Citekey: @bereiter2014knowledge

Bereiter C and Scardamalia M (2014). “Knowledge building and knowledge creation: One concept, two hills to climb.” In Knowledge Creation in Education, pp. 35-52. Springer.



Early in the 1990s, the term “knowledge creation” entered the organizational sciences literature, conveying the idea that companies can not only accumulate and use but literally create knowledge that enables them to progress (Nonaka 1991; Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995). At about the same time, the term “knowledge building” appeared in the learning sciences literature, representing the same idea (Scardamalia and Bereiter 1991; Scardamalia et al. 1994). (p. 35)

In later decades the selforganizing character of knowledge creation/knowledge building was to become better appreciated (Bereiter and Scardamalia 2013; Li and Kettinger 2006), but its recognition as purposeful action persists. (p. 35)

Children building up a cognitive structure that recognizes conservation of number under rearrangements of tokens do not know that is what they are doing and are not purposefully striving to achieve it. Knowledge creation/knowledge building is, in strong contrast, a type of deliberate, conscious action, which produces knowledge that has a public life. (p. 35)

As Lindkvist and Bengtsson (2009, Abstract) put it, “Once created, such knowledge is seen as having something of a life of its own, pregnant with possibilities for further development and use—to be explored collaboratively—in ways which are unimaginable and unfathomable.” (p. 36)

We suggest that in practice the problem space for knowledge building is larger and more complex than the problem space for knowledge creation. It contains a wider range of goal states. Whereas the scope of corporate knowledge creation tends to be limited by the nature of the organization’s business, educational knowledge building has the whole world of human knowledge as its intellectual workspace. (p. 36)

“Ideas are the easy part,” says creative design group Fahrenheit 212 (2009). This is as true in schools as it is in businesses. Knowledge building is very much concerned with “the hard part.” Idea improvement is a core knowledgebuilding principle. (p. 36)

Knowledge building as an educational approach is fundamentally an idea improvement challenge; it is students taking collective responsibility for improving their ideas rather than leaving this as a task for the teacher. (p. 36)

Distinctions That Matter (p. 37)

the semantic proximity of “knowledge building” to such more familiar terms as “constructivist learning” and “inquiry learning” made it difficult for many educators to see what was distinctive about this particular kind of constructivist and inquiry-oriented activity.1 (p. 37)

In Phillips’ (1995) multidimensional classification of constructivist viewpoints, one of the dimensions has “individual psychology” at one end and “public discipline” at the other. Knowledge building and knowledge creation, as we use the terms here, are far out on the “public discipline” end of this dimension. (p. 37)

It allows us to distinguish activities whose sole value is in what they do for the learner from activities that have some larger epistemic value such as advancing the state of knowledge in a community. (p. 37)

It cannot be assumed that knowledge creation/knowledge building is going on just because learning is taking place through constructivist activities such as inquiry and guided discovery. And it is equally a mistake to infer that because community knowledge is advancing, individual learning for all students is progressing with it. Individual learning needs to be verified independently of the work that brings it about. (p. 37)

Because many other educational approaches do not engage students in this manner, although they are similar to knowledge building in being “constructivist” and involving “inquiry,” the distinction between knowledge creation/knowledge building and learning is important for any in-depth description of contemporary approaches to education. (p. 38)

Paavola and Hakkarainen (2005) called knowledge creation a metaphor. In our view, there is nothing metaphorical about it (p. 38)

We believe knowledge-building research and development need to distinguish between what we have termed “belief mode”3 and “design mode” in work with ideas (Bereiter and Scardamalia 2003). (p. 38)

The distinction is blurred, however, in the writings of Nonaka and his collaborators. This is probably not so important for innovative work in organizations, where design mode clearly prevails. (p. 38)

The term “belief mode” is derived from the traditional definition of knowledge as “true and justified belief” and thus is very broad in scope. (p. 38)

Belief mode encompasses everything from dogmatic proclamation and indoctrination on one hand to the most reflective and skeptical thinking on the other hand. We have tried alternative terms including “proposition mode” and “argument mode,” which avoid some misconceptions but promote others; so we remain with “belief mode” as the technically most accurate term. (p. 38)

classroom work with ideas, whether employing traditional didactic or modern inquiry methods, is almost exclusively carried out in belief mode, as it has been for millennia. (p. 39)

