Bodong Chen

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Notes: Haneda, M., & Wells, G. (2000). Writing in knowledge-building communities



Citekey: @Haneda2000

Haneda, M., & Wells, G. (2000). Writing in knowledge-building communities. Research in the Teaching of English, 34(3), 430–457. Retrieved from


This position piece articulates how writing is perceived and supported in knowledge building. It presents a thorough discussion of “current” understanding in writing, gaps in writing instruction, and the role Knowledge Building plays in writing (and roles writing plays in knowledge building). It also presents three examples of writing in knowledge building communities, in which roles of teachers and technology are explored. It summarizes some principles for teaching and support writing in knowledge building.


Abstract (p. 1)

Despite the increasing technologization of our society or perhaps, indeed, because of it literacy continues to be one of the principal goals of education. Yet the way in which the goal of literacy development is interpreted in classroom practice too easily becomes reduced to the mastering of ‘basic skills’, as students engage in routine exercises in reading and writing, drawn from textbooks that they have no part in choosing. However, ‘full literacy’ the disposition to engage appropriately with texts of different types in order to empower action, thinking, and feeling in the context of purposeful social activity (Wells, 1990) will never be achieved until students’ interests and purposes become the driving force for the literacy curriculum. This is even more true for students discovering how writing can be an occasion for learning. In this position paper, therefore, we focus on some of the roles that writing can play in developing literacy and learning when it takes place within classroom knowledge building communities. To illustrate our argument, we draw on examples from the classrooms of teacher researcher colleagues. (p. 1)

models of the writing process proposed and further elaborated by such scholars as Flower & Hayes (1981), de Beaugrande (1984), and Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987). However, with the exception of the latter, this research did not have much connection with classrooms and was premised very largely on a conception of writing as a cognitive-linguistic activity carried out by individuals in isolation from a discourse community of other readers and writers.1 (p. 2)

A clear feature of these classroom studies, connecting them to much writing undertaken outside educational contexts, is the primary concern with meaning and purposeful communication. (p. 3)

From these various kinds of research, both cognitive and social, a number of conclusions can be drawn: • The process of becoming literate is inherently social in nature, even though it is individuals who read and write. Literacy events do not take place in isolation, but in relation to a discourse community of which the reader or writer is, or wishes to become, a member. • Writing is first and foremost concerned with developing a structure of meaning; the specification of what one wants to say becomes clearer and more complete in the actual writing and revising of the text for a particular purpose and audience. • It follows, therefore, that the literate practices and values that individuals develop depend on the purposes for reading and writing that they encounter in home, school and (p. 3)

community activities; where these differ, or even more when they are in conflict, the process of becoming literate is rendered increasingly difficult. (p. 4)

Changing Approaches to Writing in the Classroom (p. 6)

There certainly have been significant changes, in the last twenty-five years, in the way in which the learning and teaching of writing is approached in the English-speaking world. Emig’s (1971) seminal work on the composing processes of twelfth graders opened a new door for writing researchers. In place of traditional product analysis, they began to explore what goes on in individual writers’ heads while composing. (e.g., Flower & Hayes, 1981, 1984; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987), and this, in turn, led to a shift in perspective from a view of writing as a linear process to a recognition of its recursive nature, involving pre-planning and revising as ongoing component activities. (p. 6)

This theoretical emphasis on process-oriented writing instruction has, in general, brought about positive changes in teaching practice. (p. 6)

ne of the criticisms has been that, despite the theoretical recognition of writing as a recursive process, it is still the case that, in many classrooms, writing continues to be presented as a linear sequence of planning, pre-writing, writing, revising and publishing. (p. 7)

A second criticism has emerged from the focus on the social purposes of writing. (p. 7)

In other words, decisions about how to help students master the ‘technology’ of writing cannot usefully be taken on their own for, as with reading and talking, what students learn about writing will depend upon what they use writing to do. (p. 9)

Learning and Knowledge Building (p. 9)

At the heart of our approach to learning through inquiry is the notion of ‘the spiral of knowing’ (figure 1), which posits understanding as the goal of learning. (p. 11)

All learning starts from personal experience, as one is currently able to understand it; to this is added information, whether sought out, deliberately provided by others, or picked up incidentally. However, new information does not automatically lead to enhanced understanding; for this to occur, the information needs to be articulated with what is already understood, often involving a degree of transformation in the process. This is achieved through knowledge building, sometimes undertaken solo in ‘inner speech’, but more often in dialogue with others. (p. 11)

