Think Tank: Transforming the learning experience

cecceThis week I had the honour to be invited to contribute to a panel of amazing people at the recent Think Tank session from CECCE, one of Ontario’s French School Boards, along with well known thinkers about transforming educational environments.  My ECOO colleague Peter Skillen and I have crossed paths recently with many CECCE educators in attendance at Educon, ISTE and various Ontario events, as well as in my work at the Ministry, so it was wonderful to have a chance to hear more about the deep dive they are taking to transform their system. The school board has been working to fundamentally change their system to serve students, not just in the their academic pursuits, but in their well-being as they grow and develop into engaged, compassionate, learning citizens and @heidisiwak does a great job of capturing their journey here in her blog if you’d like to learn more.  I found it a challenge to decide what I might contribute to this amazing panel,  but was willing to give it a try and participate, and hopefully add something of value to the discussion. Michael Fullan did a wonderful job of finding a way to share all of the voices in a relatively short period of time!fullanpanel

If you search #cecce hashtag, you’ll see many of the tweets that describe the day. Over and over I heard people focused on three critical factors that lead to effective change:

  • First, we have to understand how people (both students and adults) learn.
  • Second, we have design learning environments and experiences around interesting, provoking, and real-life authentic issues.
  • Lastly, we must trust all learners to be partners in their own learning

There were many things to note,  but one thing struck me as especially important and it came from the student trustee on the panel.   There had been lots of talk from the adults in the room about ‘deep learning’, but Matthew really named it when asked about what he wanted from his education.  He said that he wanted learning “that would help him in the rest of his life”.  This stuck me as a specific example of the kind of learning transfer that we talk about when we focus on deep learning.

When we broke into table discussions after the panel, I was interested in following that further and asked Catherine (another student trustee), what kinds of things she felt she was learning at school that she felt would benefit her for ‘the rest of her life’. She mentioned discovering her passion for causes and helping people to learn more about them through events that she has organized through her school.  She mentioned the student government that she’s been involved with, and along the way the teachers who have supported her in developing her strengths, both academically, and through her interests in extra-curricular.  This led our table to a discussion of passion-based learning and how extra-curriculars should not be extra at all, but a part of school life.  In reflecting on that conversation, I realize that in that brief conversation, Catherine named many, if not all, of the competencies that are so much a part of the educator conversations happening to describe 21st century learning: communication skills that evolve as a part of authentic collaboration, creativity and critical thinking in the pursuit of learning and in the sharing of meaningful information to persuade others, the entrepreneurial spirit involved in social action,  and the self-awareness that is required to take risks, understand one’s strengths, and to continue to grow and persevere to accomplish goals.

As we continued our discussion at the table,  the school board members, along with student trustee Catherine, mentioned that joy is important, that relationships are key, and that the partnerships were an important part of making education relevant to our children and youth.  This was palpable in the room throughout the day from the remarks of all of the organizers of the event, and evidenced once again in the thoughtful closing comments from Superintendent Eugénie Congi.  What a great team! Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 5.09.27 PM

I’m excited to hear how this work at CECCE evolves and I thank the organizers for allowing me to be a part of it.  I hope that I am able share this success story across the province so that other boards and students can benefit from their deep thinking and vision for their teachers and students.

On a personal note, I’m excited that I’m able to continue my French language learning and I found the benefit of the simultaneous translation that was provided to me during the event to be amazing!  Merci!



Educon 2.8: Learning about a missed opportunity

I attended Educon 2.8 once again this year, hosted at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.  It was great to be in the building once again.  Chris Lehman and Zac Chase provide inspiring leadership and watching this school grow and change has been fantastic.  The school feels more like Ontario schools than other US schools that I hear about, although I must confess that it is the only US school I’ve had the opportunity to visit!

I really enjoyed talking to teachers and parents this year, and spent a fair bit of time asking them questions and loitering in the hallways to get a sense of what was new at the school. You’ll know, if you’ve ever attended Educon, that sessions are about conversations, not presentations, and it’s a place of rich dialogue and networking.

