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Caswell, B., & Bielaczyc, K. (2002). Knowledge Forum: altering the relationship between students and scientific knowledge. Education, Communication & Information, 1(3), 281–305. doi:10.1080/146363102753535240


ABSTRACT This paper explores the use of Knowledge Forum, a networked computer program designed to support knowledge building communication and to foster thinking and learning skills. The paper focuses on a Grade 5/6 classroom and looks at how students view scientiŽc knowledge and what it means to learn science. A shift in pedagogy, along with the learning opportunities afforded by the communal database, impacted the learning environment and created changes in the structure of the learning activities, the ‘rules of the game’ of science and the sequencing of the curriculum. Specifically, the paper examines the knowledge transforming discourse that occurred both on and off the database as children worked to understand the evolution of the Komodo Dragon during an investigation of islands and island biogeography. (p. 3)

As Scardamalia & Bereiter (1989) point out: In the learned professions growth in knowledge is a requirement. Participants see themselves as contributors to knowledge, and as such they must continually monitor information for how it can advance their understanding and how they, in turn, can contribute to its advancement. The major challenge of schooling according to this view is to get students involved in the active pursuit of understanding and to see themselves as contributors to knowledge. (p. 10) (p. 4)

We examine the ways in which the discourse of the classroom is supported through the use of Knowledge Forum, a computer-supported collaborative learning environment. (p. 4)

David Cohen (1988) warns that the view of science knowledge as a fixed entity, as ‘factual, objective, and independent of human distortion’ is part of our scholastic inheritance. (p. 4)

Shifting Pedagogy (p. 5)

Caswell’s idea of teaching science was to provide a number of attention-grabbing experiments and have students fill in worksheets in order to explain the phenomenon they had just witnessed. Science time also meant activity centers, where students moved from station to station (usually as quickly as they could), trying out expert-designed experiments, reading teacherselected resources, and filling in the checklist as each station was completed (p. 5)

Such ‘knowledge transforming discourse’ (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993) is central to knowledge building, and can be found in the interactions both offl ine and online in Knowledge Forum in the classroom we examine. (p. 5)

Knowledge Forum as a Catalyst for Change (p. 6)

One aspect of Knowledge Forum critical to the shift in pedagogy is that it involves much more than software. It is a philosophy. The environment involves a new model of learning (Bereiter, in press) that Scardamalia & Bereiter (1996a, b, 1999) call ‘Knowledge-Building Communities.’ (p. 6)

Over the past several years, Caswell’s pedagogy has been evolving. This change can be characterized as a shift from activity centers to students forming research groups according to common interests; from teacher-designed experiments to student-designed experiments; from the gathering of resources by teacher only to collection by both teacher and students. The focus of classroom work and discussion revolves around trying to gain a deep understanding of a unit of study. Students work collaboratively and independently to gain understanding of materials, and to improve ideas. Their dialogue ranges from face-to-face whole group discussions, to small group research team meetings, to refl ective discourse within the database. The teacher’s goal is to create a classroom environment where genuine productive work can take place and where students are immersed in a culture of inquiry. (p. 6)

A Shift in the Learning Environment Created in the Classroom (p. 7)

The classroom investigations discussed in this article were carried out in a Grade 5/6 classroom during the fall term (1999) at the Institute of Child Study, a laboratory school affiliated with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. The daily participants included 22 students (9–11 years of age), a classroom teacher (Caswell), and a graduate student teacher candidate (Randall). Consultants included a teacher-researcher (Reeve) and a university researcher (Lamon). (p. 7)

· Benchmark Lessons. A benchmark lesson is a teacher-led whole class activity designed to instigate conceptual change in students (diSessa & Minstrell, 1995). (p. 8)

She also found that many of the participant structures for Fostering Communities of Learners (FCL), a classroom innovation focused on developing a community of inquiry (Brown & Campione, 1994, 1996), could be integrated with knowledge building pedagogy and the use of Knowledge Forum. (p. 8)

· Crosstalk. A ‘crosstalk’ (Brown & Campione, 1996) is a democratic, whole class discussion where students present their emerging research ideas. (p. 9)

What is amazing is that when, from the beginning of the school year, it is emphasized that everyone has ideas and ideas can always be improved, and science is a matter of discussing, testing and reworking these ideas, there is a kind of relief in the faces of the children. (p. 9)

· Reciprocal Teaching Sessions. Reciprocal teaching is a reading comprehension technique developed by Brown & Palinscar (1989) that involves groups of students reading a particular resource, then questioning, summarizing and opportunistically clarifying and predicting. (p. 9)

Next, the computer software is introduced (p. 10)

Quite simply, students sit on the carpet in a circle during that first science period and the teacher begins by saying that doing good science is all about working with ideas (p. 10)

Determining the Curriculum Sequence: the progressive curriculum (p. 11)

Effects on Student Learning and Discourse: students’ use of Knowledge Forum for knowledge transforming discourse (p. 14)

Student inquiry around the evolution of the Komodo dragon actually moved the curriculum forward. In a knowledge-building classroom, ideally, the teacher carefully times and shapes interventions to respond to student interest while incorporating issues that the teacher knows are important to the subject matter and inquiry process. (p. 18)

Dimensions of Understanding (p. 20)

They began to gather resources and to revisit the database in order to use information they had learned about species to put together a letter to the Environment Minister, pointing out reasons to reconsider the proposed Species at Risk Act. In our thinking, these Grade 5/6 students represent the kind of people Gardner craves: ‘human beings who understand the world, who gain sustenance from such understanding and who want—ardently, perennially—to alter it for the better’ (1999). (p. 21)

What the teacher witnesses in these settings is the multilayered learning that students are experiencing. On one level, you can see the content area being covered and students learning quite rapidly. On another level, you know that they are becoming prepared for a thinking life, the philosophical level which children are so natural at. At a third level, they are developing metacognitive skills which enable them to articulate thought processes and to highlight their needs as learners. (p. 21)

ideas about the nature of science (p. 21)

the technical level of learning; everything about the use of the computer: graphics, keyboarding skills, etc. (p. 22)

Over the course of the Komodo dragon discussion, students experienced first hand that scientific knowledge is not a fixed entity—their current state of knowledge is debated, theories are put forward, arguments are made and countered, etc. Through the discourse, their knowledge is critically examined and refined. These students are problematising not only science concepts, but the enterprise of science itself—they are focusing deeply on science-making. (p. 24)

Contributors to Knowledge (p. 24)

Collective Approach to Knowledge Building Students also experience a sense of the power in working collectively to advance ‘our’ understanding. No one student (or the teacher or other individual) is responsible for the understanding that developed about the evolution of the Komodo dragon. Different students contributed to the progress that was made. (p. 24)

Students also come to see that their ideas are worth something, that they have views to contribute to the evolving overall understanding. (p. 24)

Learning science is no longer about learning the scientific facts that one is given, but rather, a new view of knowledge work begins to take root: science learning is about trying to resolve complex issues. (p. 24)

Scientific Theory-making and Debate (p. 24)

What is noticeable for visitors to Caswell’s classroom is the students’ ability to articulate the ideas they are working with and what they find surprising or puzzling. (p. 25)

Underlying the importance of ideas as ‘improvable’ is the culture of the classroom that respects at all times the right of a person to state an idea and (p. 25)

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