An overview of how one Grade 4 class studied science illustrates the principles of
knowledge building. In an Ontario knowledge-building classroom, students addressed
real-world problems that are both meaningful to them and related to the curriculum.
When the teacher introduced the subject of optics, one of the many topics on
the Ontario Curriculum of Science and Technology,11 he did not specify issues
for students to consider, or give them tasks and activities to complete. Students
themselves raised questions of importance to them, including how light travels,
sources of light, colours, lenses, mirrors and vision. They considered both factual
questions ("What are the primary colours?") and explanatory ones ("Why are the
colours of a rainbow always in the same order?").
Working collaboratively, often in small groups, students tracked down
information, assessed its validity, shared research, proposed theories to explain
results, identified gaps and errors in their understanding, and refined their ideas.
As they jointly tackled these problems, students became adept at thinking
critically, while also developing the diplomatic skills necessary for honest but fair
feedback about each other's ideas.
While most nine-year olds are primarily interested in factual knowledge, this
cohort of knowledge builders zeroed in on the more complex issues addressed by
explanatory questions. As the teacher explained, "We encourage a process of
inquiry and ask 'why, why,' and not to be content with a superficial understanding."
As the students worked, they discovered information that appeared to be
contradictory. For instance, when considering how light travels, the students
learned that it travelled in a straight line. This concept was shaken, however,
when one child talked to an uncle with a science background, who introduced him to the concept of light waves. When this knowledge was shared with the class, it triggered a debate: does light travel as a straight line or as a wave?
One student accurately suggested the two can be synthesized: "Putting our
knowledge together…light travels in a straight line but it is a wave. Light is
made up of the electromagnetic waves." This new insight then became the
subject of further discussion.
Knowledge building's emphasis on the twin principles of critical thinking and
rigorous evaluation of ideas is a potential antidote to a problem that has been
the subject of considerable research: the fact that students can hold serious
misconceptions about subjects they excel in at school and university.
Although Canadian workers have more education than ever before, numerous surveys of business leaders suggest that employers are dissatisfied with their employees' so-called "soft" skills, such as teamwork, problem-solving, communication skills, and self-motivation. Recent research suggests that a learning strategy called knowledge building can help students acquire and develop these skills.