As part of my PME coursework, I’ve been reading up on Knowledge Building. Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter have written many of the articles I’ve researched surrounding this topic. While half of their work appears to be an advertisement for Knowledge Forum, I dig the underlying principles which they present. I’m going to talk about the principle of transferring cognitive responsibility to the whole class in this blog post.

In Liberal Education in a Knowledge Society, Scardamalia wrote the chapter: Collective Cognitive Responsibility for the Advancement of Knowledge. She likened collective responsibility to the process by which professional sports teams operate – individual players have distinct roles and skills, but they cooperate with each other to meet a common goal. (That would be great in a classroom, no?)

But she argues that collective responsibility is not the whole picture. Team members must also take on cognitive responsibilities in order to best meet the shared goal of winning a championship. Cognitive responsibility is the process of knowing what needs to be known in order to do your part. That is – a team member should be able to set goals, plan work, and monitor progress as well as contribute their skills. Instead of a coach telling a player “Okay, you need to work on your footwork” – the player self-identifies that their footwork is deficient, and they set a goal to improve upon this deficiency, plan a course of action to improve that skill, and monitor their progress so as to better contribute to the team’s success.

Schools need to transfer cognitive responsibility over to our students, too. For their immediate well-being and development as well as their long-term prospects of cooperating in team environments in the future (sports, work, social, etc). Both worksheet/textbook classrooms AND guided discovery classrooms fail to facilitate cognitive responsibility development. 

Worksheet-heavy classrooms have little to no cognitive responsibility at all – all of the focus is on tasks and activities. Some teachers do assume cognitive responsibility through direct instruction or guided discovery activities… where a teacher has cognitive objectives in mind and measures students against those objectives. Though students may be aware of the objectives, to him or her they are still doing tasks and activities. The student experience, therefore, is the same as a student in the  worksheet/textbook question classroom. Dull, repetitive, and decidedly undemocratic.

This is a problem. These models leave students thinking that learning comes from doing learning activities and completing tasks one after another. It fails students who excel with completing textbook work – because, to them, learning is simple question and answer. Learning is not simple. Learning requires problem solving, overcoming odds by strategic maneuvering, and managing time and energy. The solution, then, is to turn over strategic cognitive activity to the students – to make students, themselves, responsible for their learning.

Simple? Great… But why is that so hard to do?

There are a few reasons why teachers are hesitant to turn over cognitive responsibility:

  1. Some feel that it’s difficult to maintain authority over the class if a teacher hands over any part of their traditional responsibilities to students. The “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile” philosophy.
  2. Some do not feel that students are capable of shouldering such a responsibility… that they can’t handle the pressure of knowing what they need to know.
  3. Others look at a thirty students to one teacher ratio and decide that it’s just easier to centrally manage that large of a group – for everything.

But teachers still want to hand over that responsibility – we do so with self-directed learning activities, open discussion, and an atmosphere where “every question is a good question.” But – even in these activities, we teachers tend to control the process. I’ll give you an example. My classroom discussions look something like this:

  • Giesbrecht “Alright, so how are washing machines and Human Rights similar?”
  • Student “Well, they’re both good and made by people”
  • Giesbrecht “That’s right – both are human inventions which improve our lives.”

I’m sure your classroom experience is similar: teacher asks a question, student answers it, teacher makes a summary remark and moves on. Classroom discussions are perfect places for students to take on cognitive responsibilities – but we teachers still hang on – we initiate and conclude the discussion. Almost all the time.

We recognize this fault though – and we try to remedy it with what? Small Group Work! That’s right – that old “turn and talk” or “table partners” or “find a friend” lingo – where we break up the pattern of teacher controlled discussion. But there are drawbacks to this method. For one, it’s difficult to manage a room full of discussions unless the topics are clearly articulated and the tasks are limited (thus reducing higher order student cognitive responsibility (goal-setting, planning, monitoring, etc). Another serious drawback is that small groups tend to be dominated by a few outspoken students. Furthermore – there is rarely any formal recording of the knowledge acquisition process (summary statements shared with the class seldom discuss the process). What is produced in one small group is not always made available to the whole class.

There has to be a better way.

(Insert gigantic Knowledge Forum advertisement here)

But really – one doesn’t need to use the KF software specifically to get their results. Look into it, but KF is like a mind map on steroids. Concepts built upon concepts, theories expressed, connections made – a ton of information sharing, research, and discovery surrounding a single topic.

Screenshot 2016-07-27 17.44.57

This is just a section of the Knowledge Forum we’ve used in my Collaborative Inquiry class. Each box represents a different note – if you click on a box – you’ll see a paragraph or two about a given idea/thought/previous note. It’s great… But this can be done on chart paper, on a bulletin board, or in student notebooks.

Great prompts for students to contribute to the web are “Did you know that…?” – this is an open invitation to share their understanding about a topic or idea. “My theory…” is another way to tease out new ideas and new thoughts.

In order to contribute and to buy-in on shared work – students need to know that they are part of a system which really does develop new knowledge. They can’t always think that someone else had the answers before them. Our classroom culture must accept the responsibility to figure out solutions to our own problems. Students need to feel free to take risks – that anything they share will be accepted – that the classroom is a safe space. Students also need to let go of “owning knowledge” – their contribution is valued, but its greatest value is provided by the context within which the rest of the class makes connections and forms understandings. We all play a part.

Soon, after sharing knowledge and ideas – the discussion becomes more organic – and students will identify gaps in their understanding. They can set out a plan to fill in those gaps. They will monitor to make sure everyone is doing their part.

I’d much rather facilitate inquiry than demonstrate it. Teachers have not been holders of knowledge for quite some time – but in order to transition to true facilitators of knowledge creation – we have to hand over control to the collective. We guide, they do the work.