Rethinking Education at the 9th Ontario Education Research Symposium

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Over the past two days I’ve had the privilege of attending the 2014 Ontario Education Research Symposium; an event whose purpose was to bring practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers into conversation about some of the system-wide challenges facing Ontario’s schools.  With its emphasis on evidence-based applied research, the symposium enabled participants to transcend institutional silos and engage in knowledge exchange with a variety of relevant, multi-disciplinary educational stakeholders.

Don Tapscott delivered the closing keynote on Day 1 of the symposium.  I was honoured and delighted when he invited me to share the stage with him to speak about some of the research work that I’m involved with related to collaborative learning and technology.  Below are my presentation notes describing two similar-but-different models of pedagogy: “Knowledge Building” and “Knowledge Community and Inquiry.”


Hello, everyone!  I am currently an occasional teacher with the TDSB at the secondary level, and I also belong to a couple of different research labs at OISE that focus on computer-supported collaborative learning.

The first research lab is called the Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology (IKIT), headed by Dr. Marlene Scardamalia. As some of you might be aware, there is currently a partnership underway between IKIT and the Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat that aims to introduce a pedagogical approach called “Knowledge Building” into some of Ontario’s classrooms.  In essence, Knowledge Building considers classroom activities as part of the societal effort to advance knowledge frontiers, and is based on the notion that ‘all ideas are improvable.’  In a knowledge building classroom, students share collective responsibility for knowledge advancement and are honoured more for the contributions they make to towards advancing the state of knowledge within the community than for the knowledge that they keep within their own heads.

Knowledge Building pedagogy is supported by an online environment called “Knowledge Forum,” where students contribute their ideas, questions, facts, designs, and multimedia resources in the form of notes.  Unlike threaded discussion boards, where posts are fixed in a chronological or downward-branching tree structure, notes within Knowledge Forum can be moved around, clustered, built-upon, linked to other notes, and used to create higher-order “rise above” ideas.  Also, a set of theory-building scaffolds are embedded into students’ notes, underpinning important epistemological processes that help students frame their thinking and writing. Examples of scaffolds include “My theory is,”  “I need to understand,” “This theory does not explain,” and “Important information + Source.”  Giving pragmatic support to the idea that the same process underlies both school learning and high-level knowledge creation, the same version of Knowledge Forum has been used without modification at levels ranging from kindergarten to graduate school and professional work.

So what does Knowledge Building look like in an actual classroom?  Knowledge Building typically begins with the observation of some phenomenon.  In one example, a class of Grade 1 students observed that when a glass of water was placed on a windowsill overnight, the water had disappeared the following morning.  Students are then asked to provide their own interpretations for what they saw and to theorize possible explanations, drawing upon information from outside sources, including the Internet, books, videos, or personal experiences.  Their explanations, theories, and questions are posted to Knowledge Forum where they can be read and built upon by other classmates.  For example, the observation of the “disappearing water” by the Grade 1 students prompted the following student-mediated discussion on Knowledge Forum [excerpt]:

“The water went up into the sky and turned invisible.”
“How does the water get pulled up?”
“I don’t know if the water goes up, maybe it goes down.”
“The Sun has gravity so it can pull the water up.”
“I think the Sun warmed it up and it turned into steam.”
“I don’t think the water only goes up because otherwise there would be no water left on Earth and we would have nothing to drink.”
“It turns into an invisible gas called water vapor. I read that in a book.”
“How did the water get out of the classroom?”
“The steam is so small that it can escape through small cracks.”
“I saw in a picture in a book that the molecules are far apart.”
“But the water in your bathtub is hot and it doesn’t get pulled away.”
“It evaporates and goes up into the air, but when it gets cold it turns back to water.” “That’s why the bathroom mirror gets foggy.”
“I think the water goes up into the air and then when the cloud gets too heavy it rains.”
“It goes up into the clouds and then comes down as rain and snow, and then it goes into the ground as groundwater. Did you know that there are lakes underground?”