Thus, knowledge building is the process through which, by purposefully knowing together, we increase both our individual and our common understanding (Wells, 1999). (p. 12)

Writing as a Tool for Knowledge Building (p. 12)

Within this framework, as it applies in the classroom, writing has a dual role. The process of composing a written text is always potentially an occasion of knowledge building, as the writer attempts to communicate what he or she understands about a topic or situation to an audience of others or to the writer on a future occasion. (p. 12)

However, as a means of mediating the enhancement of understanding, writing is most powerful when the text already written, or in process of being written, is treated as an object with which the writer dialogues in the effort to improve it. For in transforming the text, one also to some degree transforms one’s own understanding. (p. 12)

This opportunity for reciprocal transformation of self and text is the reason for treating writing as one of the most effective means of learning (Langer & Applebee, 1987). Generally, however, this benefit is conceived in terms of the solitary writer. (p. 13)

In these latter circumstances, the text in production is indeed an improvable object, and one which engages the joint writers in spoken dialogue about aspects of its creation, ranging from their understanding of the topic, through the selection and organization of the information to include in the light of the intended audience, to the composition of successive sentences and paragraphs. In the process, too, linguistic choices of genre, register, syntax and vocabulary are also involved not to mention spelling and punctuation. (p. 13)

In order to give substance to these claims, in the following sections we will present some examples of writing functioning as a means of collaborative knowledge building, drawn from the action research carried out by members of DICEP in local schools. (p. 13)

Dinosaur Schools (p. 14)

Seeds and Webs (p. 18)

When children took home books to read with their parents, she asked the parents to write the children’s reflective comments on Post-it notes and to stick each note on the appropriate page. Then, when several children had read the same book, she planned to discuss the book with them and create a web in which their notes were spatially related in terms of ideas that were connected in some way. (p. 18)

It must be unusual for six-year-olds to be engaged, as they are here, in considering the relationship between the different themes of a story and providing justifications for their opinions. But what is particularly interesting about the procedure that the teacher has invented is that, by having the children’s comments on different aspects of the story written on small Post-it notes, their ideas do indeed become objects that can be compared, and physically placed in different relationships to each other. (p. 19)

This is the meta-cognitive talk. They are not used to making these thoughts explicit, and it is exactly this type of talk that moves the conversation beyond discussion of the literal into the more abstract themes of the story. (p. 19)

The experience of engaging in the use of seeds and webs to respond to literature helped us [the teachers] to grow as learners and to value the understanding that can be gained through literature. (p. 20)

In this example, we see the very first attempt in these two classroom communities to use a new genre of written text a web as a means of relating story themes and structures to the the story world and to personal experience. Not surprisingly, the teacher has to provide a considerable amount of supportive scaffolding. In the next example, by contrast, the students are sufficiently familiar with the tool they are using to manage without such teacher support. (p. 20)

contrast, the students are sufficiently familiar with the tool they are using to manage without such teacher support. (p. 21)

Building the Knowledge Wall (p. 21)

Traditionally, writing has been thought of as monologic and conversation as dialogic. (p. 21)

Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment (CSILE) for exactly this purpose (Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Lamon, 1994) (p. 21)

Three years ago, Karen Hume read an article describing CSILE and was intrigued by its possibilities for supporting the kind of inquiry-oriented work she promotes in her intermediate level classrooms.5 However, as her school did not have the necessary network of computers, she had to find an alternative, less costly, ’technology’. Her solution was both cheap and very effective. She cleared a large notice-board on one wall of her classroom to serve as the equivalent of the database and waited for an appropriate opportunity to launch her idea. (p. 21)

role of technology empirical example of what to do without access to KF: a wall. this has been tested in many different cases (Idea First in Singapore). (p. 21)

Karen saw her opportunity and asked the first student to write his observation and proposed explanation on a Post-it note and pin it to the notice-board. She then invited other students to add their comments and alternative explanations. Within minutes, the first notes were posted and, over the next two days, some 40 more were added to the board, some signed and some anonymous. Arguments for both positions a very large number of reflections, or none at all were initially almost equally forthcoming. However, those who believed there would be no reflections finally succeeded in persuading their opponents through the cogency of the arguments that they used to support their position. (p. 22)