I attended one session that really got me thinking and reflecting on my past practice at school last year as a vice-principal.  It was called The Privileged Voices in Education, facilitated by Audrey Watters @audreywatters and Jose Vilson @TheJLV.  I chose to listen rather than talk. The conversation ran the gamut of sensitive and passionate topics: race, privilege, access, voice, agency, challenges with getting people involved politically, and the fear of corporate interference and what that could mean for students.  There were students, teachers, parents, and administrators in the room.

It’s my nature to begin to shift to action oriented thinking and a few people started to talk about some of the things we CAN do to help give ALL students and parents a voice in education. The issue of our complicity was raised – both from the point of view of those who are silent in their daily lives, and those who don’t even feel privileged enough to join in the conversation — such a complex issue.  We were prompted by Jose toward the end of the session to be reflective about our complicity, and this is when I realized that I had missed an opportunity last year at my school.

Edward Johnson PS received a grant for technology last year, which I’ve written about before. We got the grant because we had a parent on school council who volunteered her time to search out grant opportunities and follow them up.  We also likely got it because I knew what to write, how to phrase that proposal, and could even support the school in the implementation of a great space and make it work.  Our school isn’t a school that is lacking…we have a supportive community of parents, and lucky students who are comfortable and privileged with their opportunities.  I’m suspicious of corporate funding, because I often think it goes where it is NOT needed most, and yet I wanted to support the parents and bring the best to my school and my students.  Was I complicit in adding to the gap between rich and poor schools?

I could have done it differently.  I could have partnered with a school just a few blocks away and done some work to share what I know about writing that proposal with other parents, teachers and administrators. We could have split the money (it wasn’t huge, but $20000 is definitely sizable) and partnered the two schools to be co-learners in this venture.  Was I complicit in promoting gaps between schools that ‘have’ and those that ‘don’t have’? Not intentionally.  Could I have taken action to encourage a partnership that could shed some light on a school in need and help build capacity there?  Yes definitely.

I hope I get another chance to approach this differently another time.

One person in the room provided some interesting insight for people wondering about the intention of corporate support in education realm.  Find out how much they are investing in the grants themselves, and then try to find out how much is spent in marketing the grants.  Interesting….

Automatic Attribution on CC Search of Flickr

Creative Commons is not a new concept, and many people have been aware of its existence for some time, as well as the need to credit the work of generous people who offer to share their creations with us.   It’s also great when something comes along that makes it a little easier for media creators to cite the work of the original author.image

While talking to my brilliant colleagues Jac Calder and Peter Skillen recently, I learned about an online tool to make citations within Flickr, a fabulous source for images, even easier!

This beta site was developed by John Johnston and it allows you to choose a flickr image and, with the click of your mouse, have the citation of the original owner placed on the image which you can then use in presentations or other media that you are creating.  I usually teach students how to use an online photo editor for this purpose, but this removes a step and makes things a bit easier for students, without removing the understanding and diligence involved with acknowledging the original author of the work.

We’ll have to get this added to the OSAPAC resource about Digital Citizenship — it would be a great addition to the resources section under Creation and Credit!


GO Station Library – Book Sharing

When I first started commuting, I ended up at the Barrie Go Station to find this great innovative idea for book sharing that was setup close to the train tracks. The definition of innovation is to improve on something, and if you’re a lover of public libraries, like me, you’ll love this idea.

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What Do We Mean By Learning Anyway?

A Connected Educator Month 2015 Event starting on October 1st!

Join Peter Skillen and me in a collective, month long, discussion to:Cloud Computing Small text

  • extend and deepen our understanding of the term learning
  • participate in a knowledge building approach to collaboration
  • model deep practices for our professional learning environments (colleagues and/or classrooms)

Brief Description (see full site for details)

We will spend the month exploring, unpacking, and discussing what we mean by the term learning. This will include:

  • building background knowledge through sharing and reading resources related to the topic
  • introductory Twitter Chat
  • co-creation of a slidedeck of our ideas
  • reflective Twitter chat
  • contemplative rewriting of our slides
  • culminating creation of reflection statementsVector illustration of two communicating people

We will use a knowledge-building approach to this event.

