Alright…BEFORE you get excited…here’s the DISCLAIMER! 😉
I discovered this article in a journal as I was cleaning up boxes in my basement. It’s from April 1990.
Some of it rings fairly true today—although you will get a giggle from the technologies!
I don’t often cross-post from other sources—but, I really think this is an interesting perspective on much that we are attempting to re-invent given our focus on critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, visible thinking, even thinking all by itself (once again!). Perhaps we need to revisit what philosophy can offer for helping our students in these areas.
What philosophy can tell Davos about educating for a better future
How do you create a generation that can think its way out of problems and face the challenges of a rapidly changing world? The Davos meeting this year is all about how we can cope with the immense challenges posed by the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – an era of rapid and complex technological change, where our role in the world is resting on shifting sands.
The next generation of workers will have to be properly equipped to meet these enormous challenges. I believe that, if well-taught and using high-quality materials, philosophy classes can grant children, in Britain and across the world, extraordinary benefits as that era unfolds.
I will be taking part in several panel discussions at the World Economic Forum 2016 at Davos and as part of this, I will be trying to convince the policy makers and power brokers at the Swiss ski resort that we must insert practical philosophy into the heart of schooling.
Through my roles in the British Philosophical Association and the Philosophy in Education project (PEP), I support the continuation of a philosophy A Level and the introduction of a philosophy GCSE. I would also like to see the introduction of at least a year – ideally many more – of non-examined philosophy classes for all children aged between seven and 14.
The range of ideas and arguments on offer in philosophy classes can show children that there are different ways of thinking and living than those immediately on offer in their own postcode. Philosophy is one of the main subjects which extends a child’s imaginative range of possible lives, and this is true for children from all socio-economic backgrounds.
We are not just products of our genetic inheritance and environment; reason can provide at least a partial way out – but only if reason is properly trained. The challenge is then to avoid circularity: is such a training only possible if one is lucky enough to go to a good school (or, in other words, is the development of reason in fact wholly dependent on one’s immediate environment after all)?
This is true only up to a point. There are excellent materials widely available, including online. But children do at the very least need to be aware that such materials exist, that there are doors to open.
Questions of belief
Crucially, philosophy can provide children with a superb training in how to ask questions, analyse concepts, analyse and construct both inductive and deductive arguments and, in general, consider whether there are any good reasons to believe whatever it is they are being told. It helps them to develop good habits of reasoning and thinking for themselves.
This would suggest that philosophy might give children a better chance of resisting any attempts to brainwash them, whether from political or religious extremists, advertisers, or indeed teachers. It is difficult to find hard data on this as yet, but research from Britain’s Department for Education does speak of “reported impacts”.
This idea would seem to have informed a recent British Council paper on education and extremism. The education department’s own research in 2010 also suggested a link between philosophy teaching materials available from the group Philosophy for Children (P4C) and protection against indocrination. There is currently a working party exploring whether P4C is useful for the Prevent strategy, but I am not sure whether that specific question is necessarily the right one to be asking.
Philosophy classes pitched at the right level have the merit of being inclusive, whereas some have criticised the Prevent programme for being divisive. My point is that it is healthy for children to be encouraged to question and think for themselves – and philosophy is one of the subjects that is particularly good at this, irrespective of any particular agenda.
Rigour and flair
Philosophy hones both speaking and listening skills – and it fosters the ability to engage in robust yet respectful dialogue. It allows children to understand that you can disagree with someone without coming to blows and it encourages them to separate intellectual criticisms from personal attacks. It may therefore have a role to play in encouraging resilience and strength of character.
Both the clear, rigorous thinking and suppleness and flexibility of mind that philosophy requires and fosters will be key skills in a 21st-century workplace defined by constant innovation.
But, important though this is, philosophy does much more than train pupils for work. I believe that the activity of philosophy can in itself form one of the components of a flourishing life for children, both individually and collectively. This flourishing is not just a goal for their future adult selves, but also something that is important for them throughout their education.
As schoolchildren mature, philosophy can help them reflect on such issues as flourishing, happiness and pleasure and how they may (or may not) interrelate. Philosophy can thus help children work out their own life goals.
Those at Davos who are concerned about how the future of education should look in this age of uncertainty can find solace in philosophy. It can help children understand that ethical decisions have always had to be made in conditions of uncertainty and that technological advances have not changed that (though they may have deceived us into thinking that life is more predictable than it is).