This was the inauguration of the ‘Knowledge Wall’ and, since then, it has played a central role in many curricular units in Karen’s classroom. Typically, after some initial exploration of the topic, the class brainstorms the questions they think are most worth pursuing. These questions are then posted on the knowledge wall. Students select the questions they are most interested in researching and add their findings, theories and further questions to the knowledge wall as the principal means of pursuing their inquiries. From time to time, whole class discussions are held orally to make connections between the different issues being investigated and to reflect on their significance. (p. 22)

This is not to argue that writing supersedes oral discussion. In all classrooms in which this sort of written discussion occurs, participants also talk with each other about notes already posted and those they are thinking of writing. However, something more is involved when the contribution is made in writing. Unlike speech, writing leaves a record of the activity involved an object that can be returned to at leisure, and then reconsidered and improved through revision or response (Lotman, 1988). (p. 25)

oral and written
why written is important. also corresponds to the importance of technology. (p. 25)

An equally important feature of writing in this mode is that it requires the writer to make the intended point explicit and relevant to the ongoing structure of the discussion. This need for responsivity is much less apparent when writing in essay form for the teacher; however, on the knowledge wall, it is clearly essential for the effectiveness of the contribution. The point about ‘progressive discourse’, as Bereiter emphasizes, is that this is not a solitary, but a collaborative, undertaking: as they write to, and for, each other, “understandings are being generated that are new to the local participants and that the participants recognize as superior to their previous understandings” (Bereiter, 1994, p.9). (p. 26)

Discussion (p. 26)

As has been established through further work on Vygotsky’s (1987) concept of the zone of proximal development, assistance can be provided in a variety of forms and by many kinds of ‘others’. What is essential is that the participants be involved in a joint activity and have goals that are compatible. Although the form of assistance that an ‘expert’ other can give is often beneficial in providing scaffolding that is tailored to the learner’s needs, there is also much to be gained from working with peers on a question to which no-one knows the answer in advance, and where each learns through collaborative knowledge building as they attempt to construct an answer or solution (Wells, 1999). (p. 26)

As we have argued, one of the key characteristics of a knowledge building community is purposeful and thoughtful use of language, both spoken and written, as students actively engage in interactive/collaborative activities that involve what we, as well as Langer and Applebee (1987), have called “literate thinking”. Within such a community, writing is used as a tool for learning in many different ways, according to the interests and concerns of community members at particular moments in time. However, for it to serve as a means of building knowledge and increasing understanding, two principles seem to be paramount: • the text serves a purpose in the life of the community and will be responded to accordingly by others who share the authors’ interests; in this sense, the writing is part of an ongoing dialogue, the aim of which is for all concerned to achieve a richer understanding of what is at issue. • within this communicative context, writing is treated as being concerned primarily with discovering and developing meaning in dialogue with the emerging text; issues of structure and lexico-grammar are not neglected, but they are first considered in terms of their function in clarifying meaning and, together with spelling, only secondarily in relation to conventional correctness. (p. 27)

how writing is viewed in KB
1) text serves a purpose; 2) being communicative comes the first. (p. 27)

In the last two decades there has been much debate over the relative importance to be given to “process” and “product” in relation to the teaching of writing. However, when students are really interested in the topic they are exploring, and have a real purpose for their writing, this dichotomy ceases to be relevant. (p. 28)

Thinking about writing from the perspective outlined here makes it very clear that teachers have a number of important roles to play in helping students to develop as writers. First is the creating of settings and activities in which genuine purposes for writing may develop as well as audiences to whom the writing may be addressed. These features need to be planned so that students will be encouraged to extend their knowledge about the topics or subject matter under investigation and at the same time to appropriate and make their own those written genres that are likely to be required for academic success.8 Second is the provision of advice and instruction for example on register and genre choices offered when they will be most helpful (Atwell, 1987). And third is contingently responsive support to individual students at varying stages in the composition and revision of their texts (Haneda, 1999). (p. 29)

teacher’s role in writing
1) setup; 2) advice and instruction — when needed; 3) responsiveness. (p. 29)

In this paper, we have drawn on the work of students and teachers involved in the Developing Inquiring Communities in Education Project to argue for the value of treating writing, not as an end in itself, but as a tool for knowledge building. In particular, we have drawn attention to the importance of agency the making of deliberate, functional choices as well as working in collaboration with others as criterial features of such communities. As we hope to have shown, when writing is used as a means of knowledge building, not only do students extend their repertoire of writing strategies but the effort they put into creating functionally effective texts plays a significant role in their learning and enhances the development of shared understanding among all those involved. (p. 30)