Collaborative learning
Collaborative Learning = Knowledge Building?

Collaborative Learning = Knowledge Building?

Collaborative learning has been widely researched and advocated in empirical works and professional literature. However, what essentially is collaborative learning, and how does knowledge building distinguishes itself from collaborative learning? The objective of this blog is two-fold:

  1. To respond to the common query: Is collaborative learning synonymous with knowledge building?
  2. To reiterate that knowledge building is a specific pedagogical approach that focuses on collective cognitive responsibility i.e., it prizes collaborative knowledge co-construction over the sum of individual ‘random’ knowledge contributions in collaborative learning.

Dillenbourg’s review (1999) on collaborative learning provides the first insights in making a distinction between collaborative learning and knowledge building. Contrary to the widely accepted notion of collaborative learning as an instructional method, Dillenbourg (1999) contends that collaborative learning is “neither a mechanism nor a method, but rather a situation where particular forms of interaction among the individuals in the group are expected to occur (emphasis added) (p. 5)”.  This is to say that to ensure certain kinds of cognitive processes can be activated in collaborative learning, lesson design and facilitation is instrumental. In a nutshell, the desired meaningful discourse in collaborative learning does not occur by default because students are assigned workgroups to co-construct knowledge. On this note, knowledge building (KB) distinguishes itself from the general conception of collaborative learning in that KB fosters collaborative knowledge co-construction, knowledge advancement and knowledge co-creation. KB has its theoretical premises in deep constructivism. Knowledge building is a pedagogical approach where it places the main emphasis on collaborative knowledge contributions i.e., the progress of knowledge-building discourse. Scardamalia and Bereiter (2003), the creators of the KB theory, defines Knowledge building as “the production and continual improvement of ideas of value to a community” and the essence of collaborative knowledge building lies in that “what the community accomplishes will be greater than the sum of individual contributions (p. 1370)”. In brief, knowledge is improvable and socially co-constructed.

The theoretical framework of Knowledge building encompasses 12 principles in two interconnected dimensions: socio-cognitive and technological dynamics (Scardamalia, 2002) (see fig. 1). Four of these are the commonly used design principles in collaborative knowledge building activities:

  1. Real ideas, authentic problems;
  2. Idea Diversity;
  3. Improvable ideas;
  4. Rise Above.

Fig. 1: The 12 KB Principles within the socio-cognitive and technological dynamics

As aforesaid, the essence of the KB pedagogy lies in the progressive discourse on connecting ideas, improving ideas and advancing ideas. Hence, fostering knowledge-building culture requires an epistemological shift to view a classroom not as a mere collection of individual students, but as a collaborative knowledge creation community. To sustain knowledge-building practices amongst the community of learners, the Knowledge Forum (KF) is instrumental to facilitate the documentation, archiving, continuous improvement of these epistemic artifacts and providing instructional scaffolds for knowledge sharing, knowledge connection, and knowledge advancement (see fig.2).

Knowledge forum

Fig. 2: Knowledge Forum

In essence, when we construe knowledge building as the solving of knowledge problems, Dillenbourg’s (1999) notion of “design the situation” essentially accentuates the significance of the pedagogical design and the discrete appropriation of socio-cognitive support e.g., technology-mediated cognitive tools as critical determinants of framing such a learning situation to foster collective cognitive agency.

Dr. Esther Tan, Senior Researcher
Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Education and Learning (LDE-CEL)