all the knowledge flows – twitter, text, skype, etc. Or it may be by selecting a place of silence for reflection and inner workings of the mind and heart.
Of course, this requires some skill and attention. :-)
PART 11 – The relationship of ‘intentional serendipity’ to ‘intentional learning’ theory
Learning to be intentional…
The notion of ‘intentional serendipity’ arose out of my studies with Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter who developed ‘intentional learning’ theory. They briefly describe Intentional Learning as the voluntary direction of mental effort, or, the wilful allocation of spare mental capacity. That is, cognitive capacity that is not already engaged by the ongoing task may be turned back into the task. This is characterized by activities, behaviours and displays of skills many of which may be described as metacognitive. Metacognition is usually considered to consist of both knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition. Intentional Learners are assertive in their approach to learning. They set goals – both task and cognitive goals. They choose to, and are able to, apply any unused mental effort to increase their proficiency on the task or to generalize that which is being learned to other tasks or other domains. They consider, not only the task at hand, but also the larger spectrum in which such learning is embedded. The student considers the knowledge explicitly and separate from the present task. There is consideration for when and where that knowledge can be used in the future. They negotiate meaning with their peers. They ask questions. They seek answers and construct solutions.
…become expert at being expert
Intentional learners are learning to become expert at becoming expert. That is to say, not only are they learning declarative, subject matter and procedural functionality, they are acquiring valuable metacognitive knowledge as well.
Intentional learning differs from metacognition
Intentional Learning theory differs from metacognitive theory in that there is an explicit recognition of other aspects of self. Intentional Learners are developing, not only well-developed metacognitive skills, but also attitudes (an affective stance), motivations, and social behaviours that are focused on, and conducive to, advancing one’s own knowledge and the knowledge of others. Bereiter & Scardamalia suggest that to generate a useful educational theory one cannot concentrate solely on the knowledge aspect of intentional cognition, but must also come to understand and include other aspects as well. These include motivation, affect, allocation-of-resources, and ecology.
Intentional learners and the ZPD
Intentional Learning is a frame of mind that is characterized by a student’s ability to be in control of their own Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is central to being in charge of one’s own learning. The ZPD may be defined as the zone in which we can accomplish a task with the assistance, or accompaniment, of a more knowledgeable other – a task that we could not handle alone. (ZPD – Who’s In Charge Here?)
“…learning is a process of enculturation…”
IL is a frame of mind that thrives in a classroom culture focused on students’ taking charge of their own learning. Many agree that the cultural surround affects learning. Newman et al say, “In the Vygotskian approach to instruction, changes in the whole interactional system, not just in the student, are thus considered in the analysis of cognitive change.” John Seely Brown et al suggest that “learning is … a process of enculturation.” What people learn is often “a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.” This implies that the belief structures, the personal interactivity, the nature of the activities and the atmosphere of a learning community are critical determinants of what is learned. This is not to say that explicit teaching is not an appropriate technique. Rather, it is but one of the components of a culture conducive to the development and support of IL.
…student in control…
If we want students to be in charge of their own learning, then it necessitates that we create environments where this is most likely to occur. Any tools and techniques, therefore, that are to be used within an environment designed to promote and support ‘mindfulness’ or IL should be considered within this context of shifting the control of the learning over to the student.
…it is not the serendipity that is intentional, it is the learner’s frame of mind.
So I am not speaking of constructing serendipity. I mean that we need to empower learners to be intentional and to create a cultural surround that is conducive to supporting those intentions. It is not the serendipity that is intentional. It is the learner’s frame of mind.
Can Students Multitask? This is the Wrong Question.
I hear it all the time from students. “I am doing my work! I’m multitasking.” And, in fact, they often are flipping back and forth between the ‘task at hand’, Facebook, internet radio, YouTube, etc.
“I am doing my work! I’m multitasking.”
I won’t debate the issue of multitasking itself in this post. That one is open for discussion later. Briefly, many people are now saying that, in fact, people don’t multitask. They suggest that your mind is switching back and forth (sometimes rapidly) between thought streams or tasks. Parallel processing models of computation, on the other hand, would suggest that you can indeed multitask. However, that is not the big question for me. I would suggest it is more a matter of ‘available mental effort’.
…it is more a matter of ‘available mental effort’
Mental effort is not unlimited. It is somewhat finite. However, when you are working on a task it is often the case that it does not occupy your total ‘mental effort’. You may have some spare mental capacity.
Mindful Engagement & Expertise
There are three options for allocating your spare mental capacity.
One, you may exert NO effort, or intentional control, over the extra mental capacity and just allow ideas and thoughts to enter your mind at random… responding to external or internal stimuli such as a phone ringing or voices overheard.
Second, you may choose to direct that spare mental capacity to something specific, yet unrelated to the present task. For example, you may think about an upcoming holiday, or your child’s next sporting event.
Third, you may choose to direct the extra mental effort back into the task itself… evaluating effectiveness, determining better strategies, reflecting on generalizations to other similar, or different, domains. ‘How am I doing?’ ‘What could I do differently next time?’ ‘How can I kick it up a notch?’ Thus you are reinvesting all your efforts into maximizing performance and generalizable skills.
I am always encouraging my students to become ‘expert learners’.
This latter example characterizes ‘expertise’ and ‘expert learners’. I am always encouraging my students to become ‘expert learners’. If they are not reinvesting their extra mental energy back into the task in this intentional, metacognitive fashion, then, in my opinion, they are not ‘doing their work’ effectively.
I have found this explanation useful to students when they claim that they are ‘doing their work’.
Disclaimers – but a few:
I will grant that there may be environmental conditions that may enhance ‘flow’ or ‘state of mind’. For example, Baroque music – at 40–60 beats per minute – encourages beta brainwave activity that is associated with relaxation. Not that most of our students are listening to baroque! However, the point is made that some music, as an example, may be conducive to guiding the brain to a better place for learning.
It is also understood that there are other parameters to this discussion. For example, if I am intentionally directing spare mental effort elsewhere – to another ‘purposeful’ task, one could say that I am becoming an ‘expert generalist’. After all, ‘specialization is for insects’ – said Robert Heinlein.
And indeed, there are personality factors, mood factors, variety and quantity of modalities engaged, and, of course, the inherent level of demand of the ‘task at hand’. It may be fairly ‘mindless’ or absolutely uninteresting and inconsequential to my life.
Novice and Expert Learners – From: M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino (eds.), How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, xiii.
Expert Learners – a post from Will Richardson
Thank you to Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter for their inspiration to me regarding ‘expertise’.
- The Multitasker’s Guide to Happiness (aolhealth.com)
- Is Social Media Multitasking Worse Than Marijuana? (clickz.com)
- What is the Quality of Education in Online Programs and Classes? (thebestdegrees.org)
- Multitasking is still a lie (christopherspenn.com)
- To Multitask Effectively, Focus on Value Not Volume (blogs.forbes.com)