“If Knowledge building had to be described in a single sentence, it would be: ‘giving students collective responsibility for idea improvement. In Knowledge Building, students work together as a community to build and improve explanations of problems of understanding that arise from the group itself.” (We will be the students in this project!)

So please join us! Go to What Do We Mean By Learning Anyway? for all the details to get started!


Peter Skillen & Brenda Sherry with the support of OSSEMOOC

New Health and Physical Education Curriculum

Many school administrators are aware that some parents are feeScreen Shot 2015-09-20 at 3.35.47 PMling the tension of change in Ontario’s Health and Physical Education (HPE) Revision for 2015. Concern that kids need more current information (the last curriculum was released 17 years ago), and a more comprehensive understanding of all the aspects of healthy living, has led to this revision. Ontario curriculum is written by experts in education, content, and policy, as well as in consultation with parents across the province. Many people are involved in trying to dispel the myths about the new curriculum that began to surface last spring, in many cases anonymously, and it’s my guess is that once folks actually dig in and read the curriculum, as some journalists have begun to do, fears quickly subside.

The Health and Physical Education curriculum has four main sections for each grade:

  • Living Skills: understanding themselves, communicating and interacting positively with others and learning to think critically and solve problems
  • Active Living: active participation, physical fitness and safety
  • Movement Competence: skills for moving properly and with confidence
  • Healthy Living: learning about health, making healthy choices, and understanding the connections to everyday life

A quick google search ‘myths about sex ed curriculum’ will bring up lots of good information to dispel the myths about Ontario’s revised HPE Curriculum, but my hope would be that parents actually read the curriculum, in order to make their own decisions.  Here is a gathering of some helpful resources that school administrators or school council chairs might want to share with concerned parents who are wanting more information:

Overview of the curriculum revisions, including the sexual health component.

HPE_flyer_AODA – Ontario Ministry of Education – The ministry has produced a suite of materials for parents in several languages to build understanding about what students will learn. There are also details about how to order parent materials that Principals and Vice-Principals can make available to parents.

CBC Radio Interview with Meg Hickling – Veteran educator about body science and sexual health

Grade by Grade Guide to the Ontario HPE Curriculum (Sexual health portions) written for Muslim parents and created by Anela Jadunandan – hear her CBC Radio interview  on Metro Morning.

CBC – Parents speaking up in support of the Ontario HPE Curriculum

Sexual health experts from BC in support of Ontario’s new curriculum


Invent To Learn – A Must Read for Schools

by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager, Ph.D
20130520-Invent-to-Learn-BookOne of the greatest joys of being a connected learner is the fact that I’m meeting so many friends from all over the world who are also people from whom I learn so much.  Meeting them virtually sometimes leads to meeting them f2f, hanging out at conferences, working along with them, and reading their blogs and articles, but I’m getting a kick out of buying their books!

I bought Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez’s book, Invent to Learn, sight unseen, because I know their brilliant work and applaud their mission to elevate much of what we see in educational technology implementation (not always a pretty sight)  to higher levels. This book is a must read for all educators and administrators who are interested in muddling through the many choices for technology use in your school with STEM in mind — it will help you see the light!  They provide enough theoretical background to provide you and/or your teachers with knowledge of the giants who came before us, and to more deeply understand effective learning theory (constructivism) and effective teaching theory (constructionism). They also mention pioneers in the field of ed tech that every educator ought to know, but, strangely enough, don’t always (e.g., Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon, Brian Silverman, Sherry Turkle to name just a few). They then suggest 3 “game changers”  for your school or classroom  – fabrication, physical computing and programming.  I was thrilled to see that we are on the right track at my school with a recent grant award that focuses on all three of these! 🙂  Gary and Sylvia also provide lots of information and ideas about the practical planning of how to get started with these interesting game changers.  As a teacher I have always loved that blend of theory and practice in resources that I choose.

