Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (2003). Knowledge building. Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 1371-3) Farmington Hills, MI: Gale
Three approaches to learning:
1: Acquisition Metaphor
One approach emphasizes foundational knowledge: First master what is already known.
In practice this means that knowledge creation does not enter the picture until graduate
school or adult work, by which time the vast majority of people are unprepared for the
A second approach focuses on subskills. Master component skills such as critical
thinking, scientific method, and collaboration; later, assemble these into competent
original research, design, and so forth.
2. Participation Metaphor
A third approach is associated with such labels as "learning communities," "project-based
learning," and "guided discovery." Knowledge is socially constructed, and best supported
through collaborations designed so that participants share knowledge and tackle projects
that incorporate features of adult teamwork, real-world content, and use of varied
information sources. This is the most widely supported approach at present, especially
with regard to the use of information technology. The main drawback is that it too easily
declines toward what is discussed below as shallow constructivism.
Knowledge building as defined by Scardamalia & Bereiter
Knowledge building results in
the creation or modification of public knowledge knowledge that lives "in the world" and
is available to be worked on and used by other people.
That goal is to advance the
frontiers of knowledge as they perceive them.
The key distinction
is between learning - the process through which the rapidly growing cultural capital of a
society is distributed - and knowledge building - the deliberate effort to increase the
cultural capital of society.
Shallow versus Deep Constructivism
"Constructivism" is a term whose vagueness obscures important distinctions. Knowledge
building is clearly a constructive process, but most of what goes on in the name of
constructivism is not knowledge building. To clarify, it is helpful to distinguish between
shallow and deep forms of constructivism. The shallowest forms engage students in tasks
and activities in which ideas have no overt presence but are entirely implicit. Students
describe the activities they are engaged in (e.g., planting seeds, measuring shadows) and
show little awareness of the underlying principles these tasks are to convey.
deepest forms of constructivism, people are advancing the frontiers of knowledge in their
Most learner-centered, inquiry-based, learning community, and other approaches labeled
"constructivist" are distributed somewhere between these extremes of shallow and deep
In knowledge building, ideas are treated as real things, as objects of inquiry and
improvement in their own right. Knowledge building environments enable ideas to get
out into the world and onto a path of continual improvement.
Educational approaches of all kinds are subject to what is called the "Matthew effect":
The rich get richer. The more you know the more you can learn. This is as close to a law
of nature as learning research has come. It can be used to justify loading the elementary
curriculum with large quantities of content.
However, another potent principle is that
knowledge needs to be of value to people in their current lives, not merely banked against
future needs. This is part of the justification for activity and project-based methods where
work is driven by students' own interests.
In knowledge building this Deweyean principle
is carried a step farther: Advances in understanding produce conceptual tools to achieve
further advances in understanding. Thus there is a dynamism to knowledge building that
can be a powerful motivator.
building trajectory offers value all along its course, not just at its upper reaches. At all
stages people are building authentic knowledge that is immediately useful to themselves
and their community in making sense of their world.
1. What are some examples of knowledge building activities for math, science, and history?
2. What would teachers need to know to teach this way?
3. What kinds of curriculum materials support this form of learning?