Philosophy can also help children develop conceptions of flourishing which can exist in uncertain times and it can help provide them with the mental agility and adaptability that uncertain times require. It is not excess of doubt that is currently causing so many problems around the world – quite the reverse.
“The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.”
–Marvin L. Minsky (from The Society of Mind, 1986)
I want students to be busy building their own minds.
As an educator, this is my main goal. I want students to be in charge of their own learning—to be effectively constructing their brains. We must focus our work so that they have both the opportunity, and the skills, to do so. This is the professional mission in my life.
Although it may sound rather ethereal if we talk about students building their own minds, it is not. The reality is exactly that! Whether we take an historical view based on Jean Piaget’s work or adopt a current neuroscience perspective, the reality is the same—brain structures are being altered as we learn and we can control that both quantitatively and qualitatively—to a greater or lesser degree.
Don’t worry! I’m not going to get super technical about all that. I’ll leave that to those more expert than I.
Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist who studied learning in children. He articulated various stages of development and developed a theory of constructivism. He spoke of schemas or mental structures. If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into a previous pattern of ideas and knowledge—our schemas—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore adding a new schema. Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.
…we either assimilate or accommodate new information…or toss it out…
Consider, for example, a schema that a young child might hold for a fish. Fish live in water and have tails and fins with which to swim. She then sees many different kinds of fish—large, small, single coloured, multi-coloured and assimilates them all into her schemas for fish thus increasing the richness and texture of the fish schema. The first time that this child encounters a whale, she might call it a fish. Once her caregivers explain that it is a different animal called a whale and that it breathes air by coming to the surface of the water and that it is a mammal, the child will accommodate it by creating a new schema for whale. All of this is driven by the human need for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium or balance with no dissonance.
…the human need is for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium…
Let’s consider new learning from a perspective of neuroscience—that of brain plasticity. Neurons sprout dendrites and send and receive thousands of signals with other parts of the brain thus creating neural pathways. Any new experiences and new learnings reorder neural pathways in the brain. In the same way that a piece of film must change in reaction to an image coming through the lens, our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences. Any neural pathways that are not frequently used simply disappear and new ones are continually being created as we develop new skills and knowledge.
…our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences…
Dr. Norman Doidge defines neuroplasticity as: the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and its function in response to thinking and acting in response to mental experience—in other words, in sensing and perceiving and what we do.
We are literally building our brains
Regardless of whether we think about this in Piagetian or in neuroscientific terms, when we are learning, we are literally building our brains.
We, as human beings of free will, have the option to build, and to mold, the structures of our brain.
I have spent a career questioning, exploring, discovering, and predicting how technologies can assist students in ‘taking charge of their own learning’. What ideas do you have?
Just a quick little share from the past! Here is the abstract for a session at this conference in 1987.
We are still speaking of similar things…
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.
Supporting Inquiry with Scaffolded, Collaborative Journal Writing
Back in the day–we usually referred to visible thinking as explicit thinking. But, as with many solid, worthwhile constructs, they are not readily adopted and so often reappear decades (or centuries!) later under a new name with new advocates and with a new dream that maybe this time things might stick and better the lives of students.
So it is with visible thinking. The basic idea is to uncover the implicit and inert thinking and to make that thinking discussable and perhaps available to others. For it is by objectifying knowledge that we can come to understand it.
John Seely Brown once suggested,
“The hope is that we might be able to find ways to help students discover knowledge about knowledge, thereby setting the stage for acquiring truly domain-independent skills, such as how to reflect on the knowledge they already have, and to identify the causes underlying the mistakes they make.” (Brown, 1985, p184)
So, how do we support students in making their thinking visible?
There are many perspectives, frameworks and strategies. A favourite of mine is that of David Perkins, one of the pioneers on making thinking explicit. His recent work with a team at Harvard’s Project Zero has resulted in a book Making Thinking Visible. A worthwhile read! Also, visit the Making Thinking Visible website for wonderful resources.
What are Novice and Expert Learners?
I personally love the literature on expertise and how it may serve us. We can think about novice learners and expert learners and ask “how do we move novices towards greater expertise in learning”? Scardamalia and Bereiter have done a great deal of work in this area and the following has arisen from their research over the years.
