Successful pedagogies for inquiry and knowledge building


Knowledge Building

Teachers' learning journeys and assessment tools
Keynote speech from 18 Feb 2012

From Inquiry Learning to Knowledge Building:
Engaging students in idea improvement

Excerpt from keynote speech by Prof. Carl Bereiter and Prof. Marlene Scardamalia, IKIT, University of Toronto at “Successful pedagogies for inquiry and knowledge building: Teachers’ learning journeys and assessment tools” on 18 Feb 2012.

In order to deal with disparities in the future for education, students do not need to go beyond learning available knowledge to literally be able to create new knowledge. Enhancing original innovation is considered one of the viable options and knowledge building has been conceived of as a way to help students on that journey.

Knowledge building requires both learning of cultural heritage (i.e. the information that we have gained) and production of knowledge. This is based on the assumption that if one is to produce knowledge, one must learn. It is impossible to identify new information and advance the field without a substantial understanding of information that is already available. Learning and innovation can be attained through knowledge building.

Most educational programs use some powerful tasks and activities to help students understand what they are expected to learn. The many ideas that students can contribute are in the periphery, but not the central piece of what needs to be dealt with. In contrast, knowledge building is based on a different view of the curriculum. Students’ ideas become central to what it is that the students are exploring and able to advance. Tasks and activities should commensurate with it. Therefore, students are able to work on their own ideas and advance them the way that people who generate new knowledge are able to.

Any successful pedagogy deals with students’ ideas in some way, just as any successful educational program will ensure that the ideas students leave with are an improvement over the ideas they brought in. Traditional instruction tends to neglect the ideas students come in with and to rely on effective presentation of the desired ideas in order to accomplish the knowledge advancement. This is true if the two very common approaches to educational change are considered. Firstly, conceptual change teaching listens to students’ initial ideas, but the teacher has the responsibility of contrasting students’ misconceptions or naive ideas with more profound ideas to create cognitive conflict and thus, produce idea change. Secondly, guided discovery uses teacher-designed activities to facilitate students’ construction or reconstruction of knowledge congruent with curriculum goals. With both approaches, teachers are responsible for advancing students’ ideas.

Knowledge building is a member of the large family of inquiry approaches to education. It is giving students collective responsibility for idea improvement. Students, like all scientists or innovators, do realize that there are things out there that we do not understand. Therefore, they would understand the need to improve ideas and would have collective responsibility for that.

If students are to take responsibility, they should be given the power of identifying where there are gaps in understanding and where they need to move. For students to exercise epistemic agency collectively, ideas must be treated as having an out-in-the-world existence. They are not equivalent to personal beliefs or notions, but are more like the theories and inventions that have a public life in knowledge-based organizations and societies. In other words, the ideas are no longer just an idea in the head, but an idea out there in the world for others to build on and advance it. By capturing the ideas in an online environment allows them to be revisited. If a student sees his/her cohort’s idea and it does not fit with his/her understanding, then he/she can provide evidence to explain why he/she understands it in a different way. Therefore, students are not just responsible for their own knowledge, but the community’s knowledge advancement.

Idea generation comes naturally but idea improvement does not. Sustaining idea improvement is particularly difficult. Knowledge building proposes a working assumption that all ideas should be treated as improvable. In that way, students can feel that idea improvement is within their competence, whereas suggesting they should emulate Einstein and Darwin who are likely to be intimidating.

Idea improvement is attainable, but requires a radical shift from belief mode to design mode. Generally, a substantial amount of time of education is in belief mode. Belief mode postulates that there are beliefs in the world and students hold one or the other. During the learning process, students get better at demonstrating that they understand that belief. Belief mode involves arguing, gathering and weighing evidence, accepting, rejecting, and choosing. In contrast, most people who generate new knowledge live in design mode. They raise questions such as “What is an idea good for?” “Can I explain that?” “Does it hold everything together?” “What are the problems I cannot understand?” They are not trying to acquire a belief, but engaging in theory development.

To conclude, knowledge building is different from other inquiry approaches because students themselves collectively think about (1) real ideas, authentic problems; (2) analysis of predominant ideas in their group and how they have changed; (3) sense of where they are heading, problems of understanding, and where their ideas fit in light of curriculum expectations; (4) how their ideas can be improved; and (5) how as a group they can best make headway in improving them. Therefore, the quickest way to a knowledge building community is to get students committed to improving their ideas, in a community of students committed to advancing not only their own ideas but those of the community as a whole.