MET:Knowledge-Building Communities

From UBC Wiki

This page originally authored by Erin Gillespie (2008)

Introduction to Knowledge Building

Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter, the founders of knowledge-building.

According to Scardamalia & Bereiter (2003), knowledge-building is the activity of producing and continually improving ideas, through discussions and shared goals, that are valued by a community. Individuals contribute to and advance the understanding of all community members.

What is a Knowledge-Building Community?

Scardamalia & Bereiter (1994) consider a knowledge-building community a place where individuals are engaged in introducing, discussing and testing knowledge and where their "main job" is the collaborative production and improvement of knowledge. The community is focused on and develops through social processes and discourse, which improve knowledge and ideas.

How Can My Students Become Members of a Knowledge-Building Community?

According to Scardamalia and Bereiter (2006) there are six key points to community membership for your students:

1. Knowledge advancement as a community rather than individual achievement

Students’ knowledge involves what is happening in the classroom community and it is situated in greater society. The contributions students make to the classroom are highly regarded by the community and valued as tools to enable growth.

2. Knowledge advancement as idea improvement rather than as progress toward true or warranted belief

Idea improvement is explicit and acts to guide learners and teachers. Creating ideas is natural, but consistently improving on them is necessary for advancement. In your class, students can study ideas (threads) which were conceived by a previous group of students, and improve on them, even if the original ideas are several years old. Improvement of ideas will give students a chance to learn about their own learning: epistemology.

3. Knowledge of in contrast to Knowledge about

Knowledge about something refers to what something is. Knowledge about is traditionally taught in school systems: the curriculum, texts, essays and science fair projects.

Knowledge of something refers to how to do something, and it is neglected in traditional curriculums (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006). Knowledge of something refers to what can be shown and inferred. To support knowledge of in the classroom, organize learning activities around problems instead of topics (Bereiter, 1992).

Consider inventions: there is a problem, but not a defined topic. Students are motivated to find, create or invent a solution. The solution may be a material product or a theory, and it requires knowledge of.

4. Discourse as collaborative problem solving rather than as argumentation

Knowledge-building is not possible on an individual level, thus, knowledge-building discourse must occur in the community. Knowledge-building discourse is a process of constantly improving on ideas to solve problems.

In your class, a traditional debate, where students are assigned to pro or con sides, would not produce knowledge-building discourse. Instead, present students with a problem and have them extrapolate on it. The discourse would be constructive, and students would learn from the contributions of classmates. They would understand the views of other classmates, and expand on ideas. Through expansion and discussion, new problems would arise, which would strengthen the knowledge-building process. Students would not be presented with “pro” and “con” issues predetermined by the teacher, but would instead construct their own knowledge surrounding the problem through their own scholarly discourse.

5. Constructive use of authoritative information

Information that contributes to knowledge-building discourse is valuable. Students do not have to accept information because they are told it is correct and should not accept information because “my teacher said so”. Instead, they should accept information that supports knowledge-building discourse.

Knowledge-building is concerned with the quality of information, but quality is a flexible construct and may vary according to the problem at hand. Determining the quality of information is also a key part of knowledge-building, as a discussion of the quality will lead to an improvement of the idea.

6. Understanding as an emergent

Ideas are real and they interact with other ideas. Interaction creates more elaborate ideas. Interaction also improves understanding. Students learn to organize their ideas, to let ideas interact, and understanding in a knowledge-building community emerges.

Knowledge-Building Discourse and the Educator

Knowledge-building discourse is a constructive process, between individuals in the community, not simply statements made by "the teacher". Focus on the progressive and constant improvement of ideas, not on "one" perfect answer or idea. This is more than sharing knowledge, it is advancing knowledge. Knowledge-building discourse has three key distinguishing edicts according to Scardamalia and Bereiter (2006):

  • Discussion breeds progress: Students are doing more than just sharing information and opinions; they are improving ideas and postulating new directions for old ideas.
  • Common understanding over agreement: Students must strive to see problems from many different perspectives. Students must go beyond simple arguments where there are clear pros and cons or simple black and white issues.
  • Expansion of accepted facts: Students should be discouraged from blindly accepting facts and truths.Encourage students to question and critique ideas.

Remember: knowledge is a construction of the community, not a state constructed only within the individual. Discourse is a key component in the construction process.

Examples and Links

Any subject can be represented in a knowledge-building community! Explore the examples and links to further your understanding.

The Center for Collaborative Action Research, an educational community.

CReating Ubiquitous Intelligent Sensing Environments: CRUISE, a community promoting research in sensor networking.

Fle3 Learning Environment knowledge-building discourse freeware developed by UIAH Media Lab, University of Art and Design Helsinki.

Knowledge Forum®, knowledge-building discourse software. Also, see KnowledgeForum.

Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology

Knowledge-building information on Wikipedia or visit Knowledge Building.


Bereiter, C. (1992). Referent-centered and problem-centered knowledge: Elements of an educational epistemology. Interchange, 23(4), 337-361. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. In R.K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 97-118). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved February 10, 2008, from

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2003). Knowledge building. In J. W. Guthrie (Ed.), Encyclopedia of education (pp. 1370-1373). (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3). 265-283. Retrieved January 25, 2008 from EBSCO HOST Research Databases.