Furthermore, education must give serious thought to issues of epistemic agency, to the gradual transfer to students of the kinds of epistemic responsibilities traditionally reserved for the teacher (p. 39)

The “Design Thinking” Mindset (p. 39)

“design thinking” (Martin 2009) (p. 39)

Many others, however, treat it as a mindset, a way of thinking that becomes habitual and not something to be turned on only for certain purposes. This way of regarding design thinking is especially appropriate for knowledge building in schools. Instead of “doing” knowledge building in selected subjects at selected times, students should always be alert to the possibility of better ideas, better explanations, better ways of doing things, never quite satisfied with final answers, always looking for opportunities to design and redesign and to act on the basis of well-constructed ideas and understandings. (p. 39)

It could be the most important thing they get out of school. (p. 39)

a design thinking mindset is inherently social (p. 39)

Students are not working independently on their own or group projects, although they may be working on their individual contributions to a common enterprise. The idea diversity that comes from their different contributions advances the collective state of the art in their community. (p. 40)

Epistemology of Knowledge Creation/Knowledge Building (p. 40)

Taken in its largest sense, Piaget’s “genetic epistemology” is a wide-ranging epistemology of knowledge creation, but in the simplified version that prevails in education and child development, it scarcely addresses knowledge creation at all. Can the epistemological side of Piaget’s theory of knowledge be made accessible to educators? A workable theory of knowledge is needed to help both educators and students deal with what Piaget (1971) saw as epistemology’s main challenge: “How can one attain to something new?” (p. 40)

There are, however, alternative models: models based on complexity theory, which treat knowledge as an emergent of self-organizing processes (Li and Kettinger 2006); models incorporating Popper’s (1972) concept of “world 3,” which treats knowledge as having a sort of external, object-like existence (Gourlay 2006; Lindkvist and Bengtsson 2009); and models based on studies of dialogue and which recognize dialogue as not only a medium but a driver of concept creation and revision (Tsoukas 2009). (p. 41)

Our own efforts to develop a theoretical basis for knowledge creation incorporate all of these alternative conceptions, which happen to be highly compatible (Scardamalia and Bereiter in press). (p. 41)

Knowledge-building theory, as we have developed it, is more in harmony with this third conception of knowledge than with Nonaka’s more mentalistic model, with its emphasis on tacit knowledge. There is no denying the importance of tacit knowledge and tacitexplicit knowledge conversion, but we see these as belonging more to a theory of knowledge mobilization (Levin 2011) than a theory of knowledge creation. (p. 41)

Knowledge-Building Communities and Technologies (p. 41)

The products of knowledge building/knowledge creation can be understood as advances in the collective state of knowledge. It must be emphasized that these are advances in the Popperian type of knowledge referred to above (p. 41)

Individuals will learn in the process of advancing community knowledge, of course, and this will happen in any situation, not just in educational situations, but this learning is a by-product that needs to be evaluated separately from the collective knowledge advances. (p. 41)

collective phenomenon affected by such group-level characteristics as morale, norms, and community goals. (p. 42)

Two major kinds of innovation are required to provide such support: (p. 42)

(a) Social innovation: transforming school classes into knowledge-building communities. (p. 42)

(b) Technology innovation: knowledge-building technology. (p. 42)

This demonstrates that, valuable as oral discussion may be in creative work with ideas, something beyond it is required in order to keep students’ ideas alive as objects of inquiry. (p. 42)

Authentic Knowledge Creation by Students? (p. 43)

Authentic knowledge creation can range from tiny increments to world-changing discoveries and inventions. (p. 43)

Our experience assures us that students from the youngest years of schooling on can operate in design mode—typically producing small increments in community knowledge but occasionally major leaps to a new conception. (p. 43)

When a group of elementary school students produces what they perceive as an adequate explanatory account of rainbows, there may be immediate gratification in feelings of accomplishment, but the usefulness of their theory is in serving as a starting point for a better theory and for helping advance in broader efforts to understand light and vision. (p. 44)

Educational Knowledge Building and Problems of Explanation (p. 44)

“Explanation-driven” learning (Sandoval and Reiser 2004) recognizes this connection, as does Schank and Abelson’s (1977) concept of “failure-driven” learning, according to which the failure of things to behave or turn out as expected drives a search for explanation. (p. 44)