This graphic shares some of the differences between novice and expert learners.(Click it, then click it again to see full size.)
What is Scaffolded, Collaborative Journal Writing?
So, how can we help students become more expert?
I have used journal writing extensively–both offline and online. But not simply private, individual journal writing. I prefer collaborative, scaffolded, journal writing environments. This provides all the benefits of journal writing, collaboration, and the use of scaffolds or procedural facilitations. (You can set this up in a blog, wiki, or other social space–although it is a bit of a ‘hack’!)
- Cappo & Osterman suggest that “as students communicate their ideas, they learn to clarify, refine, and consolidate their thinking”.
- Countryman says, “I believe that to learn mathematics, students must construct it for themselves. They can only do that by exploring, justifying, representing, discussing, using, describing, investigating, predicting–in short by being active in the world. Writing is an ideal activity for such processes”.
- Journal writing allows for the externalization of knowledge through language. Language plays an important role in making knowledge explicit by objectifying experience. So as students engage in writing about their knowledge they are indeed exploring, stating and questioning what they know. Journal writing allows students to state their understanding of a topic or problem replete with all the associate bugs. These buggy statements are then explicit and can act as a medium for mediating new understanding in collaboration with others.
Some Benefits of Collaboration
A collaborative form of journal writing leads to unique experiences that have qualitatively different results than individual journal writing. Students not only reflect on their own thoughts and processes, but also exchange information about both the subject content and the processes and strategies used by others.
Stated somewhat differently, Perkins and Salomon maintain that “learning takes place in a social context (e.g., reciprocal teaching), whereby justifications, principles, and explanations are socially fostered, generated, and contrasted”.
In the Zone Scaffolding
Scaffolding in the zone (as in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development) can encourage students to consider their own higher level strategies and promote the active decontextualization of knowledge. It may allow the user to decenter from personal thoughts and think about other considerations. It facilitates an internal dialogue when no other partner exists to bounce ideas off. In the zone scaffolding can take many forms, but I have used prompts, questions or sentence starters and make these available to students in a blog template as they write their entries.
You will see that the scaffolding prompts (below) tie directly to the characteristics of the novice-expert continuum in the infographic–although they are categorized as planning and reflection starters.
Usually students quite naturally respond with social commentary, but often not with substantive assistance that might help their classmates to reconsider, or to think more deeply, about how they are doing in their project. So I recommend to also include comment or discussion starters.
Connective Words or Elaboration Triggers
In addition to the prompts for the journaling and the conversation, a list of connective words can be available to students to help them to elaborate their thoughts. So if a student initially writes, “I want to learn animation”, selecting a connective word such as because, might result in further consideration of the goal perhaps resulting in sub-goals. “I want to learn animation because then I will be able to demonstrate how red blood cells are produced. In fact, I will be able to use it in lots of projects.”
A teacher can also enhance the use of these public journal entries by structuring certain activities for their use. For example, to have students focus on using knowledge as a tool, the teacher could request:
“For the next group meeting, I would like you to read the blog (journal) entries of your group members for the current project and print out the ones that show that a piece of old knowledge has been used in a new way.”
“…print out the ones where the comments provide direct help with the task.”
Several challenges exist.
One, this can become simply another classroom exercise–worksheet-like. NOT the intent. Try to engage your students in developing their own sentence starters. Engage in the discussion by adding comments that are substantive. Model what you want the kids to do. Encourage the philosophy in the classroom that thinking is a highly valued activity.
Two, the tools (wikis, blogs, Diigo) are not designed to ease the use of these starters. I have had students copy and paste the ones they want to use into their post or into their reply. But, availability is the issue.
Three, ideally you want the kids generalizing this behaviour and appropriating the use of deep discourse. In order for that to be the case, it must serve the kids well. This may require your effort in making the connection.
Request of you…
It would be beneficial if you would share your ideas on how you have used journal writing, scaffolding or collaboration to help your students to become more expert learners!