The role of the teacher throughout this process is to facilitate participation by all learners, and to help consolidate student’s ideas at the end of the discussion. Whereas traditional “broadcast” methods of instruction typically provide students with content that is either at or below their grade level in difficulty, students using the Knowledge Building approach frequently seek out material that is well above their grade level in difficulty, thereby expanding their vocabulary and comprehension skills beyond what would normally be developed.

The second research lab in which I am involved is called the Encore Lab, headed by Dr. Jim Slotta.  Recognizing that current school structures, curriculum requirements, and evaluation policies can make knowledge community approaches difficult to implement – particularly at the secondary level, and particularly in content-heavy subjects such as science – Slotta developed a pedagogical model called “Knowledge Community and Inquiry” (KCI) to blend the core philosophies of the Knowledge Building approach with some of the structural and scripted affordances of scaffolded inquiry.  With KCI, students work collectively as a knowledge community to co-construct a knowledge base that serves as a resource for their ongoing inquiry.  These collaborative inquiry activities are designed to address targeted science learning expectations, including assessable outcomes.

KCI curricula have been accompanied by a custom suite of technologies that have been specifically designed to support the exchange of ideas and interactions within a community of knowledge.  Traditionally, when new technologies are introduced into educational contexts, they have the tendency to be used as glorified content delivery systems.  I often use the McLuhan-ism that we tend to approach new media through the lens of the past technologies, which is why for instance the lecture has moved online and the tablet is still used primarily as a digital book.  Such incremental shifts are great for supporting differentiated instruction, but they are a far cry from the systematic ‘reinvention’ of education that may be essential for bringing our students into the age of networked intelligence.

One of the greatest constraints to bringing collaborative learning approaches into the classroom is the cognitive load it places on the teacher.  Lecture is easy.  As soon as inclusion of technology involves greater setup or management of students, it becomes difficult to implement.

One of the ideas that first piqued my interest upon joining the Encore Lab was the idea that technology in the classroom doesn’t have to be about content delivery at all, but it can be used as a tool for orchestrating the flow of information, student interactions, and discourse patterns within the physical space of the room.  This can free up the teacher to play a more meaningful role in providing support amongst students and groups.

Recently, KCI research has advanced the notion of a Smart Classroom infrastructure called “S3,” which is an open-source platform that pairs a variety of hardware devices with intelligent agent software to facilitate the execution of activity sequences within the space of a physical classroom.  To date, the S3 framework has been used within actual schools to support a variety of curriculum designs, including secondary Physics, Biology, Climate Change, as well as elementary Ecology and Astronomy.

After hearing about KCI and Smart Classrooms, two of the most common responses are: “How much does all this cost?” and “Sounds great! When can I start?”

The actual hardware that runs the Smart Classroom is not overly prohibitive in terms of cost (many Ontario schools already have projectors and Smart boards – some even have tablets that they don’t know what to do with).  And as we better understand how these kinds of devices can help support transformational approaches to learning, the costs of adopting these technologies is dropping as well.  However, as a major caveat, we have to be careful not to be wedded to any one particular technology or we’ll end up a) forcing the learning to fit the technology rather than looking at how the technology supports the learning we want (pen and paper are still killer technologies!), and b) in 10 years the technologies available might be very different and we need to be able to adapt to that.

However, the biggest investment with KCI/S3 so far has been the amount of human capital that has gone into each curriculum design.  We use a co-design team of teachers, researchers, designers, developers, and subject-area specialists who all work together to create, evaluate, and iterate these designs for each unique school context.  In other words, these curriculum designs and the technology environments that support them are not something that are ready to be packaged up and distributed on a massive scale at this point.

Secondly, I should emphasize that as learning scientists we are still trying to understand the types of interactions that are possible with these new mediums, as well as the types of learning that can result from these interactions.  If we ask whether students are learning more/less/better/worse in this type of environment, we also have to consider what we are currently using to measure learning – and whether these types of individual, content-based tests are appropriate indicators of the types of knowledge exchange that occurs in this type of collaborative, knowledge-community context.  The dynamic between “we know” (as a knowledge community) versus “I understand” (as individual learners) is something that I hope to pursue in my future PhD.