What’s critical in a book like this, and what Gary and Sylvia accomplish really nicely, is that the concept of maker space is outlined within the context of a school culture that puts authentic student learning and passion at the forefront, along with an acceptance that co-learning along with students is a great way to model our learning stance as teachers. Great advice from the authors to the educators reading this book is: “Less Us, More Them”. The tinkering mindset and the cycle of making — which they call TMI (Think, Make, Improve), and the fact that students are empowered agents in their own learning, are just as important as the making itself.  For this reason making can involve technology or found materials or art supplies. It’s more about a bricolage approach…working with the best of what you have on hand.

If you are interested in more about what the current interest in coding and maker spaces can offer, this is a great book for you!

Our Learning Commons gets a maker space addition!

In a few days, I’m taking on a new role with a secondment to the Ministry of Ontario in the 21st Century Learning Unit.  I’m feeling bittersweet about the new role; sad to be leaving my school and all of the wonderful students, teachers and parents I’ve come to know in my short time aIMG_0787s a VP, but excited about a new challenge and ready to embrace a new adventure!

Luckily for me, I get to continue to support my school’s newly acquired grant from Future Shop, where we’ve received almost $20000 to enhance student learning with innovative technologies.

Our shopping is almost complete, and I’m planning on chronicling  our journey as we move forward, starting with a little piece of the grant proposal as follows, and sharing our plan of action over the next 8 weeks.

Our students want to become producers, not just consumers of media, and participate as 21st century learners in a world that is creative, collaborative and global. We want students to access tools that allow participation as global citizens, demonstrations of learning through the creation of shareable multimedia projects, and engaging in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programming through projects that are possible with robust technology tools.  Innovative practice with a STEM focus in elementary schools means that students see themselves as idea-makers, planners, designers and builders. We’ve found that our Chromebooks allow us easy ways to collaborate and share files, but this is not enough.  We need tools like laptops, programming software, peripherals for multimedia creation, and Ministry licensed digital resources in order to leverage more of the powerful applications that computers afford us.

Currently, our library is a traditional space holding books and 20 desktop computers in a lab setting.  Our teacher librarian has begun to turn our space into a creative Learning Commons that promotes flexible purposes for learning, and we need mobile devices available to all students, at all times, to be truly transformative for student learning.  Our Learning Commons has the infrastructure to manage this with our efficient wifi throughout the school and a small room attached to the larger space that is the perfect solution to a technology enhanced maker space and multimedia production studio.

STEM initiatives such as the one we are proposing provide an engaging way for students to connect to the curriculum in the areas of math, science, and technology, as well as support the Ontario Ministry’s focus on inquiry based learning and leveraging the power of intentional play to advance learning.  With this grant we can transform this space to include learning, invention, play, creation and innovation and we see it growing from the basic elements we’ve requested to a creative play and invention space that is responsive to the needs, interests and abilities of our students at different age levels.

We are so grateful that Future Shop saw our vision and chose us to be grant recipients so that we can make this happen!

The technology requested in this grant will allow students to develop:

  • skills and experience in creation with multi-media tools (e.g., podcasting, websites, videos, presentations, music)
  • skills and experience in using Logo programming languages (i.e., Scratch, Turtle Art (both free) and MicroWorlds which is included in the proposal, as well as ProBots and BeeBots)
  • hands-on experience using programmable materials (i.e., Little Bits construction tools along with Arduino and Sphero Balls)
  • an understanding of manufacturing and design elements using software that will transpose student designs into 3D artefacts using the 3D printer

Knowledge WITH technology: A case for intelligent learning

I came across this post today where Donna Fry mentions thinking about twitter as a library. This reminded me of some related thinking I had been doing back in library2005 when I was considering the role of technology with the analogy of the ‘library’. I thought it might be fun to dig it up and post it here, imagining that during the 10 years that have passed it would seem really outdated, but you be the judge on that one. Kind of funny when ideas from colleagues converge like this, so thanks to Donna!  I think I remember have a similar conversation with colleague @peterskillen about the library analogy as well. 🙂

Knowledge WITH Technology: A Case for Intelligent Learning

First submitted to Dr. E. Woodruff – 2005 – OISE

Defining technology

 A student stands in the doorway of a large library on campus, volumes filled with information and knowledge, some written recently and many far more antiquated. It is with awe that she realizes that the openness of the world of education is reflected in the way that a wide variety of thoughts, opinions and research are recorded. Looking forward to the opportunity to delve into the midst of many of those books and materials, the student is also aware that this is a formidable task; it will be critical to find some guidance, direction and wisdom to interpret all that she needs or wants to learn.