Planning StartersI want to know… I want to learn… I think… My goals for this project are… I don’t understand… I wonder… I am having difficulty with… I am breaking my project into… A similar task I have had before is… The steps I plan to follow are… Different ways to solve this task…
Reflection StartersI learned… Things I want to learn are… I think… I have managed to… I have changed my plan… I didn’t get as far as I planned because… I got further than I had planned because… The steps I did first were… My next step will be…
Comment or Discussion StartersI agree with you because … I disagree with you because… Check… I think… I believe… Have you thought about… Maybe… I am confused… Another explanation… I don’t understand… You need to… Your journal entry would be better if…
Elaboration Triggersstudy thanks to that’s how that’s why therefore think try until wish wonder in that case in view of look forward to otherwise plan realize remember since so expect explain feel figured give up guess hope if…then intend another as a result of attempt because believe consequently consider decide discovered discuss
Previous version originally published on The Construction Zone
‘Making’ is about empowering students to ‘make their own minds.’
‘Making’ is about empowering students to ‘make up their own minds’—quite literally—regardless of the artifacts being constructed. This is the view I prefer to take.
‘Making’ should focus on taking charge of, and constructing, your mind—your learning. Making objects and artifacts is a means to that end. ‘Making’ is a central tenet of constructionism, tinkering and inquiry—or ‘tinkquiry’ as my colleague Brenda Sherry and I like to say. But it is not the whole story.
Don’t equate ‘making’ with ‘constructionism’. ‘Making’ ≠ ‘constructionism’— necessarily. One cannot assume that because kids are ‘making’ that they are building new schema—that you are embedding them in a constructionist pedagogy.
Seymour Papert and Idit Harel in 1991 said,
“It is easy enough to formulate simple catchy versions of the idea of constructionism; for example, thinking of it as ‘learning-by-making’. One purpose of this introductory chapter is to orient the reader toward using the diversity in the volume to elaborate—to construct—a sense of constructionism much richer and more multifaceted, and very much deeper in its implications, than could be conveyed by any such formula.” In Constructionism (Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991).
The ‘Maker Movement’ isn’t Just About Electronics and Coding!
The maker movement has become extremely popular in the last few years and is usually associated with the ‘making’ of things with circuit boards, 3D printers, lego, found materials, wood shops, metal shops, coding/programming and other electronic gadgetry. It’s similar to DIY (Do It Yourself) – and ‘craft nights’. There are countless Maker Faires and Maker studios all over the globe.
But, is it only about ‘making with electronics’ and ‘coding’? No. I don’t believe it should be.
‘Making’ isn’t only about electronics and coding.
Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’ in my mind. I think Seymour Papert might agree with me as you will read later on.
Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’…
The Critical Part is the ‘Making of One’s Own Mind’.
Indeed, the critical part is the ‘making of one’s own mind’—the constructionist piece—not the nature of the artifact being made. As I suggested, making artifacts is the means to an end, in my opinion. Constructing one’s schema and texture of mind is the end-goal.
Now, of course, here I am telling you what I think about ‘making’ and ‘constructionism’ but I cannot think that you will merely learn it by reading. It will take my provocations and your efforts for you to construct your own understandings of these ideas—these constructs. As Papert and Harel said,
“If one eschews pipeline models of transmitting knowledge in talking among ourselves as well as in theorizing about classrooms, then one must expect that I will not be able to tell you my idea of constructionism. Doing so is bound to trivialize it. Instead, I must confine myself to engage you in experiences (including verbal ones) liable to encourage your own personal construction of something in some sense like it. Only in this way will there be something rich enough in your mind to be worth talking about.”
A long time coming!
This time, since information technology has been affordable and accessible, it was Seymour Papert and his colleagues who founded this notion of ‘children as makers’ – when he coined the term ‘constructionism’. Seymour studied with, and subsequently worked with, Jean Piaget who was instrumental in the origins of the constructivist learning theory—along with Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky and others.
What is constructivism?
Constructivism is a theory which suggests that people actively construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world and are not merely passive recipients. These understandings arise through experiencing events and then reflecting on those experiences. If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into our previous ideas and knowledge—our schema—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore modifying our schema. Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.
Regardless, we are active creators of our own knowledge. This occurs through asking questions, exploring, and assessing what we know. It happens through inquiry.
Does this mean the teacher’s role is diminished?
Not at all. A constructivist approach celebrates the active role of the teacher in helping students to construct knowledge rather than to merely regurgitate meaningless facts. In constructivist classrooms, you will see project-based learning, problem-generation and problem-solving approaches, and inquiry-based activities where students are generating driving questions, generating potential solution strategies and digging into investigations.
