Knowledge Building: Why?

For the past three years I have been part of a project on knowledge building – an emerging approach to learning in a 21st century context. I don’t often use that term, but the reality is there are complex problems modern society faces, and children coming through the education system need to be able to face these working together, rather than entirely as individuals.

Professor Wing Lai (Otago University) puts it perfectly when he says

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“In the 21st century we are facing numerous unprecedented social, political, economic, health and environmental challenges. To produce innovative and creative solutions to these so called “wicked problems” we need to increase and democratise the knowledge creating capacity of our society (Rieckmann, 2012). In Education, there is an urgent need to design pedagogical practices, and create new learning opportunities to develop young people’s innovative capacity (Lai, 2014a). Instead of focusing on reproducing knowledge, teachers should be supported to shift their pedagogical beliefs and practices to support students to “actively interact with [knowledge]: to understand, critique, manipulate, create, and transform it” (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2008, p.39). Indeed, a vision of the revised New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) is to support students to become “competent thinkers and problem solvers, [who] actively seek, use, and create knowledge” (p.12). According to Bolstad and Gilbert (2008) however, there is a pronounced lack of understanding of how teachers can effectively support students to build competency in knowledge creation, as well as how teachers can develop a knowledge creation culture in the classroom.”


What is Knowledge Building: My Interpretation

For me knowledge building is about students working as a research team to explore and build new knowledge. It is entirely exploratory and inquiry based, with students posing questions and theories, researching, then sharing and building ideas, digging further, coming back and improving those ideas, and so on. It is very open-ended and while focusing students on a problem, allows them room to explore all sorts of  areas related to that problem. What it isn’t, is just posing questions and sharing knowledge. This the mistake I made early on, although to be fair, all knowledge building will have some element of knowledge sharing. In my first year the knowledge sharing was too much of a focus, and I failed to really grasp the actual knowledge building. The key is to get students to actively engage with ideas other members of the community pose and to look to continually improve them. That is not easy for students to get their head around. They might have come across sharing ideas as part of a group before, but to actively improve an idea posed by someone else is something else entirely. Unfortunately it is a skill that is alien to many of them.

As an example, in a historical context, I might pose the question “Why did the Nazis adopt the final solution?” Someone else might come up with a theory initially and then as students research they might look to improve on that theory based on what they have discovered. As the students continue to dig deeper the initial idea may be continually redeveloped and related ideas may have also emerged. Eventually you should get a web of continually re-developed ideas, all focused on that original question. As a result you start to build up a communal understanding, rather than merely an individual one. Although at an individual level students will have gained far more than they would have if exploring on their own.

Clear as mud?

What should be clear is that a community of learners will build far greater capacity working on a focused area of inquiry together, rather than alone.

Although all this could be done various ways in a classroom setting, you ideally want it visible. To facilitate this an online platform called “Knowledge Forum” has been developed that is specifically designed to support knowledge building.

More on that at a later date.