Citekey: @scardamalia1994

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer Support for Knowledge-Building Communities. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265–283. doi:10.1207/s15327809jls0303_3


It has seemed to us that a promising approach to school restructuring would start by examining how schools (including the high-achieving ones) limit knowledge-building potential. By addressing fundamental shortcom- ings, we may find it possible to do more than struggle to catch up.

Although schools are devoted to teaching useful cognitive skills and formal knowledge, they are not designed to foster the progressive problem solving that generates the vast informal knowledge that has been found to characterize expert competence.

::Knowledge-building discourse is at the heart of the superior education that we have in mind. We argue that the classroom needs to foster transformational thought, on the part of both students and teachers, and that the best way to do this is to replace classroom-bred discourse patterns with those having more immediate and natural extensions to the real world, patterns whereby ideas are conceived, responded to, reframed, and set in historical context.::

Competitive sports and businesses are examples of second-order environments, in which the accomplishments of participants keep raising the standard that the others strive for. ::More relevant examples in education are the sciences and other learned disciplines in which adaptation involves making contributions to collective knowledge. Because this very activity increases the collective knowledge, continued adaptation requires contributions beyond what is al ready known, thus producing nonasymptotic learning.:: The idea of schools as knowledge-building communities is the idea of making them into second order environments on this model.

Suffice it to say that any hope for technology to have a role in restructuring education must take the form of searching for a third way something that is neither didactic, activity-centered, nor a mere compromise between the two (which is what already exists in most schools). In searching for a third viable form of schooling, educational thinkers have looked outside the school for models; thus, traditional apprenticeship has been examined as a possible model, one that provides for a natural but highly goal-oriented kind of learning (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989).

As we suggested, by focusing on the individual student’s abilities and dispo- sitions, educators have failed to grasp the social structures and dynamics that are required for progressive knowledge building of the kind Whitehead referred to. In effect, they have remained fixed on a pre-19th century model of science, dependent on “the occasional genius, or the occasional lucky thought.”

::More significant implications follow if the question is reformulated at the level of the group rather than the individual: Can a classroom function as a knowledge-building community, similar to the knowledge-building commu- nities that set the pace for their fields?::

A further implication is that creating new knowledge and learning existing knowledge are not very different as far as psychological processes are concerned. There is no patent reason that schooling cannot have the dynamic character of scientific knowledge building. If there are insurmountable obstacles, they are more likely to be of a social or attitudinal than of a cognitive kind.

The idea of knowledge as a product, enjoying an existence independent of individual knowers, presents epistemological difficulties that educators are not accustomed to contending with.

::Restructuring schools as knowledge-building communities means, to our minds, getting the community’s efforts directed toward social processes aimed at improving these objects, with technology providing a particularly facilitative infra- structure.::

::Our focusing on journal publication may seem like a case of mistaking the wrapper for the candy bar.:: What about research? What about curiosity? We do not mean to slight either of these. Surely, scholarly disciplines would not exist without them. However, these have received ample consideration in previous thinking about school learning. Neglected until recently have been (a) the role of discourse and (b) the role of motives other than purely epistemic ones. Decades ago, Popper (1962) recognized argument and criti- cism as the driving forces in the advancement of scientific knowledge, with research having its impact through these discourse processes. Only in the last few years has talking science (Lemke, 1990) begun to be recognized as a necessary adjunct to hands-on investigation in school science. The use of inquiry methods in schools has been based on a frequently disappointed confidence in the power of children’s natural curiosity. ::The study of schol- arly discourse, as embodied in the journal process, shows us how a wide range of human motives (including curiosity, of course) is marshaled in the actual progress of knowledge construction in the disciplines.::

How does one characterize knowledge-building discourse and then recreate classroom activity to support it? We could imitate at the surface level-for instance, by having classes produce scholarly journals with peer review. In fact, the CSILE implementation we describe later has provisions for doing that, but it is not likely that imitation of surface forms can produce the radical restructuring necessary to turn schools into real knowledge-building communities.

::We have roughly divided characteristics for knowledge-building discourse into three categories: (a) focus on problems and depth of understanding; (b) decentralized, open knowledge environments for collective understanding; and ( c) productive interaction within broadly conceived knowledge-building communities.::

::The challenge we see for educational technology is to preserve a central role for the students themselves::, lest they be reduced to passivity by the overwhelm- ing amounts of authoritative external information available. The surest way to keep the students in the central role, it would seem, is to ensure that contacts with outside sources grow out of the local knowledge-building discourse and that the obtained information is brought back into that dis- course in ways consistent with the goals and plans of the local group.

::At this point, it is fanciful (but nonetheless exciting) to contemplate advantages of having communal structures that span the whole of the school years and that also profitably engage those in research institutes and other knowledge-creation enterprises.::

::CSILE as an enabling technology for knowledge-building discourse::


  • A Community Database at the Center of Classroom Discourse
  • Focus on Problems and Depth of Understanding
  • Decentralized, Open Knowledge Building, With a Focus on Collective Knowledge
    • Reversing the teacher initiates, student responds, teacher evaluates pattern for oral and written discourse.
    • Maximizing the interplay and value of different communication modes.
    • Diverse arrangements for supporting small-group interchanges
    • Increased and diversified response to ideas

Two examples

Evaluations of CSILE to date indicate that CSILE students greatly surpass students in ordinary classrooms on measures of depth of learning and reflec- tion, awareness of what they have learned or need to learn, and understand- ing of learning itself. Moreover, individual achievement, as conventionally measured, does not suffer. In fact, students do better on standardized tests in reading, language, and vocabulary (Scardamalia et al., 1992). What most impresses teachers and observers alike, however, is what the students are able to do collectively. As the preceding examples suggest, they seem to be functioning beyond their years, tackling problems and constructing knowl- edge at levels that one simply does not find in ordinary schools, regardless of the calibre of students they enroll.

We do not want to suggest that the technology by itself can bring about the transformation of a school into a knowledge-building community. We already have evidence that teacher strategies can make a major difference in the extent to which students engage in collaborative knowledge building (Bereiter & Scardamalia, in press). Neither do we want to claim that a knowledge-building community, meeting the specifications set out pre- viously, has actually been realized.

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