You will see students making their knowledge and processes visible to the other students where it is all available for discussion and collaboration. Meaningless facts aren’t memorized in a decontextualized fashion but rather a meaningful body of knowledge is constructed and becomes part of the student’s interrelated collections of memories. The teacher’s role is far from irrelevant. It is critical as a facilitator, educator, and co-investigator.
Constructivism leverages the student’s natural curiosity about the world and how things work. Their engagement is invoked through respect of their current knowledge and real-world experience. Their hypotheses and investigative methods are honoured and honed.
So along comes Seymour Papert – and in the mid-sixties – begins to think very deeply about the role of kids making things——>publicly.
This is, as I said, when he coined the term ‘constructionism’.
“Constructionists believe that deep, substantive learning and ‘enduring understandings’ occur when people are actively creating artifacts in the real world.” Papert & Harel “http://www.papert.org/articles/SituatingConstructionism.html”
Constructionism holds that children learn best when they are in the active role of the designer and constructor. But the theory goes a step further.
Constructionism “is the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.”
Constructionism Relies on Visible Thinking & Conversation. Making May Not.
But it is not merely the act of constructing that is essential. Powerful things happen when that act of constructing mediates deep conversation with others. The very act of articulating ideas, sharing thoughts, confusions, ahas, questions, potential solutions makes knowledge building explicit. Sometimes words are spoken. Oftentimes facial expressions and body language communicate. We might draw diagrams or build prototypes. All these serve to make the thinking visible and, therefore, discussable—not only with others but for oneself. We learn our subject matter well as we think hard about it and are very intentional about constructing not only the artifact at hand but also our knowledge and success.
…constructing, or making, is not enough…
Constructionist learning is very powerful due to the rich texture of this public creation of artifacts.
Let’s look at some of Papert’s work in action.
Alright. So it is clear that today’s ‘maker movement’ has strong roots in Papert’s ‘constructionism’, in Piaget’s constructivism, in Vygotsky’s social constructivism, in Dewey’s experientialism, and in Scardamalia & Bereiters’ theories of intentional learning and knowledge construction.
However, today’s maker movement is nearly always described in terms of ‘electronic’ making—or making with coding or robotics or lately 3d printing.
Making Up One’s Own Mind
But, I maintain that the real focus should be on helping students to ‘construct their own mind’—for to do so helps them to ‘take charge of their own learning’—which is not just a matter of student agency. It is also a matter of intentionality and skill in knowledge construction. The wraparound of a knowledge-building culture is essential in a ‘making’ environment to reach this goal.
So What Do You Make?
As Papert said, and I totally agree, it matters not whether one is making a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe. I think what is important is that we understand the breadth and depth of constructionism and related theories and that we don’t merely equate making with constructionist learning.
So what do kids make? Have them make what moves them. Make something that matters. Make something hard. Have ‘hard fun’ as Seymour would say. But, above all, focus on crafting the surrounds—the culture—that encourages and supports kids in constructing new knowledge. Focus on the building of the mind as they are creating their public entities—be they poems, songs, multimedia presentations, other works of art or indeed more ‘maker faire’ robotics-based artifacts.
Make up your own mind on how to do this best.
There are now many books on the topic of ‘making’—but, these two are deeply rooted in a constructionist approach to ‘making’ because all of these authors have been central to building of this theory as colleagues of Seymour Papert.
- Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager, who say:
“Using technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need brings engineering, design, and computer science to the masses. Fortunately for educators, this maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing.”
- The Invent To Learn Guide to 3D Printing in the Classroom: Recipes for Success by David & Norma Thornburg and Sara Armstrong.
K-12 Learning Platform
Globaloria – Idit Harel is the founder and CEO of this online platform for courses in STEM, computing, game design and coding.
Note: This post was originally called: Project Based Learning: Don’t Start with a Question. However, through an excellent discussion below with Drew Perkins, I have changed the title to: Project Based Learning: What if we didn’t start with a question? See the comments for the rationale.
End with a Question through Tinkering-Based Learning
Do you have to start project-based learning (PBL) with a question?
(Oh, wait a second! Am I starting this post with a question?)
This is something many people ask. I understand why this is so. Often teachers who are learning about Project Based Learning are encouraged to help students to develop a ‘driving question’ to guide their project. The Buck Institute, for one, suggests that PBL ‘is organized around an open-ended Driving Question’.