Today, students of all ages might experience this same exhilaration in front of a computer, but certainly the academic, administrative and political bodies of schools have been engaged in a lengthy discussion of the value of technology in education.   Curiously, that discussion seems to be focused primarily on the computer as technology and does not always involve the wide range of technological tools used in classrooms today. In the scenario depicted above, most academics would not dispute the value of their campus library, visiting frequently during their careers (either online or in person), and even aspiring to be published authors themselves.   It is a widely accepted fact that books are an important tool for learning, but one could argue that the fact that they are merely present in schools does not ensure their effectiveness. This paper will attempt to clarify that some computer technologies in schools can move students beyond the shallow transfer of information and skills and toward a development of a more intelligent kind of learning that promotes deeper understanding.

The move toward constructivism and intelligent learning

Learning is an internal, unobservable process that results in changes of belief, attitude or skill (Scardamalia 2003), and this elusive quality promotes a variety of approaches that attempt to create, explain and document student ‘learning’. During the 1960’s, the work of Jean Piaget began to move theories of education away from a Skinnerian approach that focused on observable behaviours. In this behaviourist approach reinforcement was provided as necessary to create learning, without much concern with the processes of the mind.     Piaget’s theory acknowledges the influence of maturation and he believed that learning was developmental, with the mind influencing what is learned. The learner constructs knowledge based upon his/her view of the world and therefore individual experiences will affect how new information is assimilated into the individual’s schematic organization. The teacher shapes the learning experiences for the student through a process of guided discovery by creating those effective individual experiences in the environment. This was a move away from the direct instructional approach of behaviourism and toward a more active, exploratory model. More recently, another approach to education and instruction, called the socio-historical approach or social constructivism, acknowledges cultural influences on individual learning; learning is a social process that involves others, primarily through language. Internalized language and knowledge creates learning, and teachers can promote the development of knowledge through apprenticeship and discourse.

Constructivism and social constructivism have been the foundation for a related approach, called constructionism, that while less widely implemented, often involves the use of computer technology. Seymour Papert, as a student of Piaget’s and a mathematician himself, began to study how children could use computers to enhance their knowledge of mathematics and developed constructionism as both a theory of learning and a strategy for education with constructivist roots in the belief that knowledge is actively constructed in the mind of the learner, not simply transmitted from the teacher to the student (Papert 1993). Students are not merely ‘banking’ information to be recalled when necessary (Friere 1970), nor are teachers required to ‘fill up’ their students with isolated facts (Bereiter 2002).   Learners actively construct and reconstruct knowledge out of their personal experiences in the world and constructionism takes this a step further; while working through authentic projects students are involved in building personally meaningful artifacts that demonstrate their knowledge.   Affect has a prevalent role in the quality of student learning according to constructionists. Learners are more likely to be intellectually engaged if activities are personally meaningful and this usually involves building or creating something that can be shared with others. Central to the theory is also the emphasis on the diversity of learners; learners make connections with knowledge in many different ways and therefore are given a variety of choices in how to demonstrate their learning (Kafai and Resnick 1996). Constructionism encourages multiple learning styles and varied representations of knowledge.

With such a variety of approaches to educational practice and considerable controversy about the effectiveness of these approaches, perhaps it is also beneficial to focus on the kinds of learning that we would like to see happening with students.   While the debate is on-going about how learning can be measured, I believe that many educators would agree with the following definition of the kind of graduate we hope that schools will be promoting: independent, mindful thinkers, skilled in life long learning, capable of intelligently handling complex problems alone and in teams and guided by some social values hat transcend egotistic benefits (Salomon 2000). After reading about many types of learning theories and theories of instructional design, I would argue that the kind of intelligent learning that we are seeking for our students involves active, engaged participation that is socially situated in the authentic context of real problems that involve personally constructed knowledge.

