In today’s knowledge age, the extent of a nation’s economic growth is increasingly dependent on its society’s capacity to innovate. It is crucial that people are equipped with the skills that will enable them to work collaboratively and creatively to advance the knowledge of the community as a whole. This presents a larger question: How can we help to develop students who are not only knowledgeable but also active participants in the creation of new knowledge? The guest editor of this issue of SingTeach, NIE Senior Research Scientist Dr Teo Chew Lee, sheds some light on why and how the knowledge building approach in schools can help do just that.
What Exactly is Knowledge Building?
Knowledge building pedagogy focuses on teaching for deep understanding and community knowledge work. It builds on the basis that students have the propensity to work on and improve authentic and creative ideas.
“We often imagine idea improvement as great breakthroughs by geniuses but in fact, idea improvement happens in a small incremental way and it is almost always a collective effort,” Chew Lee explains. “More importantly, research on knowledge building has shown that is is possible for young children of different abilities to advance knowledge when given the right support and environment. Everyone can be a knowledge builder.”
The term “knowledge building” was coined about three decades ago by Scardamalia and Bereiter at the University of Toronto. The concept centres largely on two main ideas: that learning is intentional and that it is done for the benefit of the community. This means that students who are engaged in knowledge building are conscious about their learning and they see purpose from doing it.
This approach to learning focuses on getting every child to be a contributor to the community. They may not start by being one who actively engages but as they immerse into a culture that values everyone’s ideas and the hard work taken to improve these ideas, be it in brainstorming, identifying problems, researching for solutions and evidence, and discussing with their classmates, they will slowly see themselves a changed learner. Such collaborative knowledge building brings about co-creation of new perspectives and advances current understanding of any one individual in the group.
“The heart of knowledge building practice lies in guiding students in developing their ideas in an authentic and careful manner, and representing them in writing, models or drawing. These ideas and questions are given a public life, in which students build on and watch them grow further. There is a whole constructive and productive conversation going on,” shares Chew Lee, who is also the founder of Knowledge Building Singapore, a knowledge building community for practitioners.
Distinction between Knowledge Building and Inquiry-Based Learning
The goal of inquiry-based learning is to engage learners in a systematic scientific process to proof or disproof something. The approach is often accompanied by a specific order of learning phases, most commonly: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate.
While the nature of knowledge building and inquiry-based learning might be similar in that it encourages learning through exploration, the latter tends to look at a more phased approach that follows a certain order. The knowledge building approach, on the other hand, is more flexible and organic; students lead the way forward in their learning, building on each other’s ideas through talks, questions, discussions and experimentations that adhere to no specific order. “One knowledge building teacher once shared that ‘even if there is an order, the order comes from my students’ ideas’,” Chew Lee shares.
A prime example of the difference between the two approaches lies in the science classroom. In one of the lessons, students explore and explain the concept of forces on Knowledge Forum, an ICT platform that facilitates knowledge building. Upon analysing the notes, the research team found not a single question from the students; instead, there were many pieces of information and explanation shared by students.
“For an inquiry-based science lesson to have no question, let alone authentic questions from the students, that is a big problem,” Chew Lee shares. “Yet I think many of us would agree that this ‘no-question, just explain’ phenomenon is not too uncommon in many classrooms today that still target at students producing the model answers.”
Chew Lee explains that another reason for such passive learning through inquiry-based learning is because “students tend to take the problem and experiment for the answer instead of questioning the issue and process.” The latter is what the knowledge building approach encourages.
While the broad processes between the two approaches may be similar, for knowledge building, it really is the why that leads to the experiments, the how of the experiments and the what after the experiments. “These are the kinds of knowledge building moments and talks that set the knowledge building approach apart from inquiry-based learning,” Chew Lee adds.
Knowledge Building Discourse as a Habit of Mind
“So knowledge building is very much how the teachers perceive students, their ideas and how they rally the class to find out more. It is about tuning in to your students’ questions and ideas, and creating the space for them to engage and grow their ideas.”
– Chew Lee explains the definition of knowledge building
Knowledge building discourse focuses on idea improvement that can be achieved through the community’s or in this case, students’ collective efforts, more than on arriving at the “right answer”. Research has also shown that a key to great classroom discussion involves students taking on diverse perspectives and different contributing roles.
Knowledge building discourse is made up of dialogue moves such as: theorizing, elaborating, synthesizing, making analogies, reflecting, proposing ways to test ideas, identifying promising ideas, questioning, searching for a better way, etc. These forms of discourse represent essential moves in knowledge work, and when engaged frequently, shape habits of mind.
As such, beyond just receiving formal training sessions, Chew Lee also adds that a successful knowledge building lesson lies greatly on the teacher’s perceptions towards teaching and learning.
Citing an example, Chew Lee shares about a young child during a science lesson. The child told the teacher that the moon is made out of cheese. Most teachers would likely tell the child that he or she is wrong or ignore the comment and continue with the lesson. However, the child’s knowledge building teacher, upon sensing his seriousness of the idea, engaged him further. The teacher then discovered how children literature tends to depict moon in yellow and cheese-like visuals. The conversation between the child and the teacher was a knowledge building moment for the class.
“So knowledge building is very much how the teachers perceive students, their ideas and how they rally the class to find out more. It is about tuning in to your students’ questions and ideas, and creating the space for them to engage and grow their ideas,” Chew Lee explains. “Some teachers also start conversations with students with newspaper clippings, triggering a whole series of ideas and questions.”
“Our research found that teachers who knowledge build displayed a solid epistemic shift in the way they think about students’ learning. This is one thing that we found to be consistent across teachers engaging their students in knowledge building activities,” Chew Lee says.
The Nexus between Research and Practice in Knowledge Building
“We hope that bringing together education researchers and practitioners into this knowledge building endeavour will serve to strengthen the bridge between quality research and classroom teaching and learning.”
– Chew Lee, on her future hopes for knowledge building
After years of research experience in the field of knowledge building, Chew Lee points out that the mindset and cultural shift does not happen overnight but when they eventually occur, the results often surpass the research team’s expectations.
“The challenge is in seeing our research in knowledge building influencing the classroom work on a day-to-day basis. The challenge also is in convincing teachers with the notion that our students and their ideas are very powerful despite their age and their level of academic ability,” she shares. “Again, this is related to the shift in mindset; that you see the potential in what students can do instead of the deficit in what they cannot do.”
Chew Lee hopes that the knowledge building community in Singapore will remain to be a strong foothold for practitioners who wish to learn more, explore deeper and contribute towards the knowledge of knowledge building theories, pedagogies and technology.
At the end of the day, for Chew Lee and her research team, knowledge building is really all about making use of ideas and more importantly, realizing the value of hard work to improve those ideas. “The knowledge building community in Singapore is not of a grand scale but despite that, the amount of support and motivation within it is very strong,” she shares. “We hope that bringing together education researchers and practitioners into this knowledge building endeavour will serve to strengthen the bridge between quality research and classroom teaching and learning.”