We are inclined to pursue explanation only to the depth necessary to deal with the problem at hand and then stop; or, as E. O Wilson put it (1998, p. 61), our brains evolved “to survive in the world and only incidentally to understand it at a depth greater than is necessary to survive.” (p. 45)

Focusing educational knowledge building on problems of understanding achieves two goals at once: It leads to deeper, more generalizable understanding of the “big ideas” that modern curricula endeavor to teach, and it cultivates the ability and disposition to push explanation seeking to the level necessary for innovative knowledge creation. (p. 45)

The Centrality of Knowledge-Building Dialogue and the Need for Supportive Technology (p. 45)

The creative role of dialogue is widely recognized in the knowledge creation literature (e.g., von Krogh et al. 2000) and is the centerpiece of Tsoukas’ (2009) theory of organizational knowledge creation. The importance of dialogue is no stranger to educational thought, either, dating as far back as Socrates and the type of understanding-seeking dialogue that still bears his name. (p. 45)

Although it must be recognized that there is more to knowledge creation than discourse, it is also true that if knowledge-building dialogue fails, knowledge building fails, and conversely if a dialogue succeeds in advancing from one shared knowledge state to a more advanced knowledge state, knowledge has been created. (p. 45)

Knowledge Forum is a software environment, expressly designed to provide support for problem-oriented knowledge-building discourse, through scaffolds and mechanisms for building higher-level structures of ideas. (p. 46)

provide stronger supports for such knowledge-creating processes as problem analysis, analogy creation, strengthening of explanations, and meta-discourse (discourse about progress and difficulties in the main knowledge-creating effort). In more general terms, supportive knowledgebuilding technology should help users move up the rungs of the ladder leading from encyclopedic knowledge presentation to increasingly powerful knowledge creation. (p. 46)

Fun in Knowledge Building (p. 46)

They see knowledge creation as risky, which of course it is. It can fail, as every inventor, theoretician, or design-based researcher knows. Failure is part of the process and is valued as such by knowledge creators of all kinds. (p. 46)

Of the almost two million web documents referencing “play-based learning,” a mere 250 mention “play with ideas,” and there is a great deal of duplicated text among the 250. (p. 47)

“Playing” with ideas means loosening the normal reality-based or task-based constraints and enjoying the freedom to make new combinations. (p. 47)

Given enough freedom, young students will turn almost any academic activity into play. The challenge for pedagogy and technology designers is to provide supports and constraints that will shape the play along lines of useful knowledge creation without eliminating the spontaneity and fun. This is a challenge that the 48 C. Bereiter and M. Scardamalia social and technological innovations alluded to earlier can help to meet. They need to provide an environment that is enjoyable to be in while helping knowledge building to progress. (p. 47)

social and technological innovations alluded to earlier can help to meet. They need to provide an environment that is enjoyable to be in while helping knowledge building to progress. (p. 48)

Conclusion: A Place for Everyone in a Knowledge-Creating Culture (p. 48)

The distinctive hill that education must climb has to do with the long-term future of the ones creating the knowledge. On one hand, knowledge building needs to make students more knowledgeable and competent (that is the learning effect) while on the other hand providing them with a knowledge base and conceptual tools for further knowledge building. (p. 48)

“Experience,” as Dewey (1928) defined it, has a progressive, feed-forward character like knowledge building. It is growth that enables future growth. (p. 48)

Knowledge building, once the concept is pried loose from learning, gives Deweyan “experience” an objective embodiment. (p. 48)

Not every student will go on in life to be a knowledge worker. Knowledge building in schools must not be geared only to preparing students for such work. (p. 48)

Knowledge building is not a solution either, but it can be a very positive step in the direction of enabling everyone to make a fulfilling place for themselves in whatever future unfolds. The positive step is helping every student to function in design mode and to bring a design thinking mindset to all kinds of situations, major or minor. Moreover, knowledge building in the classroom can help students learn to collaborate in design thinking, which is often necessary for it to succeed, and to hone communication and media skills that facilitate productive collaboration in design mode. (p. 48)

There are formidable barriers to instituting knowledge building in education. (p. 49)

Blog Logo

Bodong Chen



Crisscross Landscapes

Bodong Chen, University of Minnesota

Back to Home