Learning with technology, not from it

Our student in the campus library must decide how and why to approach all the information with which she is presented.   She finds that despite the information that is available, it will not automatically bring her success in her education. Her professors prefer she create ideas, collaborate with her classmates, and make her thoughts explicit in presentations and papers. She begins to realize that reading, digesting and reiterating the theories of others is not knowledge, and that she can actively participate with others in the creation of new knowledge right now, while at the same time accumulating a foundational body of knowledge.

In comparing the computer to other educational technologies, it’s uniqueness is best observed when it is put to use in powerful ways. The computer is not merely an information machine, although users may count web-surfing, calendaring and email among their primary uses. Seymour Papert explains that all new technologies follow the same path of development in that the first uses are “to do in a new way what was already being done” (Resnick 1994). Using computers merely as information storing and retrieving machines maintains the behaviourist viewpoint that someone else should decide what knowledge is important and needs to be poured into the heads of students (Bereiter 2002).   The computer is thought by some to be simply a fancy new way to do this with more pizzaz, colour, graphics, sound, and fancy fonts. Being lulled by powerpoint presentations may be one example wherein traditional lecture methods are updated in appearance but may essentially remain the same pedagogically. Critics often move to the conclusion that if we can’t measure what the students have learned from technology, then why do we have it? It becomes a question of corporate cost/benefit rather than an understanding that learning is an unobservable cognitive process that is not easily measured. Gavriel Salomon eloquently outlines this point as a disappointment in technology; “the consistent and historical tendency of the education system to preserve itself and its practices by the assimilation of new technologies into existing instructional practices” (Salomon 2000). Scardamalia also supports this disappointing view of technology in that “many uses of the web are simply old methods repackaged to look new” ( 2002 ) . Papert calls it the “just a tool fallacy”; that education has failed “to distinguish between tools that improve their user’s ability to do pre-existing jobs, and another kind of ‘tool’ that are more than just tools because of their role in the creation of a job nobody thought to do, or nobody could have done before”. He refers here to innovation through Resnick’s creation of Star Logo, a robust computing language that addresses the educational need of exploring complex systems while providing the tool to do it (Resnick 1994). Educators who use technology effectively realize that the critical discussion is how students learn with technology, rather than what they learn from technology.

Information machines or knowledge machines?

Our student is becoming weary and losing motivation. Using her course syllabus she has begun to read ahead before classes get started, only to find that is difficult to remember what she is reading. She tries to make notes, but in the absence of a larger question to explore, nothing seems to connect. There is so much information there in the library which she can locate effectively; she knows her way around the cataloguing system, knows how to check books out, understands the use of indexes, tables of contents and reference materials. She knows how to use the information …..but to what end?

Salomon’s second disappointment is the technocentric focus that is widespread in schools. He states that we must “be careful not to just focus on the acquisition of skills pertaining to merely the use of technology rather than the pedagogical focus” (2000). While new technologies may make a learning revolution possible they certainly don’t guarantee it, just as having a school library doesn’t ensure that all students using it will develop the same quality of understanding. Resnick reminds us that if we want people to become better thinkers and learners we need to move beyond thinking about computers as limited only to their information storing and accessing capabilities. People create ideas, and the computer is a medium through which people can express and create through a variety of design activities. Resnick states that to become ‘digitally fluent’ it is not enough to know how to use technological tools, but we must be able to create something of importance with them. (Resnick 2002).