Tinkering-Based Learning (TBL)
I am going to suggest we consider an alternative I will call TBL – Tinkering-Based Learning!
‘PBL’ is a human-made construct
As I have said elsewhere, ‘PBL’ is a human-made construct. And, whoever defines it, does so with a bias—from a set of beliefs. Do you think, perhaps, that starting PBL with a question is derived from our deeply engrained western, scientific approach? Or perhaps if we consider PBL to be solely inquiry based, we might think that a question, or formulation of a problem, is most definitely the beginning step?
Don’t get me wrong! I love ‘questioning’. It is important that teachers learn how to question effectively—to ask ‘fat’ questions, to provide ‘wait time’, to ensure that everyone in the class has a chance to think deeply rather than selecting the student that has quickly raised her hand. It is equally important that students learn to generate ‘driving questions’ and not merely ask simple questions. They should be thinking ‘fat’ questions – not ‘skinny’ ones!
…students should learn to generate ‘driving questions…
Nor am I knocking the scientific method – I merely think that is one way of approaching learning and solving problems and becoming an educated person. It has a significant role in education.
However, I don’t think that generating a question is the only way to begin effective project-based learning. It likely depends on your purpose—on your learning goals for the students.
Is writing a poem a project? Is creating a song a project? What about creating a multimedia artifact? Painting a picture? Building a Lego car and making it run? Is building a computer program with Scratch a project? Constructing a paper maché volcano?
…let projects emerge out of play—out of tinkering.
Starting out PBL event in your classroom might begin with a passion, a curiosity, or maybe a wondering. Or maybe it’s just a result of tinkering. Perhaps, projects are sometimes play? Or perhaps projects emerge out of play—out of tinkering?
Okay here’s an idea. How about flipping PBL? Instead of starting with the question, why don’t we end with a question? Start with tinkering and encourage the emergence and evolution of fat questions related either to their processes of learning or to the content/subject matter at hand.
Let the goal of your project be to formulate questions.
After all, many say that ‘to question is the answer’. If so, then should kids not come out of excellent project based learning scenarios with great questions? Should the product not be a deep and driving question?
Perhaps these questions are focused on assisting them to develop their metacognitive abilities—to help them understand how they learn, how they approach tasks. Are they linear? Are they ‘multitasking’? Do they like ‘mucking around’? How do they deal with ambiguity? Do they like ‘hands on’ or ‘minds on’? How did that approach work for them? What would they do differently next time?
Perhaps the questions that emerge are related to the content or project artifact.
Reflection is generally considered excellent educational practice and is often included in PBL. I have often used ‘reflection starters’ to assist students in thinking deeply about their learning. You could tailor those reflections to evoke questions.
- Now I don’t understand…
- Questions I now have are…
- A confusion that has come up for me is…
Perhaps they could do a ‘wondering’ – individually or collectively – to reflect on their project.
“I wonder…how the potato production in Prince Edward Island is being impacted by global warming?”
Their responses could then be discussed and crafted into significant questions that may, or may not, be pursued.
Ok. So maybe you are saying to yourself, “I always have kids reflect at the end of a project.” That’s great! It is a significant step and can promote the consolidation of learning and perhaps also the transfer of learning to other domains or problems.
I think it is a superb way to end a project.
Don’t keep the lid on too tight!
I just don’t think you have to start a project with a driving question. Set up a context. Design an environment. Invite playfulness. Encourage tinkering. Nurture curiosity. Don’t keep the lid on too tight!
Tinkering Based Learning may lead to results you never could have predicted!
Share with us an occasion where this has happened in your teaching/learning.
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.
…or maybe a mathematician!
If you are a regular reader, you will know my love for, and my history with, Logo. This continues for very simple reasons. I want kids to think deeply about their thinking. I want kids to construct and to discuss their constructions. I want kids to set goals and then to struggle through as they achieve them. The turtle graphics features of Logo provides these opportunities.
( BREAKING NEWS! Brian Silverman and Artemis Papert are keynotes at ECOO’s BringItTogether conference on November 5-7 in Niagara Falls, Ontario! #BIT14 )
It is a powerful tool for kids to explore geometry and programming while delving into the creation of images.
Here are some sample screens from the online tutorial and also some artwork!
Check it out. It’s free. 🙂