MET:Knowledge Building

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Knowledge Building is a constructivist learning theory developed by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Defined by Scardamalia and Bereiter as “the production and continual improvement of ideas of value to a community, through means that increase the likelihood that what the community accomplishes will be greater than the sum of individual contributions and part of broader cultural efforts" (2003), Knowledge Building strives to increase the cultural wealth of a society through the intentional development of ideas.

Knowledge Building and Learning: A Distinction

In his book Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age (2002), Carl Bereiter distinguishes between knowledge building and learning by outlining the characteristics of each. While Bereiter recognizes the importance of both in an educational setting, he is careful to point out that while knowledge building always involves some sort of learning, learning does not always constitute a building of knowledge. According to Bereiter, learning is an internal, personal, and individual process that results in a change in attitude, skills or beliefs. In contrast, knowledge building is “the deliberate effort to increase the cultural capital of society” (2003). By keeping ideas as the central focus, knowledge building advances the frontiers of knowledge within that knowledge building community. What constitutes a frontier of knowledge can vary from community to community based upon their current level of understanding. For example, while knowledge about the changing of the seasons is not new to scientific communities, it may very well be a knowledge frontier for an elementary classroom acting as a Knowledge Building Community.

Collective Understandings

Based upon the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, knowledge building recognizes the importance of the social construction of knowledge and the co-creation of new perspectives beyond what the individual can create in isolation. The result is a compounding effect whereby the entire community builds knowledge over time. Knowledge building theory recognizes that sought after knowledge needs to be relevant and hold value in people’s lives. Using real-world content, knowledge building is a sustainable process that may be continued by other groups in the future.

Shallow vs. Deep Constructivism

While many learning initiatives purport to employ a constructivist model, it is important to note a distinction between different types of constructivist processes. In more shallow constructivist learning experiences, learners are engaged in tasks and activities but may have little to no awareness of the underlying principles of what they are exploring. In contrast, knowledge building keeps ideas as the central focus rather than tasks and activities. Students engaged in knowledge building identify problems, establish goals, gather information, theorize and design experiments and engage in careful evaluation of their progress as a knowledge building community. Scardamalia (2002) has identified 12 Principles of Knowledge Building (see below) which further illuminate this idea of deep constructivism.

Twelve Knowledge Building Principles

Scardamalia (2002) taken from IKIT Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology

Real Ideas, Authentic Problems Socio-cognitive dynamics: Knowledge problems arise from efforts to understand the world. Ideas produced or appropriated are as real as things touched and felt. Problems are ones that learners really care about- usually very different from textbook problems and puzzles.
Improvable Ideas Socio-cognitive dynamics: All ideas are treated as improvable. Participants work continuously to improve the quality, coherence, and utility of ideas. For such work to prosper, the culture must be one of psychological safety, so that people feel safe in taking risks- revealing ignorance, voicing half-baked notions, giving and receiving criticism.
Idea Diversity Socio-cognitive dynamics: Idea diversity is essential to the development of knowledge advancement, just as biodiversity is essential to the success of an ecosystem. To understand an idea is to understand the ideas that surround it, including those that stand in contrast to it. Idea diversity creates a rich environment for ideas to evolve into new and more refined forms.
Rise Above Socio-cognitive dynamics: Creative knowledge building entails working toward more inclusive principles and higher-level formulations of problems. It means learning to work with diversity, complexity and messiness, and out of that achieve new syntheses. By moving to higher planes of understanding knowledge builders transcend trivialities and oversimplifications and move beyond current best practices.
Epistemic Agency Socio-cognitive dynamics: Participants set forth their ideas and negotiate a fit between personal ideas and ideas of others, using contrasts to spark and sustain knowledge advancement rather than depending on others to chart that course for them. They deal with problems of goals, motivation, evaluation, and long-range planning that are normally left to teachers or managers.
Community Knowledge, Collective Responsibility Socio-cognitive dynamics: Contributions to shared, top-level goals of the organization are prized and rewarded as much as individual achievements. Team members produce ideas of value to others and share responsibility for the overall advancement of knowledge in the community.
Democratizing Knowledge Socio-cognitive dynamics: All participants are legitimate contributors to the shared goals of the community; all take pride in knowledge advances achieved by the group. The diversity and divisional differences represented in any organization do not lead to separations along knowledge have/have-not or innovator/non-innovator lines. All are empowered to engage in knowledge innovation.
Symmetric Knowledge Advancement Socio-cognitive dynamics: Expertise is distributed within and between communities. Symmetry in knowledge advancement results from knowledge exchange and from the fact that to give knowledge is to get knowledge.
Pervasive Knowledge Building Socio-cognitive dynamics: Knowledge building is not confined to particular occasions or subjects but pervades mental life in and out of school.
Constructive Uses of Authoritative Sources Socio-cognitive dynamics: To know a discipline is to be in touch with the present state and growing edge of knowledge in the field. This requires respect and understanding of authoritative sources, combined with a critical stance toward them.
Knowledge Building Discourse Socio-cognitive dynamics: The discourse of knowledge building communities results in more than the sharing of knowledge; the knowledge itself is refined and transformed through the discursive practices of the community practices that have the advancement of knowledge as their explicit goal.
Embedded and Transformative Assessment Socio-cognitive dynamics: Assessment is part of the effort to advance knowledge- it is used to identify problems as the work proceeds and is embedded in the day-to-day workings of the organization. The community engages in its own internal assessment, which is both more fine-tuned and rigorous than external assessment, and serves to ensure that the community's work will exceed the expectations of external assessors.

Social Implications of KB

With a belief that “the health and wealth of societies depends increasingly on their capacity to innovate”, Scardamalia and Bereiter (2003) recognize knowledge building as an essential process that needs to be pervasive throughout society. Not limited to formal educational settings, knowledge building needs to take place both in and out of schools by all members of the community. Furthermore, knowledge building has the power to connect communities both locally and globally to engage in the process collectively thereby increasing collective global understandings.

Scardamalia and Bereiter see knowledge building as means of achieving equity in education. Current educational models often engage younger students in more shallow forms of constructivist learning while reserving deeper engagement such as knowledge building for post-secondary levels of education. By starting the knowledge building process at an early age and following the same process throughout a lifetime, a community is able to truly see the benefits of such socially constructed knowledge.

Technology: CSILC and Knowledge Forum

In an effort to develop a computer-based learning environment designed to meet the needs of the knowledge building process, Scardamalia and Bereiter created the CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment), which has evolved to its current incarnation the Knowledge Forum. Differing from more traditional Learning Management Systems that utilize threaded discussion as a predominant method of discourse; the Knowledge Forum provides scaffolding tools where members can build upon the ideas of others, annotate existing views, distinguish between theory and opinion and provide references to other postings in the forum. It is worthy of note that the advent of wikis introduces an interesting new approach to the knowledge building process as communities of people are able to collectively build a common body of knowledge.

External Links


Bereiter, C. (2002). Education and mind in the knowledge age. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for the knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-288.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2003). Knowledge Building. Encyclopedia of Education. (2 ed., pp. 1370-1373). New York: Macmillan Reference, USA.

Scardamalia, M. (2002). Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge. In B. Smith (Ed.) Liberal Education in a Knowledge Society (pp. 67-98). Chicago: Open Court.

Scardamalia, M. (2001). Getting real about 21st century education. The Journal of Educational Change. 2, 171-176.