Of course, it is also important to remember that there should be a strong pedagogical focus to activities using technological tools in all learning activities. Scardamalia and Bereiter acknowledge that the constructivist principles of active engagement and participation are essential to learning but that some constructivist approaches can be found lacking in their ability to help students create knowledge. They caution against shallow constructivism in classrooms wherein tasks and activities, that may on first glance appear very active and engaging to students, do very little to support the advancement of knowledge. They define knowledge building as

     “the production and continual improvement of ideas of value to a community, through means that increase the likelihood that what the community accomplishes will be greater than the sum of individual contributions and part of broader cultural efforts – therefore not just limited to education.” (2003)

In our current ‘knowledge age’ it is essential, according to Scardamalia, to encourage people to work creatively with knowledge and move beyond access to information. The goals of a knowledge society as identified by Bereiter (2002): lifelong learning, flexibility, creativity, higher-order thinking skills, collaboration, distributed expertise, learning organizations, innovations, and technological literacy, may sound similar in part to other constructivist approaches but there are important extensions that make it unique.   There is collective responsibility (i.e. that the responsibility for the success of the group effort is distributed across all the members rather than being concentrated in the leader and that the responsibility for creative knowledge building resides with the entire group). This may also sound at first like other collaborative activities that happen in classrooms, such as project-based learning (pal), or cooperative learning. Indeed, while pal could have a knowledge building component, what appears to be different is the purpose: the students being directly involved together in “advancing the frontiers of knowledge as they perceive them”, and consequently creating unique conceptual artifacts.   For classroom teachers this means the frontiers of knowledge for a particular student community, not in the sense of feeding them more information to regurgitate to the group, but in involving them in actually exploring and developing knowledge together in as sophisticated and important a way as a scientist may do.   This important work is done through generating excellent questions, hypothesizing, gathering and analyzing information, testing theories, explaining and debating ideas and selecting relevant possibilities amidst the messy and often ambiguous reality of authentic problems. The teachers’ role here is quite clear; rather than creating hidden tasks and activities that may or may not help the learners connect information to the knowledge building at hand, the activities are chosen to advance the knowledge building of the group and the purpose of the activities is not hidden from the participants. Scardamalia and Bereiter do not argue that knowledge building is the only type of instructional approach that might be used in effective schools (2002 ). There is a place for direct instruction, as well as other pursuits such as putting on a play, or creating a model or multimedia projects. These examples, however, are not the knowledge building activities that are more likely to produce a conceptual rather than physical artifact and that use the computer as an exceptional tool for the collaboration and reflection that enhances intelligent learning.

How can technology enhance knowledge building?

Since merely the fact that you can do something with technology does not necessarily mean that it should be done, educators are left with the challenging task of sorting out those purposes that enhance individual and collective knowledge and those that do not.

Confusing the process are the environmental restrictions put upon students and teachers concerning technical issues with hardware and software (including access, operational ease and technical support), the time constraints of rotary subjects, separating students by age rather than interests, lengthy curriculum expectations to ‘cover’ and provincial assessment initiatives.   Having now participated in my first knowledge building community through a computer software called Knowledge ForumR , I can say that the use of this particular computer technology makes the purpose of building deeper understanding through collaborative knowledge building, clearer and more meaningful. CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Collaborative Environment) began as a cognitive approach to writing that has evolved into Knowledge ForumR, focusing particularly on the promotion of deep understanding through intentional collaborative discourse. Its roots in constructivist theory are clear; successful participants are engaged, participating, questioning what they don’t know, helping others and exploring their own thinking by connecting with the thoughts, ideas and wonderings of others. The addition of scaffolds help to make the writer’s thinking clearer and deeper. As thoughts become explicit through notes and dialogue the group works together to delve deeper and build knowledge as a community of learners. It involves in-depth study of topics in a setting where the technology becomes transparent and virtually disappears, allowing the primary learning activity rise to the surface.

There are other examples of excellent technological tools that can enhance the activity of learning: the use of PDA’s or handheld computers can engage students in collaborative activities that enhance knowledge building, tele-mentoring programs can match students with expert-like novices for lengthy discussions about authentic issues and problems, programming software like Star Logo and Squeak can build a community of learners engaged in complex activities that require more than mastery of information, and web-based interaction such as blogs can unite web learners for a variety of constructive purposes. Having a chance to look specifically for the knowledge enhancing applications of technology rather than informational ones illuminates clearly the two requirements that Salomon indicates as necessary for information to become knowledge: 1) tutelage, (the human touch), either in person or online, and 2) a community of learners (Salomon 2000). These two components were certainly a powerful component of my experience as a student using Knowledge ForumR.   Intelligent Computer Tutoring programs, most computer mediated communication programs such as forums or threaded discussions, and drill and practice software do very little in the way of providing collaborative tools such as those required for knowledge building (Rochelle and Pea 1999).   As information tools they may have value, but clearly to promote deeper understanding it is the constructivist, collaborative nature of knowledge building that should be the focus of much of what we view as deeply meaningful educational pursuits in this knowledge age. While technology is an important tool, we must remember that it doesn’t magically transform information into knowledge for users any more than the library can transfer information to knowledge for readers, without the active construction of knowledge.

Research support

As if the selection, implementation and effective use of technology wasn’t a huge undertaking in its own right, there is also the added demand for accountability. There are many stake-holders in technology education, many of whom have not entered a classroom since their own days in school or the early days of their teaching careers, but who are demanding a quick and simple answer to the question of which hardware and software will magically demonstrate student learning, usually in the form of neat and tidy test scores.

Most teachers could provide a really effective measure of an engaged and productive classroom: walk in and talk to kids. Salomon’s final disappointment about technology is that we are misguided in our research. We continually ask the wrong questions, comparing one type of technology to another, rather than examining the virtues of specific technologies in terms of their effectiveness as learning tools.   The questions shouldn’t be, for example, does the use of desktop computers produce better learning than handhelds? Or, is it better to have a teacher or a library? Rather, we should be asking, under which conditions does a library become a successful tool for learning and under which conditions is a computer a successful tool? Not surprising to many educators, research indicates that traditional classrooms are better at producing mastery of recalled information and constructivist classrooms produce better improved skill of question formulating, hypothesis generating, and ability to tackle a new problem (Salomon 2000). This does not mean that the investment in technology isn’t worth the money because tests designed to measure recall might drop, it means that we have to devise new ways of being accountable for the other kinds of valuable learning that happens with technology.   We cannot be sure where we presently reside along the continuum of education with technology, nor the kinds of roles that teachers will adopt as technology evolves, but we can be sure that a powerful potential exists for technology to enhance and extend our collaborative knowledge building through learning communities if we insist upon effective, critical use of technology tools with a clear pedagogical purpose and vision in mind.



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Kafai, Y., & Resnick, M., (1996). Constructionism in practice: Designing, thinking, and learning in a digital world. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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Rochelle, J. & Pea, R. (1999). Trajectories from today’s WWW to a powerful educational infrastructure. Educational Researcher, 8 (5), 22-25.

Salomon, G., (2000). It’s not just the tool, but the educational rationale that counts. Keynote address at the 2000 ed-media meeting. Montreal, Canada.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2003). Knowledge building. In Encyclopedia of education, Second Edition. New York: Macmillan Reference, USA.

Scardamalia, M. (2002). Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge. In B. Smith (Ed.), Liberal education in a knowledge society (pp. 67-98). Chicago: Open Court

Art Miles Japan — Our successful completion!

BIG congratulations to the Grade 6s and Mme Caudarella from  École Edward Johnson who participated in a Global Project called Art Miles Japan this year.  It is coordinated through the International Education and Resource Network ( and is a fabulous way for students to have a global learning experience.  A teacher is matched with a class from Japan and the classes begin by introducing themselves in the iEARN online forum and through videos that they create.   The two classes then decide on a theme for a mural; in this case it was around the local culture and nature evident in our two countries.

The class from Japan begins the first half of the mural painting, and, once complete, sends it to the class in Canada to finish, which we shared earlier here. What a great opportunity for students to research, collaborate, design, and be creative with a classroom from across the world! Mme Caudarella’s class received the half-finished mural from Japan in January and sent it back just before March Break. Thanks so much to our partner class from Japan for this wonderful collaboration! 🙂

Here are some pictures of the class working on and celebrating